Multicultural Sonic Evolution (MuSE) presents Sookkyung Cho, Pianist in Review

Multicultural Sonic Evolution (MuSE) presents Sookkyung Cho, Pianist in Review

Multicultural Sonic Evolution (MuSE) presents Sookkyung Cho, Piano
Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
March 24, 2015

An engaging evening of piano music entitled “Two in One” started appropriately this week with an enchanting miniature entitled Snowdrop (2015) suggesting the beauty of this time of year, transitions and contrasts between winter and spring, and as the program notes describe, “despair and hope.” Written for this evening’s pianist, Sookkyung Cho, by composer Yui Kitamura (b. 1983 – also the Artistic Director of MuSE), it was given a sensitive and imaginative reading. Evoking the melting of ice under gently streaming treble figurations, the work is characterized by a winsome tonal lyricism that brought to mind the music of Norman Dello Joio, while always possessing an individual voice. It was an auspicious start to the program.

On to the weightier works, Ms. Cho proved herself to be more than up to handling the challenges in Schumann’s sprawling Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6, and more. Ms. Cho is, not surprisingly, the winner of a slew of awards and honors, including from The Juilliard School where she received her Bachelor of Music and DMA degrees, and from The Peabody Institute (MM). She demonstrates a keen intelligence, strong technical command, and impressive stamina, with a physical approach that is strong but undemonstrative. There was much to commend about each of the eighteen character pieces, which alternately conveyed Schumann’s contrasting sides of the spirited Florestan and introverted Eusebius (both part of the “Band of David” to which the title refers – and both in keeping with this concert’s duality theme). The performances were taut, polished, and respectful to the score, with only the occasional fingerfehler. They showed almost no excess (except the rare overly resonant bass line, perhaps due to the piano) and virtually no self-indulgence, so there was not an instant when one would say that the performer’s ego got in the way; on the flip-side, though, one sometimes wanted more individual intimacy and abandon. After all, this set was composed while Schumann was in the throes of longing for his love, Clara, and it contains some of the most vivid and moving music of the Romantic period.

After intermission, Ms. Cho played C.P.E Bach’s Fantasia in F-sharp minor, Wq67, a rather underplayed and intriguing work, and a perfect dramatic and historical pairing with the next, Beethoven’s 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor, WoO 80. In a way, the evening’s theme of duality, or as the program notes framed it, “dialectic in music,” could be plausibly applied to countless works and programs, but it did make a viable “hook” on which to hang these works for those needing more than simply an evening of great works. The best “hook” is always good playing, and we enjoyed a good measure of it, but the premise for the inclusion of this Beethoven work was that it has “an extremely regular bass line with free florid lines in his variations.” That was certainly clear in Ms. Cho’s able hands, with only small lapses.

As part of a Korean-Western duality, two selections from Three Korean Minyo (2014) by Teddy Niedermaier (b. 1983) were presented as a New York Premiere. They were a highlight of the evening. We heard the songful “Bluebird, Bluebird” and the rather jazzy “Song of the Roasted Chestnuts” – both folk song transcriptions full of character and color. Ms. Cho showed the most involvement of the evening in these, and the pieces sprung to life in winning performances.

The program concluded with Liszt’s Après une Lecture de Dante, Fantasia quasi Sonata, to adhere to the theme of the program, the quintessential Romantic battle of light and dark. For many pianists it is also a battle to navigate through torrents of octaves, but there were no such problems for Ms. Cho, who concluded the evening with brilliance.


Aleyson Scopel, Pianist in Review

Aleyson Scopel, Pianist in Review
MidAmerica Productions Presents: Aleyson Scopel, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
November 23, 2013

MidAmerica Productions has a long history of presenting talented artists in venues around the globe. The honor of the 1200th concert worldwide was given to the Brazilian pianist Aleyson Scopel in a program featuring Mozart, Schubert, and his countryman, Almeida Prado. Mr. Scopel dedicated his performance “To Alys Terrien-Queen, the first to believe in me.”  Terrien-Queen may have been the first believer, but after this performance, he added countless others, including this listener, as those “in the know.”

Opening with Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511, Mr. Scopel demonstrated his mature understanding of this highly introspective and melancholy work.  He played with refinement and sensitivity, but without superficiality or glibness that lesser players sometimes display in Mozart.  His control was excellent, the voicing clear, and contrasts rendered decisively. His was the playing of an artist, pure and simple.

The world premiere of Cartes Celestes XV (Celestial Charts XV) by Almeida Prado followed the Mozart. José Antônio Rezende de Almeida Prado (1943-2010) composed eighteen sets of pieces he called Cartes Celestes , works depicting the sky and universe, using a harmonic language the composer called “transtonality.”  Cartes Celestes XV was finished in 2009 and dedicated to Aleyson Scopel.   Subtitled “The Expanding Universe”, it is divided into six movements. The opening GRB090423, a musical depiction of a supernova 13 billion light years from the earth, was played by Mr. Scopel with harrowing effect, from the rumbling of the unstable stars to the brilliant explosion of light. The other movements (Eskimo Nebula, Pictor Constellation and Extrasolar Planet, The Bird of Paradise Constellation, Planetary Nebula NCG 3195, and Solar Wind) were further examples of the genius of this composer and his visionary conceptions.  Almeida Prado pays tribute to his teacher Messiaen in Bird of Paradise. One can also detect some intergalactic Debussy (imagine La cathédrale engloutie in outer space!). The use of tonality without a tonal center, which the composer called his “pilgrim harmony”, was highly effective. Mr. Scopel took the listener on a tour of the stars in a spellbinding performance full of power, passion, and lyricism. After he had finished, Mr Scopel pointed to the sky in tribute to the composer. It was a touching gesture, and I am confident that Almeida Prado was listening with joy from somewhere in the vast universe he loved so much. Given that Mr. Scopel has recorded other of the Cartas Celestes, it is a reasonable hope that he will, at the very least, add this set to the mix, but I would very much like to see him record all eighteen Cartas Celestes. It would do honor to both Mr. Scopel and Almeida Prado.

