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Reputation and Reality with Hung-Kuan Chen


Hung Kuan Chen (file photo)
Hung Kuan Chen (file photo)

Pianist Hung-Kuan Chen, professor at Juilliard, Yale, and formerly BU and NEC, has a worldly pedigree that is impressive even by today’s competitive standards, with numerous prizes plus status as one of the more prestigious students of Russell Sherman. Friday night, however, his moderate-length (in current terms) and most pleasingly constructed offering at Walnut Hill School for the Arts in the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts music festival was a decidedly mixed affair. Chen favors that modernist, deeply focused, meditative, ‘many individual notes having a life (and death) of their own’ approach, which at its best can lie powerfully in wait between (say) the intensity of Uchida and the ponderousness of Arrau. But this evening the performance, on a possibly recalcitrant piano—the artist did his own tuning touchups beforehand—had not a few halting moments that sounded, more than anything, like high-quality sight-reading.

Mozart channeled Handel in the opener. (If Bach served for penetrating study by those guys, Beethoven included, Handel, Beethoven’s announced favorite composer, was surely meant for dashing performance and display.) Mozart’s charming Suite in C Major K.399 preceded the K.574 Gigue, which was impolitely dashed off on a visit to the Leipzig Cathedral organist, of all people and places, though actually not a Bachlike two-part invention. Perhaps a public wink like one of Mozart’s droll score doodles, I thought. Chen handled these weird miniature with confidence, structural knowingness, and a quiet touch, although the counterpoint was neither perfectly strong in rhythm nor lucid.

Then came somber Mozart, A minor: the grieving but dancing, Chopin-presaging Rondo K.511, and the affect-matching, shocking K.310, which right from the start reaches out and grabs us in the middle of life’s way. Chen felt the drama, and conveyed much of it, but both were a little fleet, runs rushed, while also static. And to some extent, crispness prevented darkness, here the darkness of parental deaths. The pairing was unquestionably inspired, and the playing, when not struggling (both appositely and inappositely), often probing. An inconsistent bag.

At halftime I asked a student if the piano was balky and resistant, and he nodded “lefthand” while motioning up and down with his. Even if Chen’s finger mastery was sometimes wanting this evening (not frank mistakes so much as slight stumbling), among the nicer touches he offered throughout were perfect volume and scale for this modest space, with, best of all, closing cadences and final chords all mezzoforte.

After intermission Schubert announced the powerful start of his last stretch of extreme writing. The  Sonata in C-Minor D.958 pays tribute to Beethoven, whose funeral torchbearer the young man had been the year before, but soon roams off to other planets, turning beautiful song into various kinds of unfathomable emotional catastrophes. Some moments in that Adagio second movement’s anguish and drama certainly came together, with the occasional Shermanesque ritard, lurch, and odd spotlighting, but too often the sonata sounded like a struggle to play, effortful, low of flow. It is a very strange work in any rendition, ineffably lonely and forlorn. The next year the 19-year-old Chopin visited Vienna and, although no mention is made of exposure to the recently deceased Schubert, the 1827 and 1828 piano works certainly look forward to the otherworldly moments in Chopin’s own sonatas.

The nicely run together encores comprised Brahms (the middle piece of opus 116) and two Chopin nocturnes, everything still without long line or forward motion, but relaxed, not stumbly, and pleasantly, dryly pedaled, like the entire program.

From reputation and achievement I still wish to hear Hung-Kuan Chen again; from this recital alone, not so much.

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

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