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Virtuosity from Wunderkinder


We cannot let the 30th anniversary chamber music season at Rockport pass without a nod to its penultimate presentation, to wit, the matinée of Sunday July 17. To be sure, the season’s pyrotechnical finale that same and very evening was Russell Sherman, éminence grise et formidable, with a double header of Schumann, nodding to “his” year just past, and then of Liszt, Sherman’s specialité, nodding to his (Franz’s) current year. Come to think of it, why isn’t every year a Liszt year? Franzl was always up to something astonishing or deplorable that merits commemoration.

But what did Rockport have in mind for the opening act? Appetites sufficiently whetted? Well, it was a piano recital. With yet another nod to “Mostly Mozart,” shall we dub it “Largely Liszt?” Ah, but who played? Well, we had an array of four quite astonishing – better, endearing — young pianists sharing the dais. A Quartet of Wunderkinder would be somewhat a misnomer, as these hatchlings are now considerably past pecking out of their Wundershells. And we’d like to see the rock concert that gets the Bee Gees opening for Stones.

So, in order of performance we had Jeehae Ahn, Zenan Yu, Charlie Albright and George Li. All four have various roots at New England Conservatory.

Ahn, currently studying at NEC, presented the Liszt triptych Venezia e Napoli. Liszt was at the forefront of popularizing “treatments” of pre-existent material. Call it the birth of cocktail piano. Not that paraphrases and variations were not previously explored. But Liszt, as genuine box office, might be considered this genre’s time zero. Take this as a denigration of Liszt by no means, but rather, as the extolment of those Georges, Feyer and Shearing, et cie.

The first of the three pieces, a purported gondolier’s canzone, in actuality a rendering of Giovanni Battista Peruchini’s “La biondina in gondoletta,” for all its limpid lyricism is remarkably tough to bring off. The barcarole accompaniment, largely in the left hand, contains critical counter-themes. Ahn’s balance of voices and deft pedaling produced just the intended dreamy, watery wash. The coda here is particularly tricky. Technically easy, it mocks the performer’s ability to maintain the barcarole lilt. We are not sure Ahn has solved that problem as yet. The middle setting, “Nessun maggior dolore” from Rossini’s Otello, is a marvelous counterweight of tortured angst. Ahn clearly grasped this potential, though we would suggest slightly less reliance on fortissimo to gain the point. The tarantella is bravura, of course, and we particularly applaud the artist’s elegant rendering of the guitarisms in the accompaniment of the second half. All in all, lovely work.

Zenan Yu, we gather, only recently arrived Stateside from glittering triumphs in China. He now studies at NEC with, of all people, Russell Sherman. Let it be said at the outset that Yu has the most dazzling technique, rapid firing torrents of octave passages prestisissimo. This is a technique of tautly coiled steel. He chose two pieces that we consider challenging, if not problematic. The Sposalizio, Liszt’s tone-painting of Raphael’s canvas, demands introspection, poetry, and mystery. But even so, it is not a thoroughly winning vehicle. Yu was on the mark here.

We have always found the paraphrase from Don Giovanni somewhat disappointing. Liszt seems so obsessed with the Don’s “demonic” that his technical virtuosity wrings out all the wit, the insouciance, the arch satire. So while Yu was stunning in rendering said virtuosity, we are left wondering if there is a way to salvage the rest of the Mozart, as delivered by Liszt. And how many thundering octave crescendos can mere mortals endure? One cannot keep building a crescendo onto the level where the last one left off. We found ourselves wondering if possibly one key might be to choke back drastically the dynamics at the beginning of the next thundering roulade. Just a thought. Note to self: when Yu performs Prokoffiev, don’t miss it.

After intermission, we had slight break from the Liszt with Charles Albright performing a transcription of Blue Danube. We are constantly fascinated by the discovery of musical backwaters, in this case the transcendently brilliant arranging of such as Adolf Schulz-Evle, or, in other cases, for violin, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, or that monster keyboard monster, Leopold Godowsky. And let’s not forget, while we are on George Feyer et al, the late great Earl Wild. Now Albright is a bit of a Something Else. Already on the Yo Yo track at Harvard, we know him as a hugely gifted pianist, arranger, improviser and composer to boot. The light elegance of this Strauss was just what the palette cleanser ordered. While we would not characterize Albright’s technique as “steel,” it is, in its own right, all in place. And hat’s off to all his elegant voicings, rubato and nuance.

And now we come to George Li. The problem with fifteen-(sixteen-?) year-old Li is not his technique, which properly belongs to a fifty-year-old master. No. The problem with his playing is the baffling maturity of intuition that this kid brings to interpreting difficult piano music. This young adolescent has the most profound understanding of the stylistic guts and core of a Liszt rhapsody. Virtuosic passages only serve the musical. Nuance, rubato, phrasing, are as perfect as an older and wiser Dracula’s two-point landings on a jugular. Is there anything we could suggest to improve Li’s career prospects? Yes. Start spelling you name Georges. Georges Li. It’s a marketing thing, George. Sorry, you owe us for this one.

So as an encore, just what Wunderkonfektion was dished up?  The Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 4, arranged for four pianists, eight hands, an oddity of sorts, but utterly consonant with the afternoon’s theme of the piano in virtuosity, arrangement, and transcription. And a triumph of time management.  We do not know who was responsible for this rarity, but knowing Albright’s talents, we suspect we can hold him responsible. Maybe one of the Wunderquartet will relieve the suspense. Hey, Wunderguys, this site does have a blog.

 Tony Schemmer is a New York-born composer.  His works are performed extensively here and abroad.


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