After intermission, Mr. Scopel offered Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 959. This Sonata, completed only months before Schubert’s death, is a monumental work that is majestic, pathos filled, and nostalgic (especially in the finale’s look back to a theme from his Sonata in A minor, D. 537). Mr. Scopel continued to share his artistry with a well-considered and executed performance of this massive work.  His playing was crisp and accurate. The contrasting moods were dynamically realized, the laments were moving in their simplicity, and the finale had unflagging energy. One must also contend with the virtuosic elements throughout, and Mr. Scopel was more than capable of dealing with those as well, which he did in an unpretentious and understated way.  This was fine Schubert playing, and would have served as an excellent example to students on what constitutes a reference performance.

Aleyson Scopel is a first-rate pianist. Anyone who values substance over style should make it a point to hear him in performance.  I look forward to hearing him again.


Anna Han, Pianist in Review

Anna Han, Pianist in Review

Anna Han, Pianist in Review
The Stecher and Horowitz Foundation present 2012 New York International Competition First Prize Winner, Anna Han, piano
SubCulture Arts Underground, New York, NY
November 21, 2013
 
 

In the first of three scheduled concerts at the SubCulture Arts Underground, the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation presented sixteen-year-old pianist, Anna Han, the first-prize winner of their 2012 New York International Competition.  The foundation should be commended for looking beyond the usual concert halls in selecting this unconventional venue for classical music. In this day and age, anything that can be done in order to capture new listeners, who might not otherwise attend, should be explored.

A few words about SubCulture Arts Underground are in order. As its name implies, the hall is in the basement of a larger facility. It has the feeling of a club, with a small stage and intimate seating for the audience.  For more casual events, a full-service bar is open throughout the performances.  Lest anyone think that “underground” means somewhat less than savory environs, let me state that this hall is a place in which even the fussiest person would feel comfortable. While perhaps not a place designed with traditional classical artists in mind, it is nonetheless suitable for classical soloists and small ensembles.  My sole reservation was with the piano, of which I will speak later.

Anna Han sports a resume of competition victories and concerto performances that is quite impressive for such a young musician. What interested me the most was how this young player was going to handle her varied and eclectic program. Was this going to be a display of sheer technique, which so many young players seem to have in abundance, or was it going to be something more? The answer was forthcoming almost immediately.

Starting her program with the Bach-Siloti Prelude in B minor, BWV 855, Ms. Han showed the sensitivity of a real musician. She gave this work a performance with meticulous control, restraint, and attention to voicing. After this fine start, Ms. Han took on the Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35, Book 1, of Brahms. These fourteen variations of the famous 24th Caprice are unabashedly virtuosic, giving the performer ample opportunity to display her technical prowess.  Ms. Han certainly has the technique, but the larger variations seemed to lack something in power and projection. While I found the lighter variations to be done with style and wit, I never had the sensation of the intensity this work possesses. I do believe that this can be accounted for by the piano, which was not a 9-foot concert grand, but a much smaller instrument. This unfortunately somewhat undercut Ms. Han, who I do believe would have made a huge splash on a larger instrument. That being said, it was still an excellent performance.

Suite for Piano, a four movement by Michael Brown (b.1987) was commissioned by the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation and given its World Premiere by Ms. Han. It is a work filled with moments of both playfulness and poignancy. The second movement, Chant, was moving in its simplicity, while the third movement, Fugue, was a hilarious contrapuntal rendering of a theme that could be called “Bach Goes the Weasel”.  Ms. Han played the former with the right amount of somber introspection, while the latter conveyed delightful wit and whimsy. Mr. Brown was in attendance, seeming to approve wholeheartedly of Ms. Han’s interpretation. Ending the first half was the Liszt transcription of Liebestod, from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  I have mixed feelings about this work, as I find that the “accepted” performance practice of it is overwrought, overly loud, and a brutalization of the piano. The hall piano was probably a blessing here, as any ideas of blowing down the walls with sound were not going to happen. Ms. Han did a commendable job, but I prefer that the pathos and lament be the focus, with less emphasis on the heaven storming.

