Ya-Fei Chuang is my friend and colleague, but that fact doesn’t preclude my objective appraisal of her recital on Tuesday night as one of the finest piano performances I have heard anywhere in recent years. Word must have gotten around beforehand, because Seully Hall at the Boston Conservatory was well filled and included a number of Boston’s modern-music luminaries.
Chuang’s programming intentionally balanced Moments musicaux by Rachmaninoff with more familiar Moments musicaux by Schubert. The Rachmaninoff pieces were new to me, but they were fascinating. It no longer bothers me that Rachmaninoff is so obviously a direct descendant of Chopin; he is not an epigone, but rather a loyal grandson as well as a true original, and I think that Chopin himself would have admired the inspired elegance of these pieces, which Chuang brought forth admirably. The first one, Andantino in B-flat Minor, has a three-part form with wide ranges of expression, like Chopin’s Impromptus, and if I thought the big roulade in the middle was exaggerated it was Rachmaninoff’s fault, not Chuang’s, because her pianissimo and mezza voce sound were so expertly controlled. The second one, Allegretto in E-flat Minor, in which a perfect digital technique at high velocity over an enormous dynamic range is required, seems to have Chopin’s F-sharp Minor Prelude as a model, but it also looks forward to Rachmaninoff’s A-Minor Etude-Tableau Op. 39 No. 6. Chuang handled the bristling difficulties of this piece as though they didn’t exist, all the while maintaining a smooth lyrical cantabile.
I stress this cantabile quality of her playing because in Chopin’s B Minor Sonata, Op. 58, even more than in the Rachmaninoff, a perfect control of songlike cantilena is the most necessary pianistic element throughout the work. Too many times I hear performances dominated by heroic and even blustery intent, as though it were Chopin’s “maddest children” (Schumann’s phrase) of the B-flat Minor Sonata, Op. 35 — about as different a work as could be. Chopin was the equal of Mozart and Schubert in his ability to spin out beautiful melody, and more than in any other of his large-scale works, this sonata is wrought in lyrical melody inside and out. Melody pours out in the upper line, in the interior counterpoint, and in the fiber of the accompanimental patterns, in all four movements, and thus it is all-important to differentiate — not emphasize — the various melodic threads that lead uninterruptedly and inexorably through time just as they reappear and disappear within the texture at unpredictable but inspired moments. This is especially true in the first movement, where the musical ideas are so marked by a sudden improvisatory quality that constantly tricks the ear’s attention. The Exposition gets all of these ideas into coherent succession with proper organization of key changes, but the Development section scrambles them within a continuous adventure of chromatic modulation that is often hard to follow (how did we get to this lovely melody in D-flat major, anyway?), and, just as happens in the concise boundaries of the Opus 35 Sonata, the Recapitulation begins by omitting the first theme. For all that the melodic evolution is rich and brilliant; the pathway through the different keys is bumpy to those who are unfamiliar with this sonata. But Chuang’s superb control and fine expression made it certain that we knew where we were at every moment.
The Scherzo movement is one of Chopin’s shortest. It ripples up and down effortlessly, mostly in tonic-dominant alternation, for only about a minute, and then there is the Trio section, a huge contrast, with its multitude of tied notes that can easily confuse the ear attempting to separate the different voices. Chuang moved effortlessly from this to the ineffable sadness of the slow movement in B major, and I have rarely heard such sensitive control of pianissimo as she demonstrated in this piece that almost never rises above a hushed level. Then came the famous Presto non tanto finale, which so many pianists approach at a gallop, like a John Wayne movie. Chuang made sure that the rhythm breathed with energy at every point, instead of racing breathlessly as though nothing else mattered, and this made the climactic moments of the last two pages all the more confident. This triumphant performance was one more testimony, to one who hardly needed convincing, that Ya-Fei Chuang, our own fellow townsman, carries Chopin’s banner today in Boston equally with the best of those whose names are more world-famous — I think of Vladimir Ashkenazy, Garrick Ohlsson, and Idil Biret.
After the intermission Chuang played four of Schubert’s Moments musicaux, better-known pieces than Rachmaninoff’s that borrowed the same titles. I have loved these gems ever since I first began to play them at age twelve, and they are timeless still. I think especially of no. 6, in A-flat major, which in the outer section displays an appoggiatura figure that constantly changes its harmonization, with a ghostly alternation between major and minor modes. Schubert’s first publisher gave this piece an impressionistic title, “Plaintes d’un troubadour,” in 1824, which will do for silliness as well as any. No. 5, in F Minor, is the least-often heard of these pieces, and it features Schubert’s favorite rhythm of quarter plus two eighths. Chuang did all four of the pieces full justice, reminding me of Schnabel’s recording that I remembered so well from decades ago.
The triumphant finale of the recital was Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture, programmed in tribute to the Wagner bicentennial. It’s easy to see why Liszt composed this almost entirely literal transcription, which is brilliantly effective pianistically, and seemingly impossible to play because of the challenge to the performer’s endurance. It suffers from extreme long-windedness, but that is Wagner’s fault; whatever technique of development he learned from Beethoven, it did not include concision. The protracted battle surely would have exhausted the Venusberg but it didn’t faze Chuang in the least, and the entire audience rose in a cheer after the brilliant ending.
Chuang gave us an encore, too: Earl Wild’s delicious concert etude on Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” and seemingly including textures from Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau and Liszt’s Concert Etude in D-flat Major, and maybe Un sospiro as well. What a fine evening this was!