If the piano music of Jean Sibelius is perhaps the least-known of his output, there is much here that encourages further investigation into what is a substantial body of work. The opening movement of Kyllikki is sonorous and majestic, if not really in a Brahmsian sense, for there is a distinctive voice here, a power and a passion, which is impressive. Impressive too is Joseph Tong’s playing and commitment, and his well-sounding piano is superbly recorded. The next piece of Kyllikki conjures the suggestion of bells, suggesting Russia (and melodically the Volga Boatman), and it is also lyrically touching and deeply descriptive. The final number of Kyllikki is lively and very enjoyable.
There follow four suites, each of five movements: whether trees or flowers, of romance, or sketches of winter and spring, all of the twenty pieces therein are picturesque and likeable. From time to time one may think of composers such as Debussy, Schumann and Tchaikovsky – and they are pretty good references – yet it is also clear that a composer of marked individuality is at work here; and if Sibelius’s greatness is in the orchestra, in those magnificent Symphonies and Tone Poems, his writing for piano (maybe undertaken as relaxations from arduous symphonism) is idiomatic and ear-catching, delightful and descriptive, with a big expressive heart, all responded to magnetically by Tong.
The Two Rondinos, both in sharp and minor keys, are curiously compelling, exploratory, even experimental, especially the first one, and if Finlandia will always belong to the orchestra, at least this transcription is the composer’s own and Tong makes a commanding, dynamic and variegated case for it.
Volume 2 is keenly awaited.