After intermission, Ms. Han played a set of pieces also commissioned by the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation, Three Etudes, by Avner Dorman (b. 1975). The three etudes are all modeled in the style of György Ligeti.  Snakes and Ladders is “Ligeti meets Boogie Woogie”, Funeral March is a study of tonal despair in a deceptively simple form, and Sundrops over Windy Waters, a shimmering and hyperactive display of velocity. These three pieces, much like those of Ligeti, call for a player with not only a great technique, but an uncommon intelligence that probes for hidden meanings. Ms. Han is such a player, and when one stops to consider that she is only sixteen years old, one must marvel at such musical maturity at such a young age. It was exceptional.  Beethoven’s Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 31, No. 3 was next, and Ms. Han continued to show the fine sense of style and architecture in her playing, a joy from the opening of the Allegro to the end of the Presto con fuoco. The Beethoven was the high point of the recital. Ms. Han is a sensitive and poetic player beyond her years.

Ending the recital was the Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op.28 of Prokofiev. It was well played, but the issues of projection were once again problematic.  The crowd was less sensitive to this issue, and gave Ms. Han a justly deserved ovation. She offered three encores, a lyrically played Etude No. 4, based on Gershwin’s “Embraceable You”, by Earl Wild, a quicksilver “Flight of the Bumblebee” that wowed the crowd, and Rachmaninoff’s Lilacs as a final note of artistry.

 


Javor Bračić, Pianist in Review

New York Concert Artists and Associates presents: Javor Bračić, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 22, 2013

Recital debuts can be a dicey proposition in New York, depending on what other concerts and events are scheduled. Learning that a young Croatian pianist would be giving his New York debut in Weill Hall the same night as the much-heralded and fashionable Yuja Wang would play next door at Stern Auditorium, I imagined that a half-empty hall might await him. How wrong I was! Mr. Bračić’s sold-out house left a virtual mob swarming around the box office, hoping for tickets from last-minute cancellations. As the evening progressed, it became clear why: Javor Bračić is a pianist who possesses a deep, genuine musicianship and an outstanding technique that serves the great music he chooses. He honors both listener and composer with his intelligent, committed interpretations, and he offers a thoughtfully constructed program with elegance and humility. It was heartening to be reminded that such an artist is still a draw and that the “competition” for listeners is not always a zero-sum game.

Mr. Bračić began with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Major, WTC II (BWV 870), which was at once noble and sensitive, with not a note out of place. Moving on to Haydn’s Sonata in D Major, Hob. XVI: 42, he sustained musical tension and interest through its rather long Andante con espressione, right through to the last note of the Vivace assai. Occasionally I wanted ornaments to be more singing in the first movement, and less subservient to the meter, but that was about the only quibble one could have – and a very personal one at that. The delicacy and precision were outstanding.

Moving to later style periods, Mr. Bračić tied his first half together to the Bach and Haydn by performing Debussy’s underplayed Hommage à Haydn (1909) and the even less well known Hommage à Bach (2001) by Croatian composer Davorin Kempf (b. 1947). In between old masters and homages came a World premiere of a work entitled Entwined, Disquiet  (2013) by Rosalie Burrell (b. 1988). At times searching and at others explosive, the two movements explored a tonal world that verged on orchestral, bearing hints of Messiaen and even Scriabin, though without being derivative. Ms. Burrell is still quite young, but already emerging as quite a colorist. I would have enjoyed some information on the piece, but Mr. Bračić, playing from score, appeared to meet this new work’s challenges beautifully, with considerable expressiveness.

As far as the homages go, I’ve never completely grasped the Haydn connection in the ever so brief Debussy work, apart from some tenuous structural likenesses and passing elements of humor and surprise, but it is immediately appealing and was played convincingly by Mr. Bračić. The Bach tribute by Mr. Kempf is far less elusive. Crisp mordents, preceding impassioned scalar writing, hearkened back to Bach’s Toccatas (notable the BWV 565 Organ Toccata in D minor), while quieter counterpoint and sequential episodes were set ingeniously amid some highly adventurous, clearly twentieth-and-twenty-first-century composition. Virtuosity abounded, and Mr. Bračić was on top of it all with dash and drama. Hints of the B -A-C-H theme by Bach himself (based on the tones B-flat, A, C, and B-natural) emerged amid dissonant writing that at times resembled a Bach festival recalled through a dream, all brought to an end with a nod to Bach’s characteristic Picardy close. It is a work I’d like to hear again, especially thanks to Mr. Bračić’s superb performance.

The program’s second half consisted of the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5, a feast of some of the noblest, warmest, richest piano writing in history, and Mr. Bračić was well suited to it all. Some minor glitches arose – as happen to almost all pianists – but most seemed here to stem from over-straining for power against the piano’s somewhat resistant treble register at climaxes. If those moments can be conquered with the majesty shown elsewhere, Mr. Bračić will have one of the best Brahms F Minor Sonata performances around. As it is, I would hear him again in a heartbeat. His audience seemed to agree, earning an encore of a small Ravel work – you guessed it!- Hommage à Haydn.


Sarah Chan, Pianist in Review

Sarah Chan, piano
Merkin Concert Hall at the Kaufman Music Center, New York, NY
October 17, 2013

Having reviewed pianist Sarah Chan in Schumann’s A Minor Concerto just this May (hers being just one of several concerti in a packed program), I wondered how the same pianist would fare in a calmer setting; five months later, Ms. Chan’s own intimate solo recital this week gave this listener (and the pianist herself) just that opportunity. Holding the reins firmly, she emerged as a confident young soloist, with solidity, strong projection, and a winning stage presence.

