26 August 2015

Touching Piano Memories


It was billed as a Piano Recital; which was precisely what it was.  If, however, the Hong Kong pianist Susan Chan had wanted a more descriptive billing, “Looking Back to the Past”, or simply, “Nostalgia”, would have done the job.  All nine works in her recital at Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall last night were, in one way or another, concerned with revisiting the past from the perspective of a later present.

It began with a slice of true nostalgia.  As a young boy in 1950s London, I learnt to love Bach and the piano through Myra Hess’s reworking of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” with its superimposed harmonies, lashings of pedal and rich dynamic palette.  Chan went one step further and rooted out a version made by pianist Wilhelm Kempff in 1938.  Blissfully unaware of the period authenticity movement which grew up and, to a certain extent, withered in the intervening years, Kempff threw in opulent harmonies, sensuous phrasing, generous pedalling, copious expression markings and an array of dynamics to create a piece of undoubted beauty.  It is easy, now, to make this sort of thing sound pastiche, even cloying, but Chan’s impeccable performance avoided any excess of sentimentality by a faithful delivery of Kempff’s detailed score gloriously enhanced by a clarity of touch which ensured the perfect balance within the musical texture.  Every line – every note - was precisely placed to create an intricate web of detail, the chorale line emerging effortlessly from the enveloping accompaniment despite Kempff’s abrupt moving of it from treble to tenor half way through.  The only minor irritant was Chan’s shying away from the final fortissimo of Kempff’s “Wachet auf” arrangement.

If Kempff laid on early 20th century romanticism with a somewhat heavy hand in his Bach arrangements, a decade earlier Harold Bauer had shovelled it on in spades, turning the discreet “My Soul Doth Rest in Jesus” from Cantata 127 into something of a display for pianistic expressiveness.  Again, Chan side-stepped any hint of irony in her performance through some subtle inner shading of the texture and by producing a tone which was simply gorgeous on its own terms.  But if Bauer over-egged the Bach, his version of César Franck’s Prélude, fugue et variation thoroughly distorted the original, transforming it from a naïve and innocent work for organ into something almost melodramatic.  Lovingly lingering arpeggios inserted into the bridge between Prelude and Fugue pretty well excluded any memories of Franck but gave us all a chance to relish the delicacy and suppleness of Chan’s fingers, each note ideally balanced to fit into an overall soundscape which was translucent and shimmering.  Her handling of the metamorphosis of Fugue into the decorated restatement of the Prelude (the somewhat disingenuous “Variation” of Franck’s original title) was a moment to savour and will long linger in the memory.

There was one incongruity here; Mozart’s Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman”.  The nostalgia here may have been Mozart looking back to the songs of his childhood, but more significant was Chan’s performing approach which harked back to the days when playing Mozart was considered more of a technical exercise than a musical indulgence.  True, with 12 short variations mostly in the same key, at the same speed and revisiting the same basic material, the work is hardly a demonstration of great genius at its apogee, but with no significant use of dynamic or even a hint of rubato to give the overall piece a sense of architecture, we were left to ponder Chan’s essentially graceful technique, where tone and balance rule the day.

The nostalgia of the second half of the recital was mostly in the guise of memories of Chinese childhood.  Most obviously this came with Tan Dun’s Eight Memories in Watercolor which, as Chan explained, were written out of homesickness when the composer was first alone in Beijing and wistfully recalling the stories and songs of the Hunan Province of his childhood.  It was described in the programme booklet as Tan’s “Opus 1”, but for all its youthfulness, Tan hallmarks were ever present; the infusion of Hunanese folk songs, real or implied, married to the harmonic and rhythmic discipline of the West, and with touches of jazz and dissonance providing moments of enticing musical spice.  Here, Chan’s subtle sense of colour and discrete virtuosity resulted in a performance which was as memorable for its delicacy and poise as for the images it created. 

The highlight of the recital both as music and performance, was Zhou Long’s Pianobells of 2012.  Chan clearly has a powerful affinity with this music, and while Zhou’s memories of temple bells chiming in the winds could have become a brightly lit musical tableau, his ingenious use of the piano, exploiting a vast array of playing techniques and exploring its full pitch range, coupled with Chan’s astonishingly intuitive tonal control – those huge clusters in the bass had just the right weight to counterbalance the tinklings in the treble – elevated this way beyond the merely evocative and turned it into a work of considerable interest.

It was Zhou’s wife, Chen Yi, who contributed both the final and the most recent work in Chan’s programme; Northern Scenes of 2013.  In this marriage it is she who is, musically, often the more assertive, and that was the case here, with her recollections of the mountain ranges of Northern China given an almost angry – not to say bitter - edge.  The lasting memory of this piece, however, will be its ending which manages to be both abrupt and protracted.  Chan measured this to perfection.

Again there was an incongruity, on this occasion four pieces unimaginatively entitled Music for Piano, by the Canadian composer Alexina Louie.  Attempting to revisit some of the compositional styles of the recent past, it was not always easy in these brief exercises to recognise quite what those styles were, the most successful piece being “Changes” which indicated a nod towards the phase music of the Minimalists.  I’m not sure that Louie’s music stood up to close scrutiny, but with Chan’s amazing ability to weigh each individual note and subtly to place it within a texture so that it was both clearly defined yet absorbed into the overall soundscape, the performance made an impression which will long linger in the memory.

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