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Tasting Greatness with Hung-Kuan Chen


It’s difficult to do justice to some performances without treading into murky metaphysical waters, especially if the music is Schubert’s last three piano sonatas and the pianist does them much more than justice. That is what took place Saturday night at Jordan Hall with Hung-Kuan Chen.

Let’s tread instead into a vat of wine. A remarkable wine is marked by subtlety, nuance, depth of flavor with buoyancy and balance, not excess weight. It evolves as it’s consumed. It demands, in the most polite manner, introspection. At the same time it offers up layers of hedonistic pleasure. It’s missed when it’s gone, but not so much, because the experience is encapsulated and remembered. It’s a onetime deal, and you know that going in.

Chen’s event was sponsored by—as many memorable events have been—the Chinese Foundation for Performing Arts, and it was remarkable. And the sonatas became more remarkable in hindsight with the playing of a second encore. But that explanation will have to wait.

The three sonatas were written together, over the summer of 1828, a few months before Schubert’s death. Each has four movements. The C Minor, D.958, is perhaps the most Beethovenesque of the three, full of high drama and intensity, but, as Chen made evident, it is not the work of Beethoven. Though essentially classical in structure, this sonata, via Chen, made extensive use of rubato, and Chen wasn’t at all timid about adding subtle and not so subtle affectation, to lend character to the dizzying array of musical ideas that Schubert generated. Paradoxically, this Romantic stretching and sensitivity to detail, which could easily have made the work stall or meander, made it (and the other sonatas too!) come together. Rather than forcing music material forward, Chen listened, used time as needed, stopped when necessary, and so the sonatas were propelled forward to their logical conclusions.

On another paradoxical level, the music was rendered symphonic in texture and scope, yet fully idiomatic to the instrument. Chen produced marvelous piano sound and control, and provocative, innovative voicing, with foreground and background thought through to the nth degree. This evening was a testament to subtle, sensitive restraint, resulting in compression of this trio of big sonatas into a microcosm of “late” Schubert and his expanded musical universe as he approached the end. Another paradox?

C Minor, D.958

The third-movement minuet was rendered tender and (time stopped) mysterious-sounding. With the fourth movement Tarantella, the slowing of the triplet figures into something near duple instead of triple created a special effect, which moved the music forward, again. It was a hoot to hear the ascending scales with repeated chords in the left hand: super-fast and clear. There was a free, dreamy, wispy middle section relief—contrast—from all that surrounded. And Chen created a meaningful dialogue within the right hand, leaping back and forth over the left. This was a less goofy or bouncy-and-grinning interpretation of the Tarantella than some have delivered, but that was just fine. Chen is a rather serious fellow. You might ask him to let his hair down, but it’s already down.

A Major, D.959

There was nothing square about the squarish opening to the first movement. Chen rushed into the third and fourth bars, for effect, and the elastic playing was effective.

The melancholy of the somber second movement seemed almost drug-induced, also for wonderful effect, then enhanced by a dreamy recitative-like section and full-blown drama, Schubert (or Chen) doing his best anticipation of Liszt.

The third movement scherzo was crystalline, delicate, and sharp, the trio exhibiting some rare Schubertian anger. In the fourth movement, a singing, lyrical mood gave way to big drama, sweep, and even a little terror, before resolving not only the movement but, thematically, the entire sonata.

B-flat Major, D.960

In the opening movement, so full of ideas, Chen used tempo as energy. He got away with much stretching of time and material, all to great effect and musical flow. In yet another paradox, Chen overaccented the first note of the second theme, consistently, relentlessly, on the downbeat. The other notes faded away to nothing. This emphasis on the downbeat (really, an emphasis on a musical idea that produces more of a “wail” than anything else) weighted a mood and drove the music forward. Of course, as it should be!

There’s been debate about whether the exposition of the first movement should be repeated. The repeat introduces new, ominous material. Chen chose the bypass, no repeat, and it worked fine. Perhaps if he were performing only one of these sonatas he might repeat the exposition?

In the development Chen did something extraordinary, but so simple. Once again, he stressed an accent on the downbeat, but here he accented the downbeat of the simple accompaniment to give it full-fledged, and lovely, musical character, counter to the melodic character.

The slow movement of the B-flat Major was breathtakingly beautiful, tragic, and full of resignation. Schubert gets nearly all the credit here. The harmonic progressions and writing are beyond description. But Chen only amplified Schubert times whatever power you might wish to ascribe. The recital could have stopped there. (Many have written that Schubert might just as well have emulated Beethoven with his final, two-movement sonata, Opus 111. But he had no choice other than to be Schubert.

Chen turned the Trio into a quick study of offbeat accents. Here the accompaniment was pushed far to the background, lightening the overall effect, treating the movement as an effective introduction to the final movement, where simple melody and drama unfold with, ultimately, poignant acceptance.

Hung-Kuan Chen (Chung Cheng photo)

Throughout the night, the balance of playing detail, being in the moment, and playing with awareness of time and great structure, in this case spanning three large masterpieces, proved remarkable.

Encores began with the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 116 No. 4 in E Major, draping a quiet blanket over the evening. But then the Chopin Nocturne Op. 62 No. 1 in E Major, though moodily similar, was delivered as revelation and nightcap. Its four minutes were were rendered seemingly with a radically different approach. The cantabile melody was allowed to soar over textures thicker, richer, more concentrated. The sound was different, like 40 minutes distilled down, while reminding us that the three 40-minute Schubert sonatas seemed to pass in an astonishingly shorter timeframe. The Chopin was a fine Armagnac to end the evening, whereas each sonata was a fine, velvety Burgundy. It all represented more a clue on how Chen was able to so convincingly play these great Schubert sonatas, then conclude with a Chopin Nocturne, and teach lessons in the process.

A remarkable musical performance is marked by subtlety, nuance, depth of sound with buoyancy and balance, not excess weight. It evolves as it unfolds. It demands, in the most polite manner, introspection. At the same time, it offers up layers of hedonistic pleasure. It’s missed when it’s gone, but not so much, because the experience is encapsulated and remembered. It’s a onetime deal, and you knew that going in.

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.

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  1. What a fine review of a simply extraordinary concert! Among the many paradoxes discerned here, the most striking to me was the way Chen’s incomparable delicacy and deliberation had the effect of compressing these three long, distinctive masterpieces into a unified Schubertian universe growing ever more self-aware. D.960’s coda was just a marvel, evoking in my mind a vivid image of the composer’s indomitably lyrical spirit shaking free of the Dark Angel’s fingers just long enough to bolt through one final, triumphant flourish before surrendering.

    As for the encores, the Brahms was miraculous to my ears as well – so many tints and hues of regret, and of long-remembered hesitancies somehow turned to sound both by Brahms and by Chen’s masterful pedalling and rhythmic control.

    I’m not entirely sure how he did it, but Hung-Kuan Chen somehow conjured three uniquely compelling musical mentalities, capturing and transmitting the ineffable. It was truly a one-time deal, and you knew that going in.

    PS Bravos to the Foundation For Chinese Performing Arts!

    Comment by nimitta — September 18, 2018 at 4:23 pm

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