In a program of essentially Spanish and French music (if France is allowed to claim the Polish-born Chopin for the occasion), Ms. Chan chose mostly short works, the longest lasting from seven to nine minutes. It was an appealing array seemingly designed not to tax the layperson’s attention, so to this veteran listener it seemed to be over in a flash. I liked, though, that Ms. Chan resisted the gargantuan programming that so many young pianists’ recitals display. I also liked that Chan followed her preferences and did not feel compelled to offer a survey course on each style of the piano literature from Bach onward. There was still plenty of contrast.

Enjoying the sheer variety among works, one almost missed the fact that there was sometimes not quite as much variety within a work as one might want. The opening work, Claude Debussy’s “Bruyères” (Prélude No. 5 from Book II), was louder throughout than what I’ve usually heard, and I missed the nuance that makes small dynamic ranges colorful (the composer’s own markings for this piece ranging only from pianissimo up to mezzo-forte, aside from effects of timbre, register, and pedaling).

In Debussy’s “La Soirée dans Grenade” from Estampes, the range was greater, but I still wanted more nuance in the melodic inflection, without which the singing Spanish lines sound stiff. More rhythmic bending could also have helped to convey the feeling marked as nonchalamment gracieux. While Debussy was known as a pianist who avoided histrionics, he would still enjoy pushing and pulling a phrase, as demonstrated in his 1913 piano roll recording of this very work.

Maurice Ravel’s “Alborada del Gracioso” from Miroirs, made a great pairing with the Debussy, and served as a virtuosic backdrop for the Spanish music to come. Ms. Chan expertly handled Ravel’s many challenges, among them her admirably rapid repeated notes. More of a final burst would have capped the piece off perfectly (and perhaps planning the earlier dynamic pacing accordingly), but maximizing each thrill seemed a lower priority than momentum throughout the evening.

Closing the first half were Joaquín Turina’s “Seguiriya” from Danzas Gitanas, Op. 84, Isaac Albéniz’s “Asturias” (“Leyenda”) from Suite Española, Op. 47, and Albeniz’s “El Albaicin” from Iberia, Book III. All three showed Ms. Chan to be a pianist of ample technique and solid command. She also has the resources to achieve a large palette of colors, which I hope she will exploit more and more. Her Iberia selection has markings ranging from ppppp through fff, so moderation can be checked at the door. For some reason the middle register of the concert grand seemed unusually heavy, eclipsing important chords in the outer registers, but Ms. Chan was unruffled.

The entire second half of the concert consisted of the music of Frédéric Chopin.  Opening with his Barcarolle, Op. 60, the pianist seemed much more comfortable than in the first half. Clearly this pianist knew the repertoire inside and out.  There was also more of the savoring of harmonic resolutions that I had been craving earlier.  A string of six Études (from both the twelve op. 25 and the twelve Op. 10) followed. The Étude in A-flat major, Op. 25 No. 1 (“Harp”) opened the group, a gentle choice, though still too fast for my taste and again at the mercy of a dominant middle register. The best was yet to come in the Étude in G-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 6 (“Thirds”): it sparkled brilliantly as one of the gems of the recital. There ought to be a special award for a performer who can make this devilishly difficult Étude a highlight, as it is the nemesis of so many pianists! Also quite well executed was the Étude in C-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 7 (sometimes called the “Cello” Étude). Though it is a slower, more melodic Étude, it should not be considered any sort of “breather” – it is tremendously difficult to pull off the pacing and balance, and Ms. Chan did extremely well. In the Étude in B minor, Op. 25, No. 10 (“Octaves”), the pianist surprised us with a ferocity that had been largely hidden up to this point. At moments where many pianists grab a chance to relax, she stormed ahead, and her fearless finale was refreshing. She should keep playing these pieces to the hilt.

The Étude in C minor Op. 10, No. 12 (“Revolutionary” – mistakenly listed on the program as C-sharp minor), came off as a bit glib for this listener. Heroic gesture became efficiency and dispatch, as if the end of the recital loomed too closely to resist racing. Also, by following it (without pause) with the buoyant Étude in G-flat major, Op. 10, No. 5 (“Black Keys”), its dramatic impact was further undercut. These pieces cease being mere “Études” the minute they are played in concert, so they need to be treated as any delicate works of art.

All ended with the much-loved Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47. Despite a not-quite-ready left hand at the start, it closed the program overall with warmth and triumph, boding very well for things to come for Ms. Chan. She already holds an impressive list of accomplishments, academically and musically, and one expects similar achievements in her continued career. A good-sized audience gave warm ovations and received Debussy’s Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum as a parting lagniappe.


Seunghee Lee, Pianist in Review

Presented by MidAmerica Productions
Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY
November 24, 2012

The arts are in a jumble, but America remains the coveted destination for those who seek higher education and a head start in a classical performance career. As college costs aspire to reach the stars, so do many of our foreign students, who are being trained superbly, and increasingly, outside of the typical metropolitan capitals of the country.

On Saturday, November 24 at 2:00 pm, the Korean pianist Seunghee Lee gave a recital at Alice Tully Hall presented by MidAmerica Productions (now in its 30th season of forging concert liaisons here and abroad). A graduate of SangMyung University in Seoul, Ms. Lee chose to make her next stops at Ohio University and the University of Kentucky, whence she has emerged in the spring of this year, fully equipped to join the profession as instructor at SangMyung University in Seoul, with a doctoral dissertation on Korean contemporary piano music in hand. Ms. Lee’s biography cites a number of prizes and credits, including concerts in Brazil and a master class coaching with Kimura Park (presumably the pianist Jon Kimura Parker).

