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Pi-Hsien Chen’s Modernist Romances


Pi-Hsien-Chen (Markus Boysen photo)

Mozart’s Fantasy K.475 combined into the K.457 Sonata creates gripping C-minor melodrama, and the Taiwan-born, German-reared pianist Pi-Hsien Chen made the most of it Saturday night at Jordan Hall in a Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts  recital. She opened big. Indeed, Chen’s whole presentation loomed large and sonorous, anti-HIP, Mozart’s theatrical modulations all similarly loud, and even served with oversized pedaling. Despite not reaching the cleanest technical level of fit and finish, it was an effective start.

Schoenberg’s five Opus 23 pieces got treated with more bounce and affection than they sometimes do, and as a result this became the fondest, supplest rendition I have heard. The Very Slow first miniature could have been slower, yet Chen stroked the rest with a rounded liveliness such as one seldom finds, especially the no. 5 Waltz. A repeat would have been welcome. Listening to Opus 23 is like looking through a loupe scanning text of a short story or painting: we make such dramatic and even narrative sense of the partial views as we can, but the objects’ compression and density invariably mean that another pass, or several, would be most welcome.

“Be happy with strange things”, Chen advised the audience before Boulez’s Third Sonata. It needs that guidance. I wonder if in another 60 years it will have settled in and reached Schoenberg acceptance, or if it will even more seem like a somewhat labored exercise of massed bass rumbles followed by treble jabs—thunderings, then piercings, piercings, and more piercings. It might be intriguing to see a graph for dummies of its iterated series of rhythms and dynamics, not only the series of widely separated pitches. But any enigmatic work whose explanations entail invocations of maplike chance, open-ended revisions and expansions, aesthetic circularity, references Mallarmé fragments (maybe it’s more like Schumann’s love of fragments, actually) and the like is going to have a tough go of it. As she had for Schoenberg, Chen treated Boulez, whom she knew and worked with, with respectful drama, more than other pianists in this sonata, and, with the ends of the keyboard sounding like the ends of the earth, she danced along its granite edges like a sprite. It also was wonderful to hear the sostenuto pedal used for sonic exploration; more composers should give that a go.

The contemporary offering was Lei Liang’s My Windows, four beautiful naturalistic efforts, at once spare and showy. “Heaven” sounded Crumbish (“six relative durations and six pitches that are each permutated six times”), while “Seven Rays of the Sun” has Liszt glissandoing deeply offshore with Vishnu. “Magma” (righthand black keys, lefthand white keys, it says here) rocks the bass, and we exhale and calm down “Pausing, Awaiting the Wind To Rise”, which distills stillness. Check it out, selections 6-9 here.

The concluding Schubert Sonata D.568 was mussed throughout, I thought, raggedy, rather klutzed in ensemble, mechanically weak, even the pedaling sounding inexact. Although a reworking nine years later of a piece from the composer at 20, it still sounds diluted: mature Schubert cut a third with tap water. The sovereignty of moments in Chen’s Mozart had waned. Part of the problem may have been the piano: even though it had received significant attention at halftime, Chen seemed not to enjoy it particularly. She has more musically polished and technically able recordings online.

I wish the encore had been a repeat of Liang’s four Windows instead of a pair of somewhat shapeless and imprecise Scarlatti sonatas.

David Moran has been an occasional Boston-area music critic for 50 years, with special interest in the keyboard.

* * *

Sometimes experienced auditioners disagree. Another opinion may be worthy of note…or not.

by Lee Eiseman

Walking unceremoniously to the Jordan Hall piano with a wan smile of recognition for her audience, Pi-Hsien Chen hunched down to her work for the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts Saturday night with such little apparent diva attitude that her first offering, Mozart’s dark Fantasia in C Minor KV475, completely surprised us with waves to terror as if from the Commendatore’s burning hand. She grabbed us and would not let go.

Mozart’s Sonata in C Minor KV 457, following without a pause, disclosed clarity of line limned with shapely dynamics bursting out of a broadly arranged frame. Chen noted, “…the piece is like a long race that cannot be restrained.”

In the Schoenberg Five Pieces, not a gesture went by without investment; her mind moved quickly, leading us through logical mazes without being overtly cerebral. She gives us the impression that we know exactly what’s going in the world of Schoenberg. Her playing left the composer’s structures clear yet full of emotive imagery. She wrote, “Expression was of the utmost importance to Schoenberg. He taught his students always to take seriously their own sense of expression. …The technique of twelve tones was a necessity for the precise expression of his meaning. The fifth piece was the first instance where he used a 12-tone row.”

The Boulez Third Sonata makes a visceral appeal to the Darmstadt aficionado if not to the concert-going generalist. Boulez famously wrote “Schoenberg is dead!” Chen adds that through references to Joyce’s chains of consciousness, Mallarmé and Chinese philosophy, Boulez charted a new path. Having worked with Boulez, as well as Messiaen, Cage, unw., she tuned her sensitive antenna to their wavelength. In 20+ minute she took us through the sonata’s various and variable pathways without giving the impression of throwing dice. Boulezian absolute music (or plonks, plinks, bioings, and splats) can strand us without a compass. The forms to which we cling and the cues of phrase and dynamics absented themselves. Chen’s daring commitment to advocate in this vein demands that we make a responsive commitment to tune in.

Pi-Hsien Chen (file photo)

Lei Lang’s four interludes, My Dreams, evoked Heaven, Seven Rays of the Sun, Magma and Pausing, and Awaiting the Wind to Rise. The Chinese-born, American trained composer received his B.M. and M.M from NEC and his PhD. From Harvard. He is widely published as an essayist, and as a composer he is represented by Schott. The New York Philharmonic, Fromm Foundation and BMOP, among many other, have commissioned him. Anyone with a love of Liszt, an appreciation for the history of keyboard display, and a nose for exotic perfumes could find much to admire.

Given the many years she has spent in Germanic realms, it’s hardly surprising how she rescued Schubert’s rarely-programmed and somewhat awkward Sonata in E-flat Major, D 568 through intelligent pacing and phrasing with true Austrian lilt. I very much agree with a colleague who wrote that she had technique of a very special type, encompassing total command of voicing, chordal attack, and pedal. If she displayed a wee bit of effort at times and negotiated with a memory lapse, it was of little consequence in a very long and ambitious evening.

Her encore of Scarlatti Sonatas 426 and 427 brought back the era when playfulness and storytelling meant something in piano music. It had close to orchestral imaging and coloring. And she moves in quick blinks of the eye, a solid accent here and there, then a coursing arpeggio meets up with a staccato cadence, a statement in and of itself, yet wonderfully woven into the whole scheme of her playing of the G major. [Listen to her recent live recording HERE]

Something of a throwback, she can somehow turn Schoenberg and Boulez into objects of nostalgia.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

1 Comment »

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

  1. Hurrah for Lee Eiseman’s accurate and insightful review. And one more hurrah for Pi-Hsien Chen’s splendid performances — the finest solo piano recital in Boston so far this season.

    Comment by steve wigler — February 4, 2018 at 11:22 pm

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