IN: Reviews

A Pianist Like No Other


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

Monday’s Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts recital at Walnut Hill’s Keiter Center by the Liszt-haired senior pianist Hung-Kuan Chen, teacher at Juilliard and Yale, made for a moving experience, combining the gravest introspection with manifest interest in musical communication. A year ago by contrast, he indulged in a note-enthralled approach, excessively measured, nearly preventing forward motion [my review here]. He still is in no hurry, and the performing again exhibited some of those slow, segmented, deliberate and deliberative approaches. As with some other Russell Sherman students, you periodically want to say, gently and sometimes less so, ‘You know, you could get on with it; there are other listeners here besides yourself.’

The gripping Bach Chorale Prelude S.659, “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” (Now comes the heathens’ Savior) in Busoni’s transcription began the evening with utmost somberness as an intro leading directly into the 110-year-newer Liszt Sonata. The Liszt’s reading was like nothing I have ever heard, quite some other piece than the usual, quietly focused, intensely lyrical, dramatic, attentive to inner voices. Many colors were slowly refracted. Real fury erupted after the fugue. Overall it felt unusually intimate for a warhorse, mystical and sonorous; I steal from Bridgeport University music professor Jeffrey Johnson: Hung-Kuan Chen “lit the piano … then stopped … the sound lingered. And lingered. … continued to glow … changed color as the overtones and resonances simmered.”

I would very much like to hear this performance again. Maybe not a third time; I do not know.

After intermission a Chopin group was run together without pause: Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45; Mazurka in B Minor, Op. 33 no. 4; and the Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat Major, Op. 61. Some halts in the dance aside, these renditions, too, all proceeded right up to and almost past the points of excess delicacy, highlighted pauses, arpeggiation, hand staggering, noodling with soft edges, discrete, phrasing almost per measure. Sometimes the teasing “I will show this piece who’s the boss” vibe feels passive-aggressive. But there was also wit in the late, ambiguous, misleading Polonaise-fantaisie, and the near pedaling over (not really) of modulations and harmonic changes, more bent lighting, sounded marvelous.

Scriabin’s mad, crashing single-movement Sonata 5, from 1907, seems unlikely to presage Gershwin and Art Tatum, but so it sounded in its jazzy passages. It too came to a stop a few times, and it also just ended with that big runup, no proper cadence. Yet it thrilled, and I wondered if jazz great Bill Evans studied it.

The encore, a Chopin Nocturne of pearly, pellucid, polyphonic perfection, capped the amazing evening, ending it as grave as it began. A noted composer in the audience shook his head and said, “He’s like no one else; my favorite pianist.”

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


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. This review was absolutely fascinating to read. I heard the identical program at the PianoSummer Festival at SUNY New Paltz in mid-July. I agree that the Scriabin was thrilling and the Chopin Nocturne quite beautiful. Up to that point, though, I had been wondering if the pianist was in the midst of a nervous breakdown. The opening Bach was played at about half the normal tempo. The Liszt Sonata was also extremely slow (about 38 minutes, compared with the usual 29-32), and filled with passagework that seemed to be falling asleep. The Chopin works before the Scriabin sounded similarly eccentric to me. Overall I found this one of the least satisfying piano recitals I have ever heard. Several of the other pianists on the PianoSummer faculty (no, I won’t name names!) made similarly negative comments to me. All we liked was Chen’s tone, which was consistently beautiful. Now I see another writer in ecstasy over what was probably a near-identical performance. I guess I’m glad to know that not everyone thinks Chen is off the wall.

    Comment by Leslie Gerber — August 12, 2015 at 7:30 am

  2. Thanks so much for this response and report of prior; I always am instructed by other experienced sets of ears. Not ecstasy, or apologies if that is really how it reads; from your description this was rather less poky. I could well have modulated my praise to an extent, and I am sure I was influenced by my composer friend’s comment. It was all a little off the wall for sure, but we’re used to that in Boston somewhat. See my review of Chen a year earlier, for example: Nonetheless, this was special; I shoulda clocked the Liszt, would like to hear it at least once again, as I said, and the rest too, I feel, but maybe only once. Thanks again for weighing in.

    Comment by david moran — August 12, 2015 at 10:18 pm

  3. Fascinating, David. I did check out your 2014 review, which sounds like a reaction to a performance more like the one I heard at PianoSummer. I am not in a great hurry to hear this pianist again. It seems on the basis of the one recital I heard that he takes interpretive freedom to extremes and that is not usually what I like to hear.

    Comment by Leslie Gerber — September 1, 2015 at 10:22 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.