Ms. Lee established her porcelain signature sound from the outset on Saturday in a pair of unrelated Scarlatti sonatas, the tender K. 197 in B Minor and the top-ten favorite K. 159 in C Major, with its stuttering staccato thirds and cheery grace notes, deftly enunciated. Consistently attentive to clarity and polished treble, Ms. Lee prefers to butter her Baroque textures lavishly, but her sound retains its characteristic simplicity and integrity at all times.

If Ms. Lee is discovering a personal statement independent of the common sincerity of all music-making, this statement may be in its germinal phase: Saturday’s recital was a heavenly musical pot-luck. Its major works were the Bach-Busoni Chaconne and Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel (listed familiarly as “Handel Variations”). The Bach-Busoni was a late substitution for the “Corelli Variations” by Rachmaninoff, publicized on the outdoor marquee. A penchant for Baroque themes with their sets of full-blown Romantic variations would be an intriguing specialty, but the association would warrant an architectural perspective as well as an effervescent one. Ms. Lee’s cultivated sound and beautifully proportioned sense of rhythm did much to compensate for the absence of tragic declamation or exhilaration, respectively, in Bach-Busoni and Brahms. To decrease the cumulative effect of repetition and downplay the arrival of the fugue, Ms. Lee showed the courtesy to keep things moving and omitted nearly every repeat in the Brahms, as if for a timed audition. The through-composed Variation 13, in which Brahms extravagantly reiterates phrases in the upper octave to prolong the sway of the Hungarian lassan, contrasted noticeably with the compactness of the piece. After a dozen progressively thornier segments, the expected main course fugue proceeded as a blip on the radar, proficiently executed but minimally histrionic.

Partial responsibility for this non-starter of a cultural event should fall to the MidAmerica audience, which seemed especially papered with musical novices. Just as we were getting to know Ms. Lee and her lithe, violinistic style in the Bach Chaconne, the handsome crowd erupted into intermittent applause as if to cheer a home run every time she traversed the keyboard with razzle-dazzle. The offending persons did not stay beyond the first half, but we were treated to security ringtones, flash photography, electronic chimes, and exiting audience members during the remainder of the concert.

The most successful aspect of the recital was the grassroots parallel Ms. Lee drew between Samuel Barber’s Excursions and two atmospheric Korean dances by the composer Young Jo Lee, who is lucky to have such a devoted interpreter of his new piano works. Barber’s ostinato figures were comfortably controlled and his violin square dance full of fun, while the octatonic barcarolle and sicilian rhythms in Young Jo Lee’s Korean Dance Suite extended throughout the piano’s range and began to resemble Henri Duparc’s L’Invitation au Voyage gone to the dark side. Christian Sinding’s Rustle of Spring was a fluent and colorful encore.


Haobing Zhu, Pianist in Review

 Michigan State Collegiate Honors Recital, Featuring Five Winners
In Review: Haobing Zhu, pianist
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
April 14, 2012

As winners of the Michigan State University Collegiate Honors Recital Competition held in East Lansing, Michigan in February, five soloists were presented in a New York group recital under the sponsorship of Manhattan Concert Productions. The winners included Charles Morris, bass trombone; Bryan Guarnuccio, flute; Jennifer Cook, soprano; Dmitry Yanov-Yanovskiy, cello, and the subject of this review, pianist Haobing Zhu. They were selected by a jury of three, including Ralph Votapek, professor emeritus of piano at MSU (perhaps more commonly noted as the first Van Cliburn Competition Gold Medalist); Stephen Shipps, violinist, and Craig Arnold (the director of Manhattan Concert Productions). A varied repertoire, including Puccini, Dvorak, Gillingham, Berg, Liebermann, and Piazzolla, was heard before the pianist ever set foot onstage to close the recital with Haydn and Liszt, so one could only empathize with her for the challenge ahead.

On the subject of such group recitals, I am reminded of the insightful comments of my colleague Alexandra Eames, writing for New York Concert Review a few months ago: “This is an awkward and nerve-wracking experience; one waits in the wings unsure of when he will have to step onstage and face the specter of inevitable comparison. To relax and find one’s stride in just one or two pieces is extremely difficult and the performer must go through the same physical preparations (dressing for performance, arriving on time, trying the instrument, etc.) as he would for a full-length recital.  Often the most sensitive artists can be sabotaged by the endeavor, whereas the more arrogant temperaments barrel through their nerves.” For Haobing Zhu, the comparison aspect was minimized by the fact that she was the only solo pianist (though creditable pianist collaborators included Hyekyung Lee, Hsin-Chan Yang, Tzu-Yi Chang, and Natalia A. Tokar); nothing, however, diminished the challenge of taking the audience back in time to the sonic and stylistic world of Haydn after Piazzolla and Berg, and then rallying her energies to close the concert with a blast of Liszt virtuosity. Ms. Zhu was up to the task.

