Those of us who have listened with delight to Joseph
Long's two previous discs (The Young Maestros Series: Hurstwood Farm
Music Studios: Balakirev CD 97005; Chopin CD 98009) will have looked
forward to this present CD. With an impeccable technique his earlier
recitals of Balakirev and Chopin - dispatching with truly musical aplomb
such a frightening war-horse as 'Islamey' - showed him to be a thoughtful
musician with an impressive range of expression, tending now and again
to a youthful impetuosity. In this recital he opens with a restrained
account of the 5th of Scriabin's exotic Sonatas (Eaglefield Hull did
actually use the word 'impetuous' of this work.) - yet this is a romantic
and clear account, unfussed by overpedalling, allowing air and light
into the structure.
This same crisp technique, reminiscent of the playing
of Perlemuter, suits well the Ravel Sonatine which in these hands sounds
pristine. A serious note is sounded in the first and third of Sibelius's
op. 67, the profundities couched in an almost Beethovenian idiom. A
lighter vein is uncovered in the second of these three Sonatinas - 'Haydnesque'
is the pianist's apt description in his scholarly sleeve notes. Though
one is sometimes tempted to feel that Sibelius's piano writing stands
in the same relation to his orchestral writing as does that of Elgar
to his, these Sonatinas probe more deeply than mere salon music, and
it is good to have them on record as they require listening to more
The principal work on the disc is the first of Arnold
Bax's four Sonatas - an expansive, dark-hued poem whose probable orchestral
origins (at least in Bax's mind) are demonstrable. But it is here that
the pianist's technique raises questions in my mind. There is no doubt
that in a pianist as thoughtful as Joseph Long has shown himself to
be his approach to Bax is considered and intentional. He observes Bax's
score directions with scrupulous care (though I might quarrel a little
with his interpretation of the 'passionato' second subject) yet the
result doesn't sound like Bax. Balfour Gardiner once remarked 'Oh there’s
old Arnold improvising away with the pedal down all the time.’ Bax gives
no pedal indications in any of his four Sonatas, although his directions
such as 'smorzando', 'brazen and glittering', 'thick and heavy' - and,
in the third Sonata 'with as much pedal as possible' - must surely reserve
'leggiero' and 'staccato' for moments of grotesquerie (as In the Fourth
Sonata?). If one remembers the twin events that gave rise to this music
- the unrequited passion for the Russian girl, 'a golden Roussalka with
ice-blue eyes', and his experience of the land of the Ukraine with its
rich exotic colouring - this anguished passionate "music fierce as fire"
surely demands orchestral treatment and the resonance that such scoring
would involve? It is also perhaps possible to take too seriously Harriet's
interpretation of the 'sotto voce and smorzando' development section
as recalling 'the illimitable distances of the Russian plain' with the
danger of losing the music's impetus.
Nevertheless this is a fresh and almost clinical interpretation,
laying bare the bones of the music, emphasised by the clarity of the
recorded sound, to which we ought to listen without preconceptions.
One thing is certain, we shall hear much more of this young pianist.