Just a few short days ago, Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts organizers faced a quandary: what to do after a passport snafu prevented one of their performers from arriving in time for Saturday night’s Jordan Hall concert? With pianist Sa Chen ensnared in red tape across the Atlantic, should a last-minute replacement be found to accompany violinist Feng Ning? Transmogrify the concert into a solo violin recital, perhaps? With both of these abrupt changes putting undue pressure on Ning, a third solution presented itself: metamorphosizing the event into a solo piano recital. As fate would have it, inimitable pianist and NEC faculty member Hung-Kuan Chen had a piping hot program on the griddle, one he had just performed this week at Yale, where he’s also a professor.
This evening’s recital was as organized as Chen’s playing: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonatas 27, 28, and 29, in that order. These works, coming relatively late in Beethoven’s piano sonata oeuvre of 32 compositions, are expansive, complex, and saturated with emotion. In particular, the two-movement number 27, his Opus 90 in E minor, was designed to evoke the conflict between head (the relatively agitated first movement) and heart (the somewhat more serene movement two), specifically as it related to the romantic life of its dedicatee, Count Moritz von Lichnowsky.
Even before Chen played a single note, one had a sense of what was to come. He approached the instrument in a very deliberate manner, preparing himself meticulously before touching the keyboard. The sound he created was light, verging on delicate, with each note carefully considered and crafted. This was focused, intimate musicmaking, the type that draws listeners in and demands high levels of concentration from both performer and audience. In some ways, this style of playing seems antithetical to the fiery late-period Beethoven, he of the early Romantic stripe. Visceral had been displaced by cerebral; passion by precision. The old dynamics-o-meter had definitely been ratcheted down a notch or two. After a rather abrupt finish, polite applause pattered down upon Chen, reflective, perhaps, of listener ambiguity towards his somewhat idiosyncratic interpretation.
At this point, a bit of enlightenment concerning Professor Chen’s life odyssey might be of help. Born in Taiwan and raised in Germany, Hung-Kuan enjoyed a meteoric rise in the music world, garnering all manner of prestigious awards. Some 20 years ago, however, he was forced to deal with a career-threatening obstacle: focal hand dystonia. With little help available from the medical community, Chen turned to his own considerable powers of observation and reasoning, supplemented by qigong meditation, to vanquish this neurological affliction. Within six years he was back on the concert stage, sounding, according to reviewers at the time, “transformed.” Intriguing to contemplate just how much this experience continues to reverberate in his playing style, not so much physically as philosophically.
Chen’s rendition of Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101, was similarly controlled and relatively subdued. This was Beethoven had he attended finishing school: an uncharacteristically polite Beethoven, Beethoven in a library. Occasional outbursts were ephemeral and highly modulated as Hung-Kuan kept Ludwig on a very short leash. These brief paroxysms, splashes of bright color on a placid aural canvas awash in cool blues and greens, stood out in sharp relief, a particularly riveting effect. Also riveting was Chen’s technique: highly articulated fingering, yet extremely legato; flutters of taps on the damper pedal, liberal use of the una corda. Quite mesmerizing, watching his hands as they spidered across the keys in a supple dance. The overall sound was muted, though never muffled, with a clear delineation of the melody line and inner voices. In his hands the Steinway’s powerful growl was more akin to a gentle purr. Actually, on more than one occasion, I could have sworn I heard the spirit of Beethoven himself imploring the performer to play “lauter, meinen Freund, lauter!” Imagination run amok.
Beethoven’s monumental piano sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, Op. 106, the “Hammerklavier,” rounded out the evening. This massive work, consisting of some 45 minutes of music, ranges from bombastic to jocular to sedate to intellectual across its four broad movements, the virtuosity of which showcased Chen’s formidable technical prowess. He stayed the course with a thoughtful, focused recreation featuring elegant, nuanced phrasing. In his rendition, Beethoven’s hammer was apparently wrapped in silk. That silk did seem to fray a bit in the final fugue. After a partial standing ovation (the audience reaction still appeared a tad mixed, though they had warmed considerably), Chen rewarded us with a single encore: movement three from the Sonata No. 4 in E-Flat Major, Op. 7 by, yes, the one and only Beethoven. This sprightly selection was taken at a somewhat sedate and measured tempo, in keeping with the mood of the evening.
Hung-Kuan Chen is a masterful pianist. His meditative, introspective interpretations of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas are both provocative and enlightening; a dry Riesling as opposed to a full-bodied red. The Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts was certainly more than fortunate to find a replacement performer of Chen’s accomplishment, caliber, and refinement.