Beyond the short suite Kyllikki, Op. 41, and the arrangement of Finlandia heard here, the piano music of Jean Sibelius has rarely been played. That's going to change in a hurry after this superb recording by British pianist Joseph Tong, the first volume of a pair. The two works mentioned above frame a set of much less well-known pieces that explore representations of the natural world in progressively deeper ways. The Five Pieces, Op. 75 ("The Trees"), and Five Pieces, Op. 85 ("The Flowers"), are experiments disguised as salon pieces; they flirt with Impressionist harmonies while retreating to conventional tonal cadences at the last possible moment, and their evocations of nature are personal and suggestive of the surroundings of the Finnish country home in which Sibelius lived for much of his later life. The Five Romantic Pieces, Op. 101, seem like sketches for parts of the Symphony No. 6, Op. 104. The real news items here are the almost unknown Five Esquisses, Op. 114, which were written in 1929, after Sibelius is generally thought to have given up composing, and not even published until the 1970s. These are called sketches, and it seems entirely possible that they served as preparatory problem-solving for Sibelius' unfinished (and subsequently destroyed) Symphony No. 8. But they stand on their own, and they're unlike anything else ever written. These too are nature pieces, with a bold approach to harmony that brings to mind the late works of Liszt: each work defines its own harmonic world through devices such as mode mixture. Sibelius was clearly reacting to the general shakeup in musical language between the wars, and these little pieces are enough to make you wish that someone had rescued the Eighth Symphony from the flames. At any rate, there is a palpable excitement to Tong's performances, and it seems fully justified. At the end the tension level is ratcheted down with the neoclassic Two Rondinos, Op. 68, and an entirely crowd-pleasing Finlandia. A major triumph in the Sibelius field and in that of piano music of the 20th century generally.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim
|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|