in: Reviews

March 29, 2015

YFC Delights Romantic Fans

by

Ya-Fei Chuang (file photo)

Ya-Fei Chuang (file photo)

In a concert Saturday night at Jordan Hall sponsored by the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts, pianist Ya-Fei Chuang performed—or created, as the French would say—Chopin’s 24 Preludes Op. 28, the Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor and Ravel’s La Valse, beautifully emphasizing the dialog between darkness and light. Her chosen works dealt with memory and inner struggle, all having in common that they were misunderstood, rejected or thoroughly vilified when they first appeared.

Chopin’s Preludes are clearly an homage to Bach, proceeding as they do through all 24 keys in major/relative minor key pairings, moving around the circle of fifths from C major to D minor. From the start, performers and audiences found them puzzling, asking what they were preludes to. Chopin himself is not known to have ever performed more than four of them at a time. It would be decades before Chopin’s originality became clear. Eventually, no further explanation being demanded, the set inspired Debussy and Scriabin, among others.

Through a universe of color, dynamics and articulations that were entirely her own, Chuang gave us a world of feelings, visions and memories in the Preludes, opening with the C major in a haunting legato, the A minor a singing right hand with a steady funereal left. We were guided through a landscape of shifting emotions, light and airy, passionate and turbulent, pulsing and prayerful. By pausing briefly after the first 12 preludes, Chuang allowed a special momentum to gather in anticipation of the D-flat major (“Raindrop”). She allowed it to blossom, with much lyrical beauty, infusing it with yearning in dialog with assertoric dark chords in the trio, ending with a reconciled look back. No. 17 in A-flat major, so beloved by Mendelssohn, was a bon voyage on a smooth sea, the C minor bringing a return of the contrast between the inexorable solemn, funereal darkness and a luminous tender, intimate response. Even the elegiac atmosphere that Chuang brought to the cantabile B-flat major prelude (No. 21) was tinged with impending sorrow.

Her most personal contribution was to answer the question “preludes to what?” The final appassionato prelude revealed the horrific wound of human fate, the realization that we must soon leave it all—beauty, friends, love, storms, dreams, life. Who can bear to face such a final weaning? Chuang turned the last prelude into an outpouring of grief and wounded rebellion against destiny precisely because the 23 preceding preludes had so vividly disclosed the addictive beauty of existence.

As with the Chopin, Liszt’s B Minor Sonata baffled performers and audiences for many years. The work is dedicated to Robert Schumann, who likely never saw it as he was already in a mental hospital; Clara received the manuscript and declared the piece “merely a blind noise.” Brahms famously fell asleep when Liszt played it for him, although he later played the piece through for Clara. When the work was premiered by von Bülow it received a cold reception that lasted for many years. As Liszt biographer Alan Walker notes “Rarely did such great music get off to a less promising start.” The difficulty is twofold. The large-scale structure of the work has been described as a sonata across a sonata: the three major sections (four, if you count the coda separately) can be heard both as the three movements of a sonata and also as the three parts of a single, long sonata-form movement. On the micro scale, Liszt’s technique of thematic transformation creates a shifting kaleidoscopic effect, changing constantly but also seeming to stay the same. Liszt owed much to Beethoven here, but it was not until the 20th century that these techniques were fully explored.

The most striking feature of Chuang’s performance was the andante sustenuto. Boldly unhurried, with evocative silences making it capacious, even vast, she created a haven of peace, insight and understanding. Her dolcissimos were so effective as to be received as heavenly manna, leading to a climax of paradoxical tranquility in ecstasy. The contrast with the appropriately emotionless and inexorable fugato was then all the more striking.

The piu mosso was also especially successful, Chuang’s playing almost shamanic, with a mysteriously glistening serpentine darkness. The presto evoked great peals of bells, the return of the grandioso theme was grand without being pompous, the closing emphasizing the dialog between the dark telluric night and the upper register sparkle, and their mutual interdependence. Chuang’s choice of emphasis in this regard recalled Baudelaire’s praise of Liszt’s “amazing duality”: “straight line and arabesque line, intention and expression, strength of will, sinuosity of the word, unity of the goal, variety of means, all-powerful and indivisible amalgam of genius, what analyst will have the hateful courage to divide you and separate you?”

