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I have British pianist Joseph Tong to thank for introducing me to the wonderful piano music of Jean Sibelius: Joseph played a selection of miniatures, ‘The Trees’, at a concert for my local musical society, which revealed the variety and expressive qualities of Sibelius’ writing for the piano, too often overlooked when compared to the statue and popularity of his symphonies.

Joseph is a keen champion of Sibelius’ piano music and has traveled to the composer’s home in Finland to play his piano. In his recordings of Sibelius’ piano works, Joseph seeks to demonstrate the composer’s command and understanding of the instrument through a selection of works written during the main periods of the his creative life. There are crisp textures, folk melodies, rhythmic dances and imaginative part-writing. This volume contains Sibelius’ most significant large-scale work for piano, the Piano Sonata in F, Op 12, and one of his best-loved orchestral transcriptions, the Valse triste, which opens as a melancholy waltz that grows into something more far expressive, romantic and upbeat (though always tinged with poignancy, not unlike Ravel’s La Valse).

The miniatures on this disc, the Six Bagatelles, Five Characteristic Impressions and Four Lyric Pieces have a quirky individuality, with their hints of folk idioms, lyrical melodic inspiration and pianistic challenges. Joseph is alert to the changing characters and moods of these miniature marvels and brings warmth and affection to his sound and interpretation.

In planning the running order for the disc, Joseph wanted to combine “large-scale works with shorter pieces (or sets of pieces) in a way which might mirror a concert programme” and so the recording closes with a fine reading of Sibelius’ early Piano Sonata in F, a large-scale work rich in late-Romantic expression which fully utilises the modern piano’s resources. It has a Rachmaninoff-like spaciousness to it – the piano music of both composers seems to acknowledge and express the vastness of their homelands (even when writing in miniature form), though Schumann is a more likely influence in Sibelius’ early piano writing. The first movement certainly shares Schumann’s extrovert exuberance and brilliance. The middle movement, Andantino, is more restrained, a simple hymn-like melody with an accompaniment of syncopated chords, which becomes more florid in the middle part of the movement. The finale is rambunctious cheerful rondo, driven by its motoring rhythms and busy theme, which ends in virtuosic cascades of notes.

Like the previous volume, this is a rewarding compilation, revealing Joseph’s affinity with the music and its composer in his depth of tone, varied colours and musical understanding. The recording quality is excellent, with an immediacy of sound which suggests a live concert performance (and I was fortunate to hear Joseph perform the Piano Sonata and shorter works at his recent concert at St John’s Smith Square to launch this recording).

Sibelius’ piano music is accessible and satisfying to play, and I urge pianists to seek out this excellent survey.

Recommended

 

 

 

Sibelius Piano Works, vol 1 – Joseph Tong

I had no idea that Jean Sibelius composed for the piano until Joseph Tong played ‘The Trees’ Op 75 at a concert for my local musical society. I was really taken with the variety and expressive and imaginative qualities of these piano miniatures and rushed home to explore some of Sibelius’ piano music myself. The next time Joseph Tong came to perform at the NPL Musical Society, he gave me a copy of his CD and I have been enjoying exploring the range and variety of Sibelius’s writing for the piano.

Although the violin was his main instrument, Sibelius was also a gifted pianist and his piano music is fresh and original, as this recording will attest. The opening ‘Kyllikki’ triptych has a broad romantic sweep, while ‘The Trees’ and ‘The Flowers’ are intimate, characteristic salon pieces, as evocative as any of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces with hints of impressionist and expressionist writing. The ‘Five Romantic Pieces’ display richer, more textural piano writing and hint at the composer’s growing penchant for orchestral melodies. The ‘Esquisses’ (1929) are the last pieces Silbelius composed for solo piano, but they were not published until 1973 and are not widely known. They represent the composer’s increasingly personal response to nature and utilise devices such as modes and a bold approach to harmony. Wistful and pensive, they hint at darker places beyond their titles.

The album closes with the composer’s own transcription of  his celebrated nationalist work ‘Finlandia’ which loses nothing and indeed gains much in its solo piano version, especially in Joseph Tong’s authoritative handling of the dramatic tremolandos and majestic sonorous chords of the opening measures and the sensitively portrayed chorale which is intimate and tender.

Joseph Tong is a champion of Sibelius’s piano music and his studies have taken him to Finland to the composer’s home in Ainola, where he played the composer’s own Steinway piano. His commitment to this music is evident in his sensitive shaping and pacing of these piano works. The piano sound on this recording is excellent, warm and clear, and there is much to enjoy on this disc. I believe a second volume is planned.

Recommended.

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Jean Sibelius Piano Works, Volume 1

Kyllikki, Op.41
Five Pieces “The Trees”, Op. 75
Five Pieces “The Flowers”, Op. 85
Five Romantic Pieces, Op. 101
Five Esquisses, Op. 114
Two Rondinos, Op. 68
Finlandia, Op. 26

Joseph Tong, piano

Quartz Music