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Amazed Pianist Salutes Amazing One

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Hong Xu, one of China’s most accomplished musicians, opened yet another of the notable Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts recitals at Jordan Hall, with Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K. 309. Only a few seconds in on Saturday night, we realized that something special was unfolding. Xu had the advantage (and possible disadvantage) of having an audience both keenly attuned to him and also loaded with lofty expectations of him. This crowd wanted something rare, and they were hugely rewarded by one of the finest musical performances and piano recitals I have had the privilege to witness. This was astonishing music-making and pianism from the opening forte “attack” in the first Mozart Sonata to the last note of a most honest and pure rendition of a popular, often clichéd encore, as the final illuminating reward for this (mostly*) deserving audience.

Xu’s Mozart radiated pure joy, the Sonata in C Major, K. 309 arriving in amazingly varieties of tonal color, attack, and lyricism in a mini-concerto-like package—symphonic one moment—pianistic the next, and seamless. He made huge contrasts, simultaneously between how his two hands operated at the keyboard, and temporally between each phrase, making for real Mozart-magic. With concentration akin to Barenboim’s, and equal imagination, and even greater precision, Xu dispensed crystalline charm, dramatic tenderness, powerful delicacy, and pretty, witty, and radiant singing tone. Add to that: this was near selfless channeling of Mozart to the nth degree. There is a real humility to this artist’s work and play.

With his micro-fidgeting of the positioning of the piano bench, it should have come as little surprise that Xu would be perfectly balanced over the keyboard, with such control and precision. So often his left hand deceptively utilized the full arm as fulcrum, enabling such incredible control and sound. Not that there was anything less than admirable about his finger work.

Mozart brings some mystery and wit with his repeated off-key “false” recap of the initial theme of K. 309, and Xu added appropriate drama. Then there was a sigh-inducing lilt with the return of the 2nd theme, where Mozart flips the hands, melodic treatment in the left, and alberti accompaniment in the right. What a joy, what a treat!

Xu’s slow movement made us aware of just how much he is aware of time, ever in the moment, and ever aware of scale and scope, his mind working like a clock with so many hands spinning at multiple revolutions per minute. Micro-subdivisions of time coalesced into large arcs and sweeps of sound and structure. The final movement rondeau? Just superb.

With Xu’s take on the first movement of the K. 332 in F Major, let’s add to the descriptive arsenal: brisk, bouncy, intense, lilting and more. As the handout explained, there is so much new motivic material coming at us every few seconds in this work, so much variety…how do we keep up? Paradoxically, with Xu magnifying the individual character of these motives, the work came together seamlessly. With the anticipated circle of fifths section, where Mozart allows some lovely self-indulgence, Xu voiced gorgeously, and he varied this voicing with the repeat, and then again in the recap. In fact, in the repeats, he added loads of variation, particularly with dynamics, on top of all of Mozart’s variety.

The slow movement floated, soared, got dark, then got light, then got charming. Good stuff. Just a little note: Xu’s trills are amazing, maybe faster and clearer than anyone’s. He uses thumb alternating with index and middle finger, the three-digit technique (we’ll call it).

The last movement, in sonata form, embarked on a fun roller-coaster ride, with sudden stops and turns, Xu adding drama by stretching the non-16th-note chordal sections like taffy, before taking off again, and using dynamic contrast as a structural force. All ended quietly, with a sigh.

Since I’m tasked to find something to pick on, I might note that Xu used more pedal in the first iteration of the fast minor arpeggios in the first movement exposition than he needed. But then with the repeat, he almost did no pedaling through this section; hindsight revealed that all was on purpose, for variety’s sake. So I won’t bother.

After the two Mozart Sonatas, the first half, I pondered how nice it would have been to have more Mozart for the 2nd half of the program. Silly me. At intermission, I spoke with the wife of the publisher of the Intelligencer. She mentioned, wryly, that after the two Mozart sonatas, her husband asked her if she would please refrain from ever playing Mozart again.

Post intermission, Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage I: Suisse: Les Cloches de Genève: Nocturne (The Bells of Geneva) opened sweet, tender, and reflective. Tiny bells gave way to a luscious baritone/tenor melody, which transitioned to a semi-pleading alto melody: sweet, luscious, and never cloying.  The “semi-pleading” melody built to near rapture, now in octaves, but still with restraint, and shimmering accompaniment all around, and finally resolved into quiet.

The beginning of Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude S173.3 (The Blessing of God in Solitude) from Harmonies Poètiques et Religieuses summoned images of a hiker in suspenders wandering through the Swiss Alps (yes, I know we were not in Switzerland anymore). It must be that kind of corny right hand accompaniment that conjures images of suspenders. In any case, that accompaniment sounds really difficult. Of course Xu’s execution sounded anything but corny regardless of Liszt’s writing or my image. This piece builds, and builds, then keeps building. How on earth (in the Alps or anywhere) could Xu transform the score into these metaphoric avalanches of sound, thunderous chords, ever building, without going over the top (peak)?

A much more pensive second section, with a lovely little dotted rhythm melody led to an even more passionate and expansive return of the opening material. Adorning the melody and bass line shimmered with a watery mist of sound that one could not ever have expected from a piano. Voicing was remarkable. We were totally awash in sound. This was solemn rapture, with perfect containment, staggeringly good piano playing, all so structural. I kept thinking: this is not possible. Liszt, to me, has never sounded so beautiful.

The lovely little descending dotted rhythm “breathing” melody from the 2nd section ultimately returned briefly, then came closure. I wasn’t the only person getting misty from this performance, or the only person mystified: what made this musical achievement possible?

Pianist Hong Xu (Sophie Zhai photo)

Scriabin’s four-movement Sonata No. 3 opened (Drammàtico) with a passionate, declamatory dotted rhythm theme that starts in the left hand and then is answered above. The relationship (and textures) got more complex, interspersed with lovely, floating, tender moments when there was no rhythmic grounding, the music hovering, intentionally, but the dramatic dotted rhythm always returned. And when it did, Xu had a grand rhythmic sweep that perfectly balanced control of all the voices and textures as the music unfolded.

He got brutal in the second movement (Allegretto), a welcome change of pace, that led to some sweetness, before a more brutal closing. What a distinctive character to this movement!

Jannie Burdeti, in her printed essay, notes that the “… ravishing slow movement contains some of the most beautiful music Scriabin ever wrote. It gives way to chromatic weaving lines. A halo of sound above and under…” 

Xu delivered a pleading lament, full of accepting resignation. The music floated forward to, finally, a brief, subdued return of the opening theme before leading directly into…

…the tormented last movement (Presto con fuoco), full of chromatic descent, tarantella-like. What a woeful journey through this piece! What a performance! We were able to sit comfortably in our seats, vicariously absorbing (with only a threat of occasional mist) Xu’s projection of Scriabin’s emotional hurricane. Bravo Xu and Yay for us!

Afterwards Xu acknowledged one of his teachers in the house, Jerome Lowenthal, noting his favorite encore; in each instance he performed it, he also read Verlaine’s associated French  poem.  Xu announced that he would be not be trying out his French. Then he sat down and rendered an astonishing interpretation of Debussy’s Claire de lune