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Thai-Son in Knockout


Dang Thai Son (file photo)
Dang Thai Son (file photo)

During Saturday night’s snow, those brave enough—or wise enough—to venture out to Jordan Hall were warmed by real artistry from Vietnamese pianist Dang Thai-Son. In this recital sponsored by the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts, Dang showed why he was the 1980 first prizewinner at the International Chopin Competition, showcasing works by four composers—Schubert, Chopin, Fauré, and Debussy—each seemingly an old friend.

Dang set a tone with Fauré’s Ballade in F-sharp Major, taking us back in time (more so than with anything else on the program regardless of date). Whether because of the old-school Romantic performance style, with almost exaggerated projection of singing melody, or because of the style of sometimes caressing the keys and ending a long series of phrases with a turning-over of his hands in a graceful fanlike motion (otherwise, true economy of motion), this was gentle, lyrical playing, certainly to start. When in the third section came moments of virtuosity, even that was, well, laid back. (As a succinct pianist friend described it: “No fuss.”) Shimmery playing featured runs skimming across the keyboard as the music unfolded. We were out of the storm with Dang, and into the moment.

The Fauré proved an excellent introduction to the Debussy that rounded out the first half the program. Debussy’s Images Book II was in Dang’s hands a gorgeous study in voicing and sound, moving us forward in time and tonal complexity. The layers of sounds and alternating rhythms in Cloches à travers les feuilles were rendered with almost aching beauty, shrouded yet transparent. So too with Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut, here with a gentle underlying pulse and crystalline punctuation of the many exotic Asian-influenced (gamelan) melodies and ideas interwoven. And that ability to toss off a very difficult piece was so evident with Poissons d’or: no fuss, just lodes of color, sound, and texture, along with grace and a restrained panache.

Debussy’s Deux arabesques once again took us back, to a simpler more sentimental side of Debussy. With each of the two little dances, Dang was again old-worldly in his playing, with much rubato, stretching and crescendo. It all worked. The magnification of nuance and articulation brought the dances to life.

L’Isle joyeuse probably has more notes per second than any other of Debussy’s piano works, even when only one hand plays. A virtuoso showpiece that’s not really a showpiece, it’s unlike any other piece in the piano repertoire. For the pianists out there, Dang played the opening trills in the left hand. Raised on Gieseking’s near-metronomic but superbly driven interpretation, I thought it seemed a bit stop/start, to begin anyway. But sections unfolded as the harmonic tension wound toward a gorgeous climax (at the golden section) and the stars aligned. What a sound, along with structural awareness.

What might have been taken for shyness in playing out in the lower registers turned out to be Dang’s precision of interpretation thus far. That would change in the second half (the shyness, not the precision).

I would not want to do the artist any disservice by saying little about his playing of Schubert’s Impromptus D. 899, but I’m at a loss to do him justice. For each of the four, there were elegant finger placement, balance with nuance, contrast (from a clearly audible triple pianissimo to massive chords), and superb voicing. There was rubato, but far more understated than in the Fauré or the Debussy arabesques. There was that “no fuss” economy of motion, finger dancing aside, which serves Dang’s sound-making so well, he being so balanced over the keyboard. Individually, each of the four Impromptus had its own identity, or (as I’m prone to reporting for all really good playing and concentration) specific gravity. After all that prettiness in the Fauré, Dang was not afraid to add a layer of harshness in places, in a gentlemanly way, in both the C Minor and the E-flat Major, where all those triplets were hyperarticulated and dizzying at the same time. Schubert’s Impromptus (both sets) often sound to me as though they could use some serious editing. Not this night, with conception, arch, and character given each.

Any winner of a Chopin competition should play some pretty mean Chopin, and by this point in the program, my expectations were high. But I cannot imagine a better performance of the C Minor Nocturne, Op. 48 No. 1, or of the final work on the program, the B-flat Minor Scherzo, Op. 31.

This big Nocturne opened with Dang’s signature subdued bass under the aching projected melody. Then, as the work unfolded into the octave section, Dang played with our heads. He took more time than you are supposed to between phrases, but this cheating only made the work flow more organically into the repeat of the A section, now with a rich triplet chord figuration. With no shying away from the lower registers, the griefstricken melody soared. The tragic ending came as a relief. We’re doomed, sure, so let’s absorb moments of sheer perfection when we can.

And he started playing with our heads again right away in the Scherzo. The opening of this keyboard-spanning work can seem so disjointed, with the quirky little sotto voce triplets in the lower register, rests, massive chords up high, octaves, and weird offbeats. All repeated, with slight variations. Again, I won’t do justice, but evidently, if you can conceive of the work in layers or tonal planes, and different characters for motives, rather than accentuate and exaggerate the oddities, and render all in a symphonic manner, it can make perfect sense. Right. Dang started with the score, then went beyond it, to make sense of a musical idea that can’t be articulated on paper. The middle section almost disappeared in quietness and soft pedaling before a gradual building of earlier musical ideas led to the outrageous coda. This was astonishing playing, rich, resonant, colorful, virtuosic, powerful, aristocratic, and driven. Bravo!

Naturally came a big standing ovation. The Chopin Op. 17 No. 4, A Minor Mazurka encore consoled as a poignant study in projected sorrow.

Ed Note: A minor error in this review was corrected upon a reader’s comment.

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.


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

  1. A really terrific review – not only because it’s beautifully written and perceptive, but also because it gives the reader a sense of being there. The key of Opus 48, No. 1 is, I believe, C Minor not C-sharp Minor — a minor mistake, because you characterize so clearly how that piece, perhaps Chopin’s finest in the genre, works its spell.

    Comment by steve wigler — January 26, 2016 at 1:29 pm

  2. Thank you, Steve, and for the correction. I hope we’ll have opportunity to hear Dang again soon. Big thanks to Catherine Chan for bringing him here to Boston!

    Comment by Jim McDonald — January 26, 2016 at 1:48 pm

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