in: Reviews

September 17, 2010

Pei-yeh Tsai Program, Piano Slightly Off-Center at St. John the Evangelist

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The Taiwan-born BU DMA student Pei-yeh Tsai is a young lady with sound technique and a taste for programming just off the beaten path. She gave a brief recital as part of the after-work series sponsored by the Church of St. John the Evangelist on Beacon Hill on September 15, with a late-middle-period Haydn sonata (the one in E minor, Hob. XVI:34), two Scriabin Études (op. 8 no. 4 and op. 42 no. 5), a movement from Albéniz’s Iberia, and the first piano sonata of contemporary Australian composer Carl Vine.

Ms. Tsai’s recital is one of a series of free concerts produced by the church, which occupies an odd edifice that is an amalgam of 19th-century stonework Congregational (it was built for the superstar minister Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet B. Stowe), early 20th-century neo-Gothic high-church Anglican (the interior was redone by Ralph Adams Cram in 1934 for the Cowley Fathers) and mid-20th-century groovy (the 1970s moonscape entrance with a stained glass window designed by Gyorgy Kepes. The idea is to have hour-long programs at what used to be called cocktail hour for those leaving work on or returning home to Beacon Hill. Facilitating all this is the 1880s Steinway grand acquired, according to Music Director Jeffrey Mills, about eight years ago. This instrument, obviously a key element of Ms. Tsai’s recital, has its quirks, chiefly a somewhat dry and fortepiano-ish sound in the two octaves above middle C and a slightly wan bass. Mr. Mills indicated that the church intends to restore the piano in the near future.

The sanctuary itself, high, boxy and reverberant, presents its own challenges. Nevertheless, an intelligent and cunning player can find workarounds of repertoire and execution, which we are pleased to report that Ms. Tsai largely succeeded in doing. We were further intrigued to observe that she placed herself, rather than the piano, at the lateral center of the room, with the piano therefore a bit off center to the right. This seemed an apt analogy to her program, which, owing to the absence of the standard recital fare, was itself just a bit off center.

The Haydn sonata that opened the program was not, for example, one of the most frequently played by the great Viennese master, but one of his relatively rare minor-key efforts, dating from 1784. It is numbered variously in the different catalogues: Hoboken gives it number 34, the Grove listing 39, Landon 53, and we’ve also seen it as 54, out of a grand total ranging from 53 to 65, the last of the sonatas dated in 1794. Being thus positioned, it is plainly a mature work, but not from Haydn’s Salomon-era flowering, and therefore contains residuary elements of earlier construction. For example, the score clearly indicates a repeat of the development and recapitulation in the first movement, which Ms. Tsai did not take, leaving this Presto movement a little underweight in contrast to the others. She also seemed a bit undecided over how to make it work: on the one hand she adopted an appropriately idiomatic light touch (which brought out that fortepiano sound in the piano), but then seemed to over-pedal. The performance was not note-perfect, but it was lively and engaging.

What seemed to interest Ms. Tsai a bit more were the two Scriabin études, one from his earliest set (of three total), the other from his middle one. The first shows the composer’s clear indebtedness to Chopin, both in aesthetic and technique, and Ms. Tsai treated it appropriately in this manner. The second presents more of the Scriabin we think of as typical, with more advanced chromatic harmony, leaping melodic lines, and dense textures, though all this is integrated within a late-Romantic tonal palette. Ms. Tsai brought all this forward with assurance and no small amount of force. Her forearms, where the power appears to originate, tensed like steel bands and generated lots of sound. Legendarily (we never saw him in action), this was the technique that Ervin Nyíregyházi used to produce prodigious volume without much apparent wrist or shoulder motion. Ms. Tsai did produce plenty of sound, overcoming the limitations of the SJE instrument.

The centerpiece of the recital, and its longest component, was the Piano Sonata No. 1 (the numbering was not indicated in the program) from 1990 by Carl Vine, probably Australia’s most prominent living composer, whose work has been performed more frequently in the US in recent years. Vine writes in a relatively “accessible” idiom and has chosen to compose works in traditional forms and with trappings of historical continuity—thus, his five symphonies, five string quartets, three piano sonatas, and so forth, all so titled. The First Sonata, according to the composer’s program note (you have to go to his web site for it, as no program notes were distributed at the concert) indicates that it was inspired by and modeled on the 1946 sonata by Elliott Carter, with a similar two-movement structure. The first begins dreamily and atmospherically at the low end, and with many classic pianistic gestures builds intensity and density before breaking into a mock-fugato ending with a big slide, then eventually reverting to its opening mood. The second movement is mostly a scurrying, contrary-motion moto perpetuo, with contrasting material a little bit reminiscent of Debussy. It ends softly, a closing we felt had not been fully earned by the prior musical development; but that’s really a quibble. Ms. Tsai’s rendition called out the virtues of her Scriabin playing, and made us want to hear the work again—which is what a good performance ought to do, we ween.

Ms. Tsai closed with a piece that really ought to have been an encore, had she ventured one: “El Puerto,” second of the 12 numbers comprising Isaac Albéniz’s Iberia. This witty take on a traditional Andalusian zapateado is full of Spanish melody and rhythm wed to French (specifically, impressionist) harmony. (We note that, in the score, all the performance instructions are in French). Ms. Tsai brought out all the requisite colors, and elicited the desired audience chuckle at the delicate but emphatic V-I ending.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.

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