With seeming nerves of steel, matched by a lovely stage presence, she approached Haydn’s Sonata in E Major (Hob. XVI: 31) with a beautifully clear sound and precise articulations. There was not a trace of rushing, and all was elegantly controlled. This is a work that, compared with other Haydn Sonatas, has seemed to attract pianists of a virtuosic bent, as it especially invites a crisp and detached Horowitzian touch, has a brilliant last movement, and is over in a flash. In a way it was a wise choice for not taxing excessively the already satiated audience. Ms. Zhu maximized its brilliance and combined her technical polish with singing phrases, which showed a tasteful degree of liberty. Her second movement (incidentally a movement that never sounds Allegretto, tending more towards Adagio) was generously stretched with expressive phrasing. The final Presto was flawless and sparkling.

Liszt’s transcription of the Waltz from Gounod’s Faust (s.407) followed. Perhaps I need a disclaimer here that, having performed this very piece on the same piano and stage just six months ago, I must set aside some preconceptions and preferences. A good performance usually can overcome those – and Ms. Zhu’s largely did.  She launched into it zealously and with extreme speed, bringing out the diabolical element even in the opening “villagers’ dance,” which one often hears in a slightly slower pesante tempo than the one she took. She had just the right fearless approach for such a showpiece, and the excitement never lagged. At times I was surprised by the extremely generous pedal, which—combined with the flurry of octaves and the piano’s resonant bass—overwhelmed some details; assuming, though, that the depicted village merriment involves a bit of debauchery and drink, some drowning in pedal could arguably be considered to be in keeping with the spirit. A bit of messiness is par for the course in this work as well, but Ms. Zhu kept things well in hand. It really was astonishing considering the abovementioned challenges of this recital format.

If one were to make any suggestions, they would be that the lyrical central sections be more operatic, with long-breathed singing lines, and that the dance parts be a bit more danceable and a bit less rushed. To put things another way, one could want more singer and dancer, but there was plenty of pianist. Ms. Zhu is a pianist through and through, and she should have a bright future.


Maxim Anikushin, Pianist in Review

Maxim Anikushin, Pianist in Review
Carnegie Hall (Stern Auditorium); New York, NY
April 5, 2012

In October 2011, The Russian-American Cultural Heritage Center designated April as Russian-American History Month, and to launch the first RAHM in New York State, the RACH-C presented the superb pianist Maxim Anikushin in his first Carnegie Hall recital in the big Stern Auditorium (he had made his noteworthy debut in the smaller Weill Recital Hall on March 9, 1999–only three days after his 23rd birthday). In this writer’s glowing review [in Volume 6, No. 2 of this journal], I prophesized the burgeoning artist as “undoubtedly destined to enter the annals of his generation’s important young pianists.” Thirteen years and numerous concerts later, Anikushin has triumphantly confirmed my expectations. His April 5th recital was a heartwarming affair, and I am proud to remain an unstinting admirer.

Mr. Anikushin’s generous, well balanced program fittingly reiterated several aspects I remember from his past interpretative work: at his aforementioned debut in 1999, a superior performance of the Op. 109 Sonata served notice that he was an idiomatic Beethovenian (by no means a “given” with the best Russian pianist—even Gilels and Richter, et al). As confirmation, the entire first half of the Carnegie Hall program was dedicated to superlative versions of the composer’s Polonaise, Op. 89, “Andante favori”, Wo0 57 and “Waldstein” Sonata, Op. 53. The Polonaise had a dancing and uncluttered rhythmic spin, and the Andante (said to have been originally intended as the “Waldstein”’s second movement) had simplicity and honest flow. As for the “Waldstein”, which I have heard Anikushin play very well in the past year, his interpretation has matured and intensified: this time, he has brought certain details to the fore (e.g. the trimmings and inner voices in the slow movement; and whereas in his earlier account, he chose the pianistically expedient “solution” of playing the octave glissando as two-handed scales, he now opted for the specified Urtext, and also the loud/soft dynamic in the original manuscript). One more observation: the transition into the Rondo was magically poetic and exquisitely timed.

In 2010, Mr. Anikushin paid homage to the American composer Samuel Barber on the centenary of his birth with a handsome retrospective of his solo piano and chamber music. That recital at the New York Public Library served notice that he has real love and inspired affinity for Barber’s music (he is now recording a disc of his music for Albany Records, a mouthwatering prospect). Mr. Anikushin repeated his mercurial, sensitivity-nuanced and dramatically persuasive version of the Piano Sonata, Op. 26, along with delectably played encores of his Lullaby and the Waltz from his “Souvenirs”. (Among the encores was the “Dance Russe” from Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka”).

Anikushin’s musical persona is, to his greatest credit, brilliantly virtuosic, but also elegant, tasteful and essentially classically reserved: I can give no higher compliment than to write that he is very much in the tradition of such fine paragons as the fondly remembered Benno Moiseiwitsch. His wonderfully warm and intimately crafted interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s “Dumka”, Op. 59 and two vignettes, “January” and “May” from “The Months”, Op. 37 verged on perfection.

There was also a belated premiere of a 1991 composition, “Mirage” by Yekaterina Merkulyeva (b. 1956), which the musician–born in Leningrad (now again St. Petersburg)– penned in 1991, immediately after her immigration to America. “Mirage” is, in the composer’s note, “a Romantic Fantasy…[describing] different emotions, both trepidations and excitement, depression and alienations battling at once with both hope and nostalgia , the unreality, at least to someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, of this incredibly energetic , frenetic, unpredictable, dreamy, yet perhaps sometimes dangerous city we live in.” Ms. Merkulyeva’s description further acknowledges influences of Mussorgsky and Prokofieff (I heard ‘sound bites’ of the “Suggestion Diaboliques” and “Old Grandmother’s Tales”). The approximately 6-minute long piece fitted well into the masterfully put together program.

