Tong performs Sibelius piano works

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COMPOSERS: Sibelius
LABELS: Quartz
ALBUM TITLE: Sibelius Piano Works, Vol. 2
WORKS: Piano Sonata in F, Op. 12; Four Lyric Pieces, Op. 74; Five Characteristic Impressions, Op. 103; Six Bagatelles, Op. 97; Piano Sonatinas, Op. 67 Nos 1-3; Kuolema, Op. 44
PERFORMER: Joseph Tong (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: QTZ 2123

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If you want to investigate Sibelius’s fascinating and all too rarely heard body of piano music, there are three options. First, the complete works on Naxos, played by Håvard Gimse; second, a selection of selections, in the exquisite recent disc by Gimse’s fellow Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes (on Sony, reviewed December 2017); and lastly, the selections of complete opus numbers that we have here from Joseph Tong. And for all Andsnes’s careful sifting, the top works – the tree and flower pieces of Op. 75 and 85 respectively, found on Tong’s Volume 1 set – merit hearing in sequence. Here, the bright E major Sonatina No. 2 is evocatively flanked by its more introspective companions (Nos 1 in F sharp minor and 3 in B f lat minor), while the Op. 97 Bagatelles and Op. 74 Lyric Pieces offer perfect, quirky contrasts.

Unfortunately dynamic range and rapid mood changes aren’t best served by Tong’s mezzo-forte-to-forte mode. Always clear, he misses some of the nuances and fails to fly. The loud, chordal conventions of the Five Characteristic Impressions come off least happily, and the Valse Triste transcription never leaves the ground.

I was delighted, though, to hear Tong contradict the booklet note for the Andsnes release, which proclaims that the early (1893) F major Sonata is a ‘poor standard bearer’ for Sibelius’s piano-mastery (or perceived lack of it). True, the first movement has some ungainly chromatics in the left hand, but the second is mesmerising in its evocation of the kantele or five-stringed Finnish zither, and the third gives us a joyous piano-bound alternative to Lemminkäinen’s homecoming. Yes, I’d like to hear the Andantino and the Vivacissimo orchestrated, but they’re never unrewarding for the pianist.

David Nice