Pianist Pi-Hsien Chen closed the recital portion of the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts music festival at Walnut Hill School for the Arts on Tuesday evening with probing and satisfying renderings of works big and small: Beethoven’s Bagatelles Op. 126 and his final sonata, Op. 111 in C minor, followed by three Scarlatti Sonatas and ending with Schubert’s D-Major Sonata D. 850. Character was revealed.
Her opening to the Bagatelles announced that the audience would be treated to musical universes that were clear and clean, contained and carefully considered and phrased. A subdued but expressive first, sudden shifts in tempo and mood throughout the second, compact and more-subdued playing in the third, bounciness and wackiness in the fourth, long musical lines in the fifth (each hand), and deliberate jerkiness in the final one of the group. With its sudden curtain-raiser opening-and-closing theatrics, this last might have benefited from a little more drunk, self-indulgent reminiscing, or gestural equivalents (or maybe it was just difficult to imagine Chen projecting either drunkenness or self-indulgence). All the while, though, Beethoven as channeled through Chen gives us vivid glimpses back through his periods and styles and the many sonatas.
In her 60s, and professor at the Hochschule für Musik in both Köln and Freiburg, Pi-Hsien Chen produces beautiful sound, particularly her chordal playing. For that harsh opening of Op. 111, she projected appropriately jarring, uglier noises, maybe at first a bit too abrupt, too sharp. And occasionally her exceptional balance and control were betrayed by rushing to get across the keyboard; she could have easily granted herself more breathing room in these rare occurrences.
If the rest of the Op. 111 first movement might be described as slightly more feminine than some, with a little less heft/mass/oomph in the bass, Chen certainly had the drive and energy to propel the work forward. Her barbaresco to the usual classic barolo was by no means a bad thing. No overbearing weight, plenty of sinew, with a fine finish having the trajectory of an arrow.
The second movement seemed to unfold, almost in its entirety, as it began. Time played tricks, and Chen’s was such a clear conception of a work governed by so many levels of metrics that it was like seeing the second hand of a giant clock move—the melody—while watching the interplay of many gears swinging in the background. If the Bagatelles were a treat, this was another, but of quite a different order, rhythm paramount. She showed such awareness of architecture, and no small amount of tightrope-walking to essay this piece with so little pedal. Finally, Chen relented and gave forth both rubato and pedal, as Beethoven stops time just before the work bids us adieu, without regret.
In the carefully curated and bigger-scope-than-normal Scarlatti sonatas (K.132, 162, 427), Chen wielded a richer palette while expressing an enlightening variety of characters, lines, and moods within each sonata (which makes me think her Mozart might be special). Some quirks of rhythm detracted a little, and again that occasional abruptness to get to a place on the keyboard, clipping the tail off of a phrase to begin the next.
As with Op. 111, Chen conceived an arch for the structure of the 40-minute Schubert. Earlier clarity and sweetness gave way to drama and tension in the first movement (and the other three too), with beautiful, big balanced chords. And more of that ability to give a character to a motif; here the descending triplet motif was rendered almost as snarl, with fine rhythmic inflection, in nice contrast to Schubert’s typically square octave opening. Indeed, rendering individual motivic character in all pieces was the real theme of this first-rate evening.
More brave dryness was to be had in the second movement, with rest and silence given emphasis nearly equal to melody in the opening. Big swells, much syncopation, and superb voicing of overlapping musical lines were demarcated throughout. The trio to the third movement (Scherzo) was simply lovely: more superbly controlled chordal playing while projecting so much musical line; grandly restrained exultance with those rather incredible harmonic modulations; tenderness right after, at the place that evokes How the West Was Won (bar 154); and, at times, such quiet.
The last movement, Rondo, is built around, or rather inside, one of Schubert’s archetypical rinky-dink themes, a development, it sounds like, on the rinky-dink theme of the previous Scherzo, now less scherzolike, more a sprightly, goofy, off-kilter tiptoe march, one that leads to downright comical stop-start running and hiding. It was great foundation material for Chen to give another lesson in character contrast and space-time management, as themes and dramas unfolded, up to the delicate, quiet, sweet ending.
A Scarlatti sonata encore was slightly wobbly and unfocused, the wobbling well-earned and not unwelcome. And after the standing ovation, it was not easy to decide which was more of a treat, the music or Chen’s smile. Time to open a barbaresco to accompany a spaghetti Western.
Jim McDonald has masters degrees in arts administration and piano performance from the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Simms. He has presented chamber music for 25 years.