The second volume of Joseph Tong’s very welcome survey of Sibelius’s extensive piano music opens with the familiar ‘Valse triste’, part of his incidental music for Kuolema and, dare one say it, more convincing in the composer’s transcription than his orchestral scoring, now emerging as a sinister salon piece – sullen, growing dramatically, concluding enigmatically – and turning the tables, for Sibelius’s distinctive scoring is one of his great calling-cards, whereas his piano music, however attractive, tend to suggest other composers. Take the three Opus 67 Sonatinas, comprising between them eight short movements, all engaging, yet hovering more between Schumann and Tchaikovsky than definitively representing the great Finn, and sometimes suggesting early Rachmaninov, all very nice though, especially the rather funereal Largo of No.1, sad and affecting. Less straightforward is the B-flat minor example, a capricious and curious creation.
The Opus 97 Bagatelles all have their appeal, not least the scintillating ‘Kleiner Walzer’ – Sibelius on the dance floor – and the equally entertaining ‘Humoristischer Marsch’, which is countered by the elusive ‘Impromptu’. The Opus 103 set is contemporaneous with the great Seventh Symphony, and opens with the majesty of ‘The Village Church’, richly depicted, whereas ‘The Storm’ rages. A further element is conjured, ‘South West Wind’, something of a gentle breeze if with a tale to tell, as part of the Opus 74 Lyric Pieces, from which ‘At the Dance’ is convivial tea-and-scones music.
Finally, the longest work here, and the earliest (1893), the large-scale F-major Sonata that is full of a young man’s talent, an energetic outpouring of ideas (one senses his pen not being quick enough in relation to his brain) that may not recognisably be Sibelian, nor any of the composers previously cited, if this time decidedly Scandinavian, more Norway than Finland and therefore suggestive of Grieg, especially the first movement, the middle one vying restlessly between solemn chorale and sparkling Scherzo, and the Finale is resolute.
Joseph Tong plays everything with sympathy, style and virtuosity, and is well-recorded, and he also writes a detailed essay. For those looking for an overview of Sibelius’s piano music then Leif Ove Andsnes offers a choice selection, and although I am not sure how many volumes Tong’s appraisal will take (at least five) the next one is much looked forward to, no doubt containing further delightful surprises.