Yongmei Hu, pianist in Review

Yongmei Hu, pianist in Review
Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, New York, NY
May 22, 2011
 

Yongmei Hu

 

Leafing through the biographical notes of Yongmei Hu prior to her recent New York recital, I was struck not so much by the requisite litanies of achievements and accolades as by her charitable involvement, ranging from the children’s foundation, Alphabet Kids, to Musicians on Call, which brings music to hospitals (plus fundraisers for children with cancer and a performance with Melissa Etheridge at the Breast Cancer Symposium in Washington, D.C.).  Despite a policy of ignoring things extra-musical or prejudicial while reviewing, it was hard not to appreciate the generous spirit in evidence here to match what turned out to be a lovely stage presence. The program listing of two of the finest works in the piano literature, Brahms’s Sonata, Op. 5, in F minor and Chopin’s Preludes, Op. 28, seemed to promise a perfect afternoon, but of course they present colossal challenges as well. In some ways Ms. Hu rose to those challenges, while in others, there was clearly room for growth.

One had to credit Ms. Hu for bravery in choosing to tackle the Brahms F minor Sonata, as the unwieldy stretches throughout did not seem ideally suited to her pianistic abilities. Some pianists overcome such challenges by taking a bit of extra time for reaching, something that even can enhance Brahmsian grandeur, but Ms. Hu tended to do the opposite, as if to get past these challenges quickly (the omission of the first movement repeat underscoring this haste). The result was more messiness than one is accustomed to hearing. Sometimes haste can start a cycle of distraction as well in the performer himself, and this distraction appeared to rattle even the much-loved Andante espressivo; one of the heavenly moments in piano writing is the gentle settling into D-flat major, but the pianist seemed to be anticipating a later section as she opened with a B-flat bass note. The presence of mind she showed was admirable, even playing another incorrect B-flat presumably to balance things out, but clearly something was amiss. While I am extremely lenient about missed notes in the “no holds barred” performance, there are certain errors that reflect more than an off day, suggesting possibly that one has not internalized a work sufficiently deeply or thoroughly. Some later hallowed passages did much to redeem this performance, but the rushing and lapses seemed inevitably to return, unfortunately marring even the last dozen or so bars. Perhaps some of the unsettled feeling may have stemmed from a virtual stampede of latecomers entering after the first movement, leaving Ms. Hu waiting at the keyboard interminably to start the second movement, but in any case one imagined the Chopin Preludes on the second half would enjoy a fresh start.

Much of the Chopin did indeed fare better. The C Major Prelude had a sure-fingered brightness, followed by good momentum in the A minor, albeit at the expense of some pathos. The left hand passagework of the G Major Prelude was a model of fleet and feathery lightness, though one wanted perhaps more singing quality in the right hand. The E minor Prelude was also one of the high points of the set; its tone, balance, and character projection were just right. The spirit in it carried through to some of the other preludes, much of the B minor (No. 6), E Major (No. 9), B Major (No. 11), D-flat Major (No. 15, “Raindrop”), and A-flat Major (No. 17). Low points, due to messiness or lack of thoroughness included the usual suspects, the g-sharp minor, which emerged as a series of downbeats in a hazy flurry and the fiendish B-flat minor, which simply went off the rails, as did the deceptively difficult E-flat Major. All could have prospered from being taken just a bit more slowly. Other reservations included a need for more phrase punctuation in the rather operatic F minor Prelude, plus some curious readings throughout; all finished well, however, with a solid and convincing ending to the final Prelude in D minor. Especially brilliant were the tricky chromatic thirds in which I’ve heard some very famous pianists struggle. Such fine moments led one to feel that, on a different day and given sufficient time to know each work more thoroughly, Ms. Hu would have a recital program to make musicians sit up and take notice.


Alexander Beridze, pianist in Review

Alexander Beridze, pianist in Review
Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, New York, NY
April 19, 2011
 

A large audience packed Alice Tully Hall this week to hear Georgian pianist, Alexander Beridze, representing the Cincinnati-based World Piano Competition as its 2009 Gold Medalist. In a year flooded with news stories about troubles in the classical music world, it was a joy to witness such intense audience excitement in anticipation of an evening of piano music. This listener was filled with particularly keen anticipation after hearing and reviewing Mr. Beridze in June of 2009 (Vol 17, No.1) in an outstanding recital that included two of the same works, the Brahms Sonata in C Major, Op. 1 and Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka. Though the prior venue had been a piano showroom, Mr. Beridze had sustained the large, magnetic conceptions that had seemed destined for a wider forum – and here was that forum.

After speeches by the competition’s administrative and local leaders, Mr. Beridze opened with Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C Minor, dispelling the atmosphere of pageantry with a taut and no-nonsense performance from solemn opening to stirring finish. While I prefer more breathing room in this work, it was understandable to feel a good deal of forward propulsion at the outset of this important recital. It was a strong opening.

Brahms followed Beethoven, a nice segue given the Opus 1’s famous rhythmic kinship with Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 106 (the “Hammerklavier”). Mr. Beridze is utterly at home with the challenges and beauties of this Brahms work and should play it often. One hopes he will play it again in a still more resonant hall, as (even post-renovation) the Alice Tully Hall acoustics present a pianist with the challenge of rapidly decaying sound. Having heard Mr. Beridze’s formidable gifts in a live room on a brighter instrument, this listener was especially sensitized to the discrepancy between what was being put forth and what was being received. That said, the musical intent did come across, and it was a credit to Mr. Beridze’s skill and heroic outputs of energy. The rapid-fire leaps and riveting machine wrist work left one in wonderment (and excitement to hear this pianist’s Petrushka later in the program). Just as recalled from two years ago, the close of the Andante was particularly moving.

Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90, No. 3 after intermission was a quiet gem, given admirable attention to voicing. Acoustical challenges still arose, leaving one wondering whether the decay of longer notes might be offset more by softer ensuing ones, but at any rate, Mr. Beridze projected its meditative quality with sensitivity. The Schubert-Liszt song “Auf dem Wasser zu Singen” followed, dazzling with its precision and range, and Liszt’s Etude “La Campanella” was simply electrifying.

If anyone still had questions about Mr. Beridze being a fabulous pianist, his Petrushka settled the matter conclusively. This work, a monstrous beast to most pianists, seemed simply a play toy to him, albeit a musical and imaginative play toy. One sensed the pianist having fun with it, delighting in the ballet’s characters and celebrating what was a brilliant finale to a superb recital. Bravo!

The cheering audience was quieted down with one of the most beautiful renditions of the Chopin Nocturne in D-flat (Op. 27, No. 2) that one can recall. One could hear the proverbial pin drop.