In a concert Saturday night at Jordan Hall sponsored by the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts, pianist Ya-Fei Chuang performed—or created, as the French would say—Chopin’s 24 Preludes Op. 28, the Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor and Ravel’s La Valse, beautifully emphasizing the dialog between darkness and light. Her chosen works dealt with memory and inner struggle, all having in common that they were misunderstood, rejected or thoroughly vilified when they first appeared.
Chopin’s Preludes are clearly an homage to Bach, proceeding as they do through all 24 keys in major/relative minor key pairings, moving around the circle of fifths from C major to D minor. From the start, performers and audiences found them puzzling, asking what they were preludes to. Chopin himself is not known to have ever performed more than four of them at a time. It would be decades before Chopin’s originality became clear. Eventually, no further explanation being demanded, the set inspired Debussy and Scriabin, among others.
Through a universe of color, dynamics and articulations that were entirely her own, Chuang gave us a world of feelings, visions and memories in the Preludes, opening with the C major in a haunting legato, the A minor a singing right hand with a steady funereal left. We were guided through a landscape of shifting emotions, light and airy, passionate and turbulent, pulsing and prayerful. By pausing briefly after the first 12 preludes, Chuang allowed a special momentum to gather in anticipation of the D-flat major (“Raindrop”). She allowed it to blossom, with much lyrical beauty, infusing it with yearning in dialog with assertoric dark chords in the trio, ending with a reconciled look back. No. 17 in A-flat major, so beloved by Mendelssohn, was a bon voyage on a smooth sea, the C minor bringing a return of the contrast between the inexorable solemn, funereal darkness and a luminous tender, intimate response. Even the elegiac atmosphere that Chuang brought to the cantabile B-flat major prelude (No. 21) was tinged with impending sorrow.
Her most personal contribution was to answer the question “preludes to what?” The final appassionato prelude revealed the horrific wound of human fate, the realization that we must soon leave it all—beauty, friends, love, storms, dreams, life. Who can bear to face such a final weaning? Chuang turned the last prelude into an outpouring of grief and wounded rebellion against destiny precisely because the 23 preceding preludes had so vividly disclosed the addictive beauty of existence.
As with the Chopin, Liszt’s B Minor Sonata baffled performers and audiences for many years. The work is dedicated to Robert Schumann, who likely never saw it as he was already in a mental hospital; Clara received the manuscript and declared the piece “merely a blind noise.” Brahms famously fell asleep when Liszt played it for him, although he later played the piece through for Clara. When the work was premiered by von Bülow it received a cold reception that lasted for many years. As Liszt biographer Alan Walker notes “Rarely did such great music get off to a less promising start.” The difficulty is twofold. The large-scale structure of the work has been described as a sonata across a sonata: the three major sections (four, if you count the coda separately) can be heard both as the three movements of a sonata and also as the three parts of a single, long sonata-form movement. On the micro scale, Liszt’s technique of thematic transformation creates a shifting kaleidoscopic effect, changing constantly but also seeming to stay the same. Liszt owed much to Beethoven here, but it was not until the 20th century that these techniques were fully explored.
The most striking feature of Chuang’s performance was the andante sustenuto. Boldly unhurried, with evocative silences making it capacious, even vast, she created a haven of peace, insight and understanding. Her dolcissimos were so effective as to be received as heavenly manna, leading to a climax of paradoxical tranquility in ecstasy. The contrast with the appropriately emotionless and inexorable fugato was then all the more striking.
The piu mosso was also especially successful, Chuang’s playing almost shamanic, with a mysteriously glistening serpentine darkness. The presto evoked great peals of bells, the return of the grandioso theme was grand without being pompous, the closing emphasizing the dialog between the dark telluric night and the upper register sparkle, and their mutual interdependence. Chuang’s choice of emphasis in this regard recalled Baudelaire’s praise of Liszt’s “amazing duality”: “straight line and arabesque line, intention and expression, strength of will, sinuosity of the word, unity of the goal, variety of means, all-powerful and indivisible amalgam of genius, what analyst will have the hateful courage to divide you and separate you?”
Looking back on the ending of the Liszt Sonata, it seemed that Ya-Fei Chuang’s long, shapely, stunning, sequined gold and black gown was an integral part of her approach to the music. It was a sort of sacerdotal vestment, allowing her to separate from ordinary life and conjure up in herself powerful psychic capabilities with which to face the majesty of the music. The vestment was not for us the audience, but for Chopin, Liszt and Ravel, with whom she was in intimate communication.
Which brings us to La Valse. Although it is hard not to hear the piece as a depiction of humanity waltzing itself into disaster, Ravel protested that there is no deep meaning beyond being a nostalgic look at a bygone era, the dancers caught up in the excitement and whirl of the music. Ravel’s words, of course, only call attention to what they hide.
Chuang’s opening was dark and foreboding, with fitful, fleeting glimpses of the dance. In the exposition of waltz upon waltz, she evoked the uncanny sense in which the waltz embraces time, but is also coerced by it. The two faces of the waltz, the elegant and the raucous, were beautifully delineated in a contrasting play of light and darkness. In the concluding section, the distorted repeat of the sequence of waltzes whirled chaotically out of control, veering into the grotesque. In order to add to the effectiveness of the playing, Chuang enriched the texture with her own subtle modifications based on the orchestral and two-piano versions. Yet she contained the increasingly frightening atmosphere of the mad whirl by insisting on keeping it artistic, as though agreeing with Ravel in frustrating our impulse to provide an interpretation.
Responding to a heartfelt ovation, and showered with flowers by her young and very young students, Chuang lightened the mood with two encores, first a spectacular rendition of the Gershwin-Wild Virtuoso Etude No. 2, “I Got Rhythm”, followed by the bittersweet happiness of Schubert’s Moment Musicaux No. 3 in F Minor.