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Astonishing Festival Days: 10 x 88, Four Times


What are we to make of this age of overwhelming, sometimes seemingly excessive skill? If it’s surgery, we are grateful beyond words, of course. If it’s pro tennis, Olympic swimming, NBA-level ballhandling, or Cirque du Soleil—nonhuman, insanely rehearsed—the pleasure, at least the dumbfounded part of it, is all ours.

So it is with newcomer piano technique, colossally accomplished, never daunted. Recently this reviewer had the experience, at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, of sitting through a series of headshaking piano recitals over nine days, combining serious weight of program with the most spectacular technical, and sometimes musical, accomplishment. The admirable Cathy Chan and her Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts (not limited to specifically Chinese musicians) do enormous service to the classical music community in this and other regards, and have for years. What you missed! That it took place during the slowest days of summer and some of the most glorious weather probably does not fully explain the small audiences.

The 22nd annual musical festival included not just the following mostly outstanding recitals but numerous masterclasses by local classical bigwigs, and rising-star concerts as well; I sure hope these were not sparsely attended too.

* * *

To start on an exhale, Shanghai-born Manhattan School doctoral student Yinfei Wang was, on August 3rd anyway, not really up for prime time. In a large drawing room, he offered deft but relatively shapeless and unphrased playing at close to electric-guitar levels. Piercing Steinway treble and small room volume aside, I don’t believe Wang ever employed the soft pedal. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, S.903, was quite in-your-face, no-nonsense to a fault (and I usually like that sort of approach), undramatized and samy even with the occasional moment of lightness. Wang does have rhythmic strength and steadiness that some Bach keyboardists lack today (cough, Schiff). Following Bach we dove, jarringly, right into Beethoven’s last sonata, Op. 111, which, too, felt mostly undifferentiated. The second movement’s Jerry Lee Lewis variation had drive, syncopation, and continuity, but the rest of the Arietta lacked poetic rhythm, the composer’s instructed simplicity and singing, and leggiero during Beethoven’s gentle screw-tightening trillings as we approach the ending gladness and relief.

Debussy’s Estampes travelogue came and went without much perfume and wash and polish, and Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan (comically attributed half to Mozart in the program) was so uninflected that I thought it was indeed a long noisy specimen of bunk, showcasing everything intolerable about Liszt, a flurry of flash and herky-jerky starts and stops. Such a conclusion makes it hard to accept the advocacy and appreciations of Brendel, Rosen, and others about the musicality, coherence, and baseline seriousness of Liszt. Listening to the piece later at home in Hamelin’s version restored matters altogether.

(Like every young musician coming up these days, Wang needs to dance. For education in both swing and rock-steadiness, all conservatory degree requirements today should mandate dancing to, oh, “Superstition” or “Chain of Fools,” and then finger-drumming to, oh, the four-measure intro to “Da Doo Ron Ron.” The dancing can be Elaine-like, it does not matter, and nobody is allowed to watch. I recently attended a violin masterclass at NEC where the master made all her star students walk around while bowing through their Bach or whatever. The improvement in crude inflection points and structural understanding, to an extent, was instant. Next time for them should include “Orange Blossom Special.”)

Perhaps the problems heard during Wang’s performance partly were due to tenseness, as his encore, Liszt’s “Petrarch” Sonnet 47, sounded relaxed and musical, and included phrasing. Online is a Schubert sonata movement by Wang [here] that also seems fairly musicianly.

* * *

Korea-born Michigan State professor Minsoo Sohn has recently released a lovely, exciting, unusually solid Goldberg Variations recording. It’s easy to understand why it’s been so well-reviewed: Sohn is a must-hear pianist, in my opinion, with strong intelligent views to convey, using an immaculate, hair-raisingly effortless technique.

You have to be impressed instantly by someone who comes out and sits right down to play so capably and with such confident authority. On August 5th, Sohn’s recital first half was all Rachmaninoff: Elegie, Polka, Liebesleid and –freud, Variations on a theme of (not) Corelli. It was spectacular playing, with lilt, lightness, and huge dynamic range, very quiet to very loud. (Would that the Keiter Center blower had been turned off on such cool dry evenings.)

Being comparatively ignorant of this repertory, I asked a serious Rachmaninoff fan who accompanied me if I could steal language from him, and he obliged:

I agree that Sohn has a lot to offer in the leggiero department, and you don’t hear that every day. Also, regarding Liebesfreud in particular, he is one of the few pianists I’ve ever heard who don’t underestimate the piece. It is perhaps the heaviest piece of light music ever written, in the sense that it is so overstuffed with musical ideas of every description that it almost literally threatens to collapse under their weight. Sohn is almost the only pianist other than Rachmaninoff himself who seems to have the thoughtfulness and canniness to bring out the intense and wildly varied richness of the piece.

Sohn’s second half opened with Webern’s Variations for Piano, spiky, widely intervallic, its series followable, or so I told myself at the time. The pianist lit into it like he meant it, with delicacy and understanding and ferocity, all the while keenly listening and hearing into it. I want a recording of this performance, to study over and over. Indeed, I’d like to hear this entire recital again.

Sohn closed with Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. Sohn’s brio, elan, confidence, and dynamic range all increased, though that’s hardly possible from the level of the Rachmaninoff, and the power of this Brahms was immense. From the opening duly Baroque, bell-like Handellian ringing, floated out onto the air, to those clanging octaves climaxing the fugue, he found the deep Brahms heart and many interior, often hidden lines and voices. Sohn pushed so hard in the last third of the Handel Variations, strengthening and speeding up a hair, that he seemed determined to show us he could in fact come close to going off the rails, and make an occasional mistake.

The encore was Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” in the Sgambati transcription presumably, lovely and a Rachmaninoff favorite. It too was a recordable performance. In sum, Sohn may be said to have it all, except perhaps for needing to be a touch more settled and simpler. He may be heard online in numerous instances.

* * *

Although diminutive in appearance and perhaps unlikely to be able to span more than a ninth, 17-year-old Massachusetts native George Li is a force of nature nonetheless, and the hoopla is easy to understand. Over the last three-plus centuries there cannot have been many combinations of keyboard neurology and physiology such as he presents. He does blistering work, often in a blur, near perfection, and sometimes he probes as well. At his August 6th concert, his Haydn Sonata in b began a bit cute and harmonically inattentive and ended fast and thinly, but the Menuet in the middle sang deeply, not common for adolescents. In another jarring program placement, Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor Op. 35 came next, and sped by dazzlingly, but initially sounded like high-level competition playing, not making you want to listen intently. The unsettled and unsettling Finale: Presto lacked fright, whirl and tombstones alike. But the middle movements, a very pretty Scherzo and the famous Funeral March, mature, true, full of remembered loss, demonstrated that Li’s showy technique — his control of touch must be seen and heard to be believed — is able to serve beauty of result.

After intermission Li made it clear that Debussy may be a specialty. Images Book I featured just sensational work, ripply, airy, with flawless harmonic washes: another recording I want. (Alas, I don’t believe any of these festival piano recitals were officially recorded.)

The last piece was Ravel’s La Valse. This had some lilt and much beauty but was not gestural enough, really, and lacked the last iota of dance and sweep. Li himself showed more feeling and movement on the bench, and technically he was again stupendous. The unfortunate encore was a middling and somewhat muddled rendering  of Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s “Widmung,” which, at least recently and locally, is fully owned by Charlie Albright, in my view [here]; I return to it repeatedly.

Li may not be artistically mature enough for some of his repertory, unsurprisingly, but there seems nothing he does not know and cannot do at the keyboard. His Walnut Hill senior recital is online too, with a simple “Moonlight” Sonata that holds its own in any company, other works (Chopin again) that may partly reveal of the lacks I am trying to describe, but closing with not-to-be-believed Liszt “Rigoletto” and Horowitz transcriptions of the “Carmen” Fantasy and of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” one week after the Marathon terrorism. All the unstrained, error-free octaves, wide jumps and skips: you will not believe your eyes. And in the post-bombing Sousa, well, talk about meaning it.

If you’re so incredibly nimble and can play the bejeezus out of Horowitz transcriptions, it means many (especially reviewers) are going to state you can’t handle late Schubert, Bach’s Musical Offering, Brahms opus 118, the Carter sonata, and the like. Insufficient heft, including heft of soul. If you’re a teen, though, much less a teen like this, who cares what they say? A savvy musician who auditioned Li’s senior recital online wrote:

I look forward to the day when his fast work has cooled down just a bit, in spirit, not necessarily in tempo. In particular he is remarkable, for someone with such chops, at playing the slow things with a slow, easy swing to it. Rare in pianists of any ability, really.

Anyone who loves piano would want to hear George Li again, although not this recital, and not certain pieces — not yet. He’s going to Harvard and NEC (joint) next month, and studying further with Wha Kyung Byun, so further growth is just a matter of time.

* * *

Widespread, practically commonplace fabulousness of technique at the keyboard over the last decade-plus, unto mindboggling levels, has become news enough that a couple years ago the NY Times ran a feature on it. Music critic Anthony Tommasini, himself a quite capable pianist (well beyond us typical amateurs), wrote that “a young pianist who has come along who can seemingly play anything, and easily, is not the big deal it would have been a short time ago…. [As evidenced by everything from the Rachmaninoff piano concertos to the Ligeti etudes] younger technicians … have figured out everything about piano playing.” By 2013, things have only gotten worse (not the correct word of course), meaning almost everyday events. Live, such playing generally sounds identical to a superior recording, in the best sense. The pianism is as constantly dependable as it is flashy.

This development is enough to make anyone with a marketplace orientation, much less parental concern, fret about such intensity of practice, hard labor, gritty hours and hours of obsessive and repetitive work, memorization — and to what end no one can predict. Is the deserving Sohn going to have a major concertizing and recording career? What will become of Wang? Anyone would bet that Li will be all set regardless. But what about the even younger wannabe superstars with the same chops and capacity for practice who are approaching their level? Much of the playing at this festival surpassed what you regularly hear on “From the Top,” and the most taxed skills (these were all big, serious programs, all memorized) were simply not to be heard at piano competitions 40 years ago.

Handwringing over, let us revisit the important pianist Meng-Chieh Liu, while his Jordan Hall all-Schubert recital is still fresh in ear. On August12th it was all Brahms. Senior in this crowd, meaning past 40, Liu may just be taking off in the greater world of classical music, although last Monday’s tremendous recital was woefully underattended. (You could travel the breadth of New England this summer and not hear playing better than his, also from Sohn and Li, even as Li could learn much from Liu’s La Valse [here].)

Liu wants for nothing by way of technique, though this particular Brahms presentation had a few trivial smudges. With aplomb, integrity, and the most profound authority, Liu conveyed interiority in all senses of the word—one concertgoer said, “It’s simply all innig; and ravishing.” Liu has suffered, deeply lived, evidently thought hard about his works; it’s difficult to point out exactly how maturity and gravitas manifest themselves, but when Liu performs, they do. He does full justice to the composer, in all of Brahms’s Oedipally inclined sadnesses and renunciations, amplifying and elaborating and permuting states of feeling whose depictions only Schumann and Schubert had achieved so powerfully before him. Inner voices and lines were probed, Katchen-like and even more considerately than with Sohn; another recital attendee said, “It’s like cloud-to-cloud lightning, not to ground, silent illumination.” Patrician, dark, often of Prussian-blue cast if you’re in a synesthetic mood, pellucid like deep still water: Brahms’s chords and voicings under Liu’s hands were made to arc, breathe, dance in overlapping phrases, the held notes mystifying and linking long after the fact.

I don’t believe I have ever heard programed all the opus 76 Klavierstücke or the four opus 10 Ballades, for the second and last of which I could only jam exclamation points onto my program. Liu even made the relatively weak third one more interesting than most do. The opus 119 pieces, better-known, were most beautifully shaped. Liu pedals consummately, the soft pedal as well. His initial touch remains Horowitz-like: you cannot see or tell when the sound will come.

The closing piece was the Handel Variations, again. I would enjoy seeing them reach the status of the Goldbergs and Diabellis (both of which are doubly upcoming this fall in Boston). Liu’s rendition was even subtler than Sohn’s, and notably quieter and a bit slower, equally crisp at the opening and ringing, with a hint of flagging, at the end; but even more complex and indwelling across the variations themselves. Last spring I wrote of Liu’s Schubert that I felt as if I were discovering Perahia decades ago, and this night he seemed more a cross between Lupu and Kovacevich, whose Handel Variations are my gold standard, or were. Liu reported afterward that he’s recording them, and I can hardly wait.

His encore was that very familiar Waltz in A-flat Major Op. 39 No. 15.

The evening had turned into a memorable, often shaking experience. By all of us Cathy Chan is owed a grateful debt.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 45 years, with special interest in the keyboard.

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