The concert, in summation, was absolutely worthy of what major artists can deliver. What did sadden me was that the house was so scantly filled (all the boxes, dress circle and balcony were empty). Alas, Mr. Anikushin’s public acclaim has not been kept abreast of his richly deserved talent!


Henry Wong Doe, Pianist in Review

Henry Wong Doe, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
March 26, 2012
Henry Wong Doe. Photo credit: Tom Stoelker

Henry Wong Doe. Photo credit: Tom Stoelker

Henry Wong Doe, pianist, entitled his March 26th Weill Hall Recital “A Picture of New Zealand” and dedicated the first half of his program to the music of his countryman Gareth Farr, and the second half to his performance of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”.

Farr, born in 1968, as the program notes stated, is “recognized as one of New Zealand’s leading composers.” He studied composition and percussion performance at the University of Auckland and at Victoria University, Wellington. He moved to the United States to pursue studies at the Eastman School of Music with Samuel Adler and Christopher Rouse. A recipient of many commissions and performances, Farr’s music is particularly influenced by his extensive study of percussion–both Western and Non-Western. Rhythmic elements of his can be linked to the exciting rhythms of Barotongen log drum ensembles, Balinese gamelan and other percussion music of the Pacific Rim. In 2006, Gareth Farr was made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to music and entertainment, and most recently in 2010, he was the recipient of the prestigious New Zealand Arts Laureate Award.

The evening began with two of Farr’s works for solo piano: 1) “Tentang Cara Gamelan”, dating from 1994, when Farr was still a student at Eastman. The piece is redolent of both Farr’s early interest in Gamelan music, as well as his fascination with French Impressionism such as Debussy, et al. In an early note, Farr cites an imaginary dinner conversation between Debussy and the composer/ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee. While they initially discuss the role of Gamelan in each of their musical styles, professional jealousy disintegrates the conversation into a barrage of tongue-in-cheek insults. Henry Wong Doe’s lively performance, and especially the way he realized the music’s peppery virtuosity via his gestural way of playing the piano (which I found engaging visually) were beneficial to both protagonists. 2) “The Horizon from Owhiro Bay”, a short work commissioned by the James Wallace Trust for pianist Stephen Depledge as part of his program of Landscape Preludes by New Zealand composers, together with eleven other short works. Depledge gave the premiere in February 2008 in New Zealand, and Mr. Wong Doe gave the piece its North American premiere in his debut recital at Weill Recital Hall. Gareth Farr vividly conjures the Prelude’s descriptive aspects (Moody green depth; Inky blue sky; Endless unbroken horizon; Fishing Boats sitting on the horizon all lit up; occasional gusts of wind; wild eddies on the surface of the water; the odd rogue wave (hurling itself onto the rocks and up into the air in a spectacular explosion of sea spray, et al). It is a fine mood piece and I am looking forward to hearing Henry Wong Doe’s forthcoming recording of Farr’s Piano Music (Horizon MMT 2070).

The two piano solos were followed by a pair of chamber music compositions, one for flute and piano: “Nga Whetue e Whitu” (“The Seven Stars”), commissioned for Bridget Douglas (principal flautist in the New Zealand Symphony) and his regular pianist, Rachel Thomson. Alternating Messiaen-like harmonies with Farr’s moto perpetuo energy and sharp, articulated notes, he propels the music at a feverish pace. Both of its two movements are united by Farr’s expansion of long lyrical passages and unique amalgamation of rhythm and sonority. It was expertly played, with a cool “white” tone by Jesse Schiffman, flautist, and Henry Wong Doe.

But it was “The Shadow of the Hawk”, a 1997 work, originally commissioned by cellist James Tennant and pianist Katherine Austion that made the strongest impression on this listener. Farr writes about this composition: “The shadow of the hawk rises and falls as the landscape gently undulates beneath it. One moment it is indistinct and unfocused, the next it snaps into clear definition as the ground rises. A rocky outcrop thrusts up towards the sky.” Farr’s use of the cello confounds the usual conventionality—“the unique combination of cello pizzicato and piano bass notes in the opening gives the work an almost ‘jazzy’ groove.” How fascinating to hear the usually expansively melodic cello used as a percussion instrument. This was a brilliant performance by Mr. Wong Doe and Jisoo Ok, a Korean-born former pupil of Bonnie Hampton and Fred Sherry (Bachelor’s and Master’s at Juilliard).