Looking back on the ending of the Liszt Sonata, it seemed that Ya-Fei Chuang’s long, shapely, stunning, sequined gold and black gown was an integral part of her approach to the music. It was a sort of sacerdotal vestment, allowing her to separate from ordinary life and conjure up in herself powerful psychic capabilities with which to face the majesty of the music. The vestment was not for us the audience, but for Chopin, Liszt and Ravel, with whom she was in intimate communication.

Which brings us to La Valse. Although it is hard not to hear the piece as a depiction of humanity waltzing itself into disaster, Ravel protested that there is no deep meaning beyond being a nostalgic look at a bygone era, the dancers caught up in the excitement and whirl of the music. Ravel’s words, of course, only call attention to what they hide.

After the ball was over. (BMInt staff photo)

After the ball was over (BMInt staff photo)

Chuang’s opening was dark and foreboding, with fitful, fleeting glimpses of the dance. In the exposition of waltz upon waltz, she evoked the uncanny sense in which the waltz embraces time, but is also coerced by it. The two faces of the waltz, the elegant and the raucous, were beautifully delineated in a contrasting play of light and darkness. In the concluding section, the distorted repeat of the sequence of waltzes whirled chaotically out of control, veering into the grotesque. In order to add to the effectiveness of the playing, Chuang enriched the texture with her own subtle modifications based on the orchestral and two-piano versions. Yet she contained the increasingly frightening atmosphere of the mad whirl by insisting on keeping it artistic, as though agreeing with Ravel in frustrating our impulse to provide an interpretation.

Responding to a heartfelt ovation, and showered with flowers by her young and very young students, Chuang lightened the mood with two encores, first a spectacular rendition of the Gershwin-Wild Virtuoso Etude No. 2, “I Got Rhythm”, followed by the bittersweet happiness of Schubert’s Moment Musicaux No. 3 in F Minor.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

10 Comments

  1. A note: I did indeed write this review, but in some browsers Lee’s name appears, apparently from the editing process. Lee is working on it.

    Comment by Leon Golub — March 29, 2015 at 1:57 pm

  2. Leon, I have no doubt that you wrote it. Lee would never have come up with “telluric” and “sacerdotal.” ;-)

    Comment by Vance Koven — March 29, 2015 at 3:32 pm

  3. Leon’s was not the first use of “sacerdotal” on the site- and I have written it in my lifetime, though i have never uttered it. Telluric was a word I read the first time in a review of Leon’s from 2012, “Apostolic Succession from Chameleon.”

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 29, 2015 at 5:49 pm

  4. As someone who really appreciates the work that the Intelligencer does, I offer this comment respectfully and in all seriousness. I’m wondering why there’s no mention that Ya-Fei Chuang is married to Robert Levin, who I believe helped to start this wonderful online journal and who is still listed as advisor. I don’t think it would diminish anything or anyone to disclose this, but especially as this is one of the most thoroughly glowing reviews I’ve read here (on a site where highly regarded artists are often given much less glowing reviews (perhaps quite justifiably!)), it simply seems appropriate to make a note of this relationship. The review itself is excellent and highly descriptive and it makes me wish I’d attended the recital.

    The point here is not at all that the reviewer is misrepresenting his reactions; on the other hand, it’s only natural that one’s relationship to a performer or performers might affect one’s reaction to a performance. I don’t mean in the “I need to write a good review to please people” sense, but rather in the “we listen differently to people we know” sense. It’s likely (and even good) that one might be naturally more receptive to and perceptive about an interpretive point-of-view when the performers are well-known. I know this is true for for me.

    Obviously this can happen on many levels, so there’s no clear line. For example, when I first moved to Boston, it drove me crazy to read how certain local performers simply couldn’t get bad reviews from the Globe, in some cases because I think the reviewers were simply being too generous, but in other cases because it just seemed the local relationship produced a kind of trust between reviewer and performer that gave the the performer a special advantage. I don’t think the reviewer in such cases is necessarily obligated to foreground this, but in a case like the one above, I think the review would benefit from clearer content.

    Perhaps it’s just the case that the readership here is assumed to know all of this.

    Comment by zarlino — March 29, 2015 at 8:40 pm

  5. Zarlino deserves an answer. You may notice that I’m an astrophysicist, not a musician or musicologist. I have known and loved the Preludes for nearly my entire life, and have struggled to understand the Liszt sonata for nearly as long. I signed up for this concert because of the music and frankly I knew nothing of the performer when I agreed to do the review. I only found out recently that she is married to Robert Levin, who is an adviser to this journal, but is not someone I know well at all. I agree with your point in the abstract, but it really doesn’t apply in the specific case at hand since this is the review I would have written no matter what. My main goal in writing a review is to give the reader a feeling of what it was like to be at the concert. In this case, I was struck by Ms. Chuang’s straight-forward, honest, hard-working approach to the music. I felt that she deserved to be reviewed strictly on her own terms for the serious thought that she brought to the pieces, and did not see her as being anyone other than the person we saw on the stage.

    Comment by Leon Golub — March 29, 2015 at 9:22 pm

  6. So in other words: How does it bear, really? Why bother?

    A thoughtful question about politics this seems, although I myself am not much following what the argument specifically is or would be, and would pose, and have be the default state, ‘Why?’ rather than ‘Why not?’

    There are many relationships in town culture. I bet many readers do not know of this marriage, actually.

    We do ask for disclosure when it pertains. Not understanding how it pertains.

    Comment by David Moran — March 29, 2015 at 9:55 pm

  7. Zarlino raises an interesting ethical question for this tight arts community in general, and for BMInt in particular. The marriage of Levin and Chuang is widely known, and is mentioned in the concert program. Levin’s nameplate position does not encompass practical operations of the Intelligencer. He does not select concerts for reviewing, choose critics, edit, or exert any influence over what is printed. Most of the reviewers have no connection to him. No connection exists between Golub and Chuang or Levin that would compromise integrity.

    Are reviewers likely to be prejudiced in favor of (say) Chuang because she is the wife of BMInt’s adviser? It’s just as likely (if not more) that reviewers might subject her to particular scrutiny. Second, asserting that she should have been identified as someone’s wife denies her the right to be evaluated by what she has achieved alone.

    As Moran already pointed out, we have a policy of conflict disclosure, which did not need to be invoked.

    Finally, as I also attended this recital, I feel compelled to report that Chuang unquestionably earned her ovations and two encores.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — March 29, 2015 at 11:28 pm

  8. In case his link is not immediately apparent, “Zarlino”‘s interesting website is http://mmmusing.blogspot.com/ .

    Comment by David Moran — March 29, 2015 at 11:48 pm

  9. I only wish this review were a little more straightforward because its complexity and poetry unfortunately serves to conceal more than reveal its central message, which was that this was an absolutely extraordinary recital. I heard Kissin play the Liszt Sonata at Symphony Hall a few years ago, and his performance did not compare to Ms. Chuang’s, precisely for the reasons the reviewer suggested. The vast, capacious feeling that Chuang brought to the Liszt Sonata resulted from her willingness to allow the phrases to naturally breathe, which is perhaps more difficult to capture in the excitement of a live performance. Her Chopin Preludes were replete with individual touches and insights, and her La Valse was a tour de force. It is also unfortunate that some of the comments had to once again discuss Ms. Chuang’s marriage to Robert Levin, because that undermines the extraordinary solo achievement that this recital represents. Like Lee Eiseman, I fully agree that she deserved every ovation that she received.

    Comment by Robert Berkowitz — April 3, 2015 at 9:53 pm

  10. I also attended this recital. Even though it took place several days ago, I’m still replaying it in my mind. Only a handful of performances have affected me this way. One reason Ms. Chuang’s performance of the Chopin Preludes was so compelling is because she seemed to create not just a world, but separate worlds of highly distinct and cohesive sound. Never did she seem let up and allow elements from separate preludes to mingle where they shouldn’t and dilute the potent image each of them evoked. Not to take away from her amazing performance of La Valse, my favorite part of the recital was the Liszt Sonata. While any words I could attempt to come up with to describe what I heard would fall short, the words I’d try to use would probably have much more to do with metaphysics, religion, or architecture rather than anything related to the musical details of the performance. I had no idea this piece contained this depth of meaning before hearing it in this recital.
    Music making of this caliber absolutely stands on its own merits. Any excuses or explanations outside of the music itself are pointless. Certainly, any mention of the performer’s affiliations only distracts from this incredible achievement.

    Comment by David Madrian — April 10, 2015 at 1:11 am

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