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.”