Mr. Wong Doe’s version of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures”, though a shade raw and unpolished, had great vitality and engaging thrust and characterization. He was at his best in some of the more aggressive Promenades (e.g. the opening one, and the final one just before Limoges), Gnomus, Baba Yaga, which had the appropriate sinister ferocity, and The Old Castle, which came forth with a long, flowing line (this vignette, believe it or not, has moments that are surprisingly Schubertian!). Other scenes had their drawbacks: Bidlo, for all its appropriate weight and ponderousness, sounded unrelievedly stolid and brutal. Tuilleries and The Unhatched Chicks lacked delicacy, humor and playful animation. The portrait of Samuel Goldenberg was suitably pompous, though his counterpart Schmuyle was stiff and unmemorable (but credit Mr. Wong Doe for superbly closing that piece with a correct C, D flat, B flat, B flat!). Best of all was the wonderfully inclusive, bustling Limoges Market Place. Alas, the Great Gate of Kiev, which ought to have been the suite’s proper capstone, was more than a bit anticlimactic and sectionalized. (The dangerous first note, coming right after the ferocious lead-in can be brilliantly effective at times but can dangerously fall flat as a pancake—as it did on this particular occasion). But enough faultfinding: Henry Wong Doe’s guided tour (he opted for Mussorgsky’s original unbowdlerized text), though not in the Richter class, was an extremely worthy effort.

I am most grateful to the pianist for lavishing his attention on the music of Gareth Farr. Incidentally, another of Farr’s pieces, entitled “Love Song” was played as an encore after the “Pictures”. (It sounded much more popsy and Flower Child-like, and not at all like the other Farr pieces on the concert’s first half).


Evelina Puzaite, Pianist in Review

 Evelina Puzaite, Pianist in Review
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall
April 1, 2012
 
Evelina Puzaite

Evelina Puzaite

Evelina Puzaite is a young Lithuanian-born pianist currently based in London and winner of various distinctions and prizes including the Rubinstein Piano Competition in Paris (First Prize). She has recorded for Landor Records in the UK and has performed widely in recital, chamber music, and with orchestra; she is not, however a run-of-the-mill contest pianist. Her biography lists that she is also a published composer (and winner of the Grodno composition contest) as well as a writer of short stories (having had her first book published in 2008). It is always exciting to see this sort of multi-faceted artist – bringing to mind Lera Auerbach and an elite group of others – as that extra dimension can lead to memorable performances.

Ms. Puzaite’s New York Debut was indeed memorable, and the interesting programming was a large part of it. Aside from Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Liszt, much of her program consisted of rarely heard works. She opened with Three Preludes by Ciurlionis (1875-1911), the Lithuanian painter and composer, and it was a refreshing adventure off the beaten path. The first Prelude, while reminiscent of Scriabin, showed an original voice, while the second one, sharply rhythmic and dissonant, reflected more folk influence. Perhaps most interesting was the third, of dreamlike shifting harmonies and timbres, very sensitively rendered by Ms. Puzaite.

Moving to better-known repertoire, the pianist gave an excellent account of Rachmaninoff’s “Six Moments Musicaux”, Op. 16. The first of these gems, the soulful B-flat Minor Andantino, had much to offer in this pianist’s hands, including some delicate voicing and finely woven filigree. One loved the freedom in Ms. Puzaite’s playing, though occasionally the license seemed a bit much, obscuring some distinctive changes in meter; through generous bending, a 7/4 measure sounded like 8/4, and a 5/4 bar sounded like 6/4, basically squaring off Rachmaninoff’s beautiful irregularities. Such liberties enhanced other pieces in the set, though, and the Allegretto in E-flat minor shimmered; Puzaite played in the original version, not the 1940 revision, which I actually prefer, but I enjoyed it. The Andante Cantabile in B Minor had breathed pathos, while never losing melodic direction as it easily can; some dynamic liberties were again well planned to help add focus and shape to the musical meditation, and some creative articulations heightened the conception. The fourth piece, the Presto in E Minor was brilliant, using to maximum effect the resonant Weill Hall Steinway, and the fifth, Adagio Sostenuto in D-flat Major, was lovingly shaped and expressed (though one wanted perhaps less bass here). The final Maestoso was a tad underplayed, explaining perhaps why Ms. Puzaite chose not end the first half with it as one might expect; it seemed she was trying more for lyricism and judicious pacing, but one missed some of the heroic feeling.

A quiet breather came next with “White Scenery” from the piano cycle “The Seasons” by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks (b.1946). It is a mesmerizing and moving work, with minimalist elements, gentle chord clusters, liberal pedal, and a doleful long-breathed melody suggesting infinite absence. The Prokofiev Toccata rallied the energies back for the most virtuosic playing of the evening. It was a clean, sterling performance, with plenty of power, suggesting that any holding back in earlier works was probably perfectly intentional.

Ms. Puzaite introduced her own Piano Sonata in C Major (1999) to open the second half. Judging by the year of composition, this compact sonata must have been an extremely youthful endeavor, but it reveals a musician of tremendous versatility and pianism. A circus-like profusion of sounds emerged, from repeated fifths and motoric syncopations to music box effects and flirtatious slides (think Bartok and Rebikoff dancing to Carmen’s Habanera). It is always a joy to hear a pianist play his own work, and this was a refreshing novelty.

Liszt’s “La Leggierezza” and “Un Sospiro” were a break to Romanticism before Kodály’s “Dances of Marosszek” closed the evening. The Kodály is an exciting work, better known as an orchestral piece than in its original piano scoring. I’d previously preferred the second version, but with the enormous contrast and energy that Ms. Puzaite gave, it possibly surpassed the color of a typical orchestral performance! It was a rousing close to a scintillating evening. Rhythmic applause was acknowledged with an encore of the Bach-Siloti Prelude in B Minor.