News & Reviews
Praise for Sibelius CD, Vol. 2
Joseph Tong’s recently released Sibelius Piano Works: Volume 2 has
received critical praise in The Sunday Times and Fanfare Magazine (USA),
and a more detailed review in International Piano from Sibelius expert, Guy Rickards.
“The reputation of the Finnish composer’s piano music often suffers from dismissive comparison with his symphonies. Different scale, different ambitions, and this beautifully played collection, culminating in the Sonata, Op 12 (1893), and including the three Sonatinas, Op 67 (1912), shows this work succeeds on its own terms. Three sets of character pieces (Opp 97, 103 and 74) reveal Sibelius writing with distilled eloquence, much as Brahms did in his late Intermezzos.” —Stephen Pettitt, Sunday Times
This is Volume 2 of Joseph Tong’s recordings of Sibelius piano works; I reviewed Volume 1 positively in Fanfare 39:3. There is no indication from Quartz that this will turn into a complete recording of Sibelius’s piano music, which would take four or five CDs.
Tong is somewhat more dynamic in this music than Folke Gräsbeck, who recorded the complete piano music for BIS. In the ever-popular Valse triste, played in Sibelius’s own arrangement, Tong begins very slowly and plays up the piece’s drama. The Three Sonatinas, written in 1912, are Sibelius at his most ascetic—this is the time of the Fourth Symphony, his most severe score. By contrast, the Bagatelles, op. 97, written in 1920, are among Sibelius’s most accessible piano compositions. Tong is also far more dynamic in the Five Characteristic Impressions, op. 103, than Kyoko Tabe, whose Chandos recording of late Sibelius piano works (reviewed by Peter Burwasser in 24:2) is apparently being newly distributed in the U.S.
Sibelius’s lone piano sonata, his op. 12, composed in 1893, is the sole early work here; it is also in many ways the most attractive, and it belies the commonplace that Sibelius could not write idiomatic piano music. Tong’s treatment of dynamics and voicing here is excellent.
The lucid and detailed program notes are by Tong himself. The recording is very fine. This is a first-rate production from beginning to end. Recommended! Richard A. Kaplan Fanfare Magazine, Jan/Feb 2018
Classicalsource.com 25th September 2017
Here was a programme, quite out of the ordinary in terms of piano recitals, which in terms of musical interest held the attention throughout and saw Joseph Tong’s undoubted qualities displayed in admirable fashion.
This concert was partly to launch the second volume of Tong’s excellent survey of the complete piano music of Sibelius, a genre in the composer’s large output which simply does not deserve its continuing relative neglect.
To demonstrate just where Sibelius was coming from in his piano music, Tong began with one of Grieg’s very late and wholly original masterpieces, the seven pieces which make up Stimmungen (Moods), composed in 1905, two years before his death. In many ways, they can be likened to an additional set of Lyric Pieces (the tenth and final book of which had appeared four years earlier), but go rather further than those – as with the preceding work (also for piano), the Norwegian Peasant Dances, they reach further into Europe-wide folk-music to demonstrate Grieg’s innate and individual genius, which exerted a greater influence on his contemporaries than is often acknowledged.
The Stimmungen constitute varied dispositions, yet they hang together finely as a set. In Tong’s sympathetic account, one readily understood the impact this music had on both Bartók and Kodály, and also made a deep impression on Diaghilev, who – wanting to base a ballet on Grieg’s piano music – commissioned Stravinsky (his first approach to the composer) to orchestrate a selection of Grieg’s pieces (the orchestrations are lost – though some believe they resurfaced thirty years later in the Four Norwegian Moods).
Stimmungen is far from being salon-type pieces and pose interpretative challenges to any pianist. Tong was very convincing, being particularly successful in avoiding stylistic imitation in the Lisztian No.3 (‘Night Ride’) and the Study (No.5 – ‘Homage à Chopin’), albeit with the inferences being subtly pointed.
Grieg studied in Leipzig, where he heard Clara Schumann in her husband’s Piano Concerto, and whilst Schumann’s language cannot truthfully be divined in Grieg’s works, the essential ethos of the German’s approach remained. Consequently, with Schumann’s great C-major Fantasy to follow Grieg’s penultimate composition, a work dedicated to Liszt, Tong had prepared his admirably. Indeed, Tong delivered a reading of no little distinction – his warmth and depth of tone, range of colour, and grasp of the score’s great paragraphs and emotional strength produced a notable performance.
The Sibelius second half began with ‘Valse triste’ (from Kuolema), followed by his quite masterly set of Five Characteristic Impressions of 1924 – of which I should not be at all surprised, if one dug deep enough, to learn that this was the London premiere. I have not heard this music played publicly before – only on recordings – but Tong’s delineation of these miniature tone-poems (the first, ‘The Village Church’, and the fourth, ‘The Storm’ especially) was wholly compelling, before delivering a superb account of the early F-major Sonata – music that breathes the clean air of Scandinavia as naturally as may be: passionate, urgent, sweeping in the first movement, marvellously controlled yet simple in the slow movement and full of subtly shifting contrasts in the Finale.
Tong’s deserved encore returned to Grieg’s influence: Sibelius’s ‘In the Old Home’ from his own set of Lyric Pieces, Opus 74. This enthralling recital deserved a larger audience, but it was good to see the attendance of the Finnish Ambassador to the UK, Päivi Luostarinen, keenly supporting her compatriot’s music.
International Piano Magazine, Nov/Dec 2017
At St John’s Smith Square, Joseph Tong offered works by Grieg and Sibelius which are very seldom performed, and for which he made a powerful case. The miniatures of Grieg’s Stimmungen came over in suitably kaleidoscopic guise: if these deserve to be part of the regular concert repertoire , so, most certainly, do the Sibelius works he played. Valse triste, which has pre-echoes of Ravel’s La valse, came over hauntingly, and Five Characteristic Impressions came clad in mellifluous languor, thunderous energy, and evanescent delicacy; the Sonata in F honoured the memory of Beethoven, Schumann, and Liszt. Tong’s excellent CD of these works is just out on the Quartz label.
International Piano Magazine, Nov/Dec 2017
Joseph Tong’s first volume of Sibelius piano music was a varied, refined collection. His playing was poised and attractive, albeit without displacing Annette Servadei, the non plus ultra of Sibelius piano music interpreters. Her five-CD survey is not currently available, however, and while Erik T Tawaststjerna and Folke Gräsbeck (both BIS) have cycles in place, neither fills the gap. Tong’s survey is therefore a welcome addition to the catalogue.
Volume 2 focuses on more abstract pieces, including the three Sonatinas (1912), Bagatelles (1920) and the dramatic early Sonata of 1893. I have always felt the Sonata to be an unduly neglected piece, not least by Sibelius himself, and it is a matter of regret that he did not add further works in the genre. Tong has the measure of its 18 eventful minutes in a reading of boldness, midway in tempo between the slower Servadei and tad-quicker Tawaststjerna.
Compared with both Servadei and Tawaststjerna (who also recorded the complete transcriptions for piano), Tong’s interpretations are on the swiftish side, for example in the Allegro first movement of the First Sonatina. I find his choice of tempo here – and indeed, throughout – the most natural. The sonatinas are nicely done; full of light and shade, and this same sensitivity is found time and again in 4 Lyric Pieces (1914) and 5 Characteristic Impressions (1924). Tong opens with the still-ubiquitous Valse triste, again nicely judged if a little slow in the outer sections. Quartz’s sound is rich, the acoustic resonant and warm. Recommended.
It was a real joy to welcome back Joseph Tong to the RAC Coffee Concerts series. Here is a pianist whose flawless technique is always at the service of the music, so that the listener is hearing the composer realised through the musician, not the musician’s version of the composer.
Haydn’s Sonata in E flat Hob.XVI/49 opened the programme. The opening Allegro was played with controlled energy and forward momentum, followed by a deeply insightful account of the remarkable Adagio e Cantabile, which drew us all into its profound world. The final Tempo di Menuet was graceful but its darker middle section provided moments of reflection.
The Valses Nobles et Sentimentales by Ravel were given truly poetic and spiritual performances. The vigorous pieces were played with strength but with none of the excessive percussiveness that can make them sound harsh in the hands of some other pianists. The melancholic and nostalgic pieces went poetically to the heart of the music.
The Five Pieces by Sibelius TheTrees stood out as lesser compositions in a concert of masterpieces, but Joseph combined their meditative qualities with the murmuring timbres so characteristic of the composer.
The Petrarch Sonnet No 104 and the famous Mephisto Waltz by Liszt rounded off the programme. The grandiloquent Sonnet was played with passion and rich sonorities, the Mephisto Waltz with a powerful but mercurial touch, its tempi never rushed, so that we heard all the strands of the diabolical dance interwoven with the poetic yearnings throughout the piece; a superbly judged but seemingly spontaneous performance with mounting energy and force, which rightly drew huge applause from a good-
The excellent news is that Joseph Tong is expected back for another recital at RAC; readers please note, his concerts are not to be missed.
‘Tong gives a performance of utmost concentration and delicacy’
‘Tong’s account [of McCabe’s Sonata] is riveting, fully alive to the inherent drama in the work.’
‘Joseph Tong points up the score’s structural cogency without neglecting its considerable lyrical poetry, often inhabiting the piano’s highest register.’
‘sympathetic, scintillating interpreters’
‘Tong and Hasegawa constantly swap roles but their exhilarating pianism is wonderfully even’