Finnish pianist Folke Gräsbeck makes Shanghai debut
“W hen I was two years old, my mom let me sit beside her at the piano and started to play Disney’s Snow White to me. This was my first teaching,” renowned Finnish pianist Folke Gräsbeck told the Global Times before his first-ever solo concert in Shanghai, part of China Shanghai International Arts Festival.
Gräsbeck dedicated his performance at Shanghai Concert Hall to the memory of Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), a renowned Finnish composer and violinist of the late Romantic period.
Each composition performed by Gräsbeck were variations of works written by Sibelius. Gräsbeck is a veritable expert on Sibelius, his performances and his compositions. As a senior teacher accompanist at the Sibelius Academy since 1985, Gräsbeck received a Master of Music in 1997 and held his doctoral disputation in 2008 with a thesis titled, “The Piano in Sibelius’s Youth Production.”
Gräsbeck said that, from Sibelius’s works, audiences can “feel” the landscape of Finland including the stretching, snowy mountains and its strong pines, a metaphor for the long struggle for independence and strong will of the Finnish people. “His [Sibelius’] national romantic music was trying to express emotion and feeling, like real Finnish music,” Gräsbeck said.
Emotion of dependence
Finlandia is a tone poem created by Sibelius in 1899 when the country was oppressed by Tsarist Russia. To avoid censorship, it used to be played under alternative names.
As a representative work of Sibelius, the composition has gained worldwide popularity over the decades. “I think this is because people of other countries can understand the emotion of dependence we have from the music. It was romantic, but also historic,” he explained.
Gräsbeck has performed over 400 of Sibelius’ 600 compositions and is one of the main performers on the Sibelius Edition, a collection of 68 CDs released by BIS Records.
He also plays some of Sibelius’ private manuscripts, which are unknown by the outside world. According to him, Sibelius was very sensitive to both the nature and
“One day he was walking along the shore and found a very strong smell. Then he went home and improvised Capriccio. It is definitely not wellknown but I think this is quite a dramatic piece,” said Gräsbeck.
“I played the first performance [of Capriccio] in Mexico in 2002. They said that this was one of his best pieces. Since then I played it a lot because it is forgotten but deserves to be played,” Gräsbeck added.
Learning piano at a young age, Gräsbeck won first prize at the age of 17 in the Maj Lind Competition of 1973, playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.1 in the final round. He has given performances in many countries and regions including the US, Japan, Israel and Egypt.
Gräsbeck has also performed over 30 piano concertos as a soloist together with famous conductors and orchestras from different countries and regions.
He was awarded Artist of the Year 1999 by the UK Sibelius Society, Cross of Merit of Finland’s Lion’s Order by the former Finnish President Tarja Halonen, the Sibelius Medal by The Sibelius Society of Finland in 2014 and the Sibelius Medal in Silver by the Birth House of Sibelius in Hämeenlinna in 2015.
For Gräsbeck, playing piano seems something that comes from birth. “When I was 12 or 13, I wasn’t thinking ‘I am going to choose piano as my profession,’ because I feel like I have always been a pianist. I have a very nice life because I get great enjoyment from music. I have been playing so much that I don’t know a life without the piano,” Gräsbeck said.
Top: Folke Gräsbeck performs. Visitors at Sibelius Monument, Helsinki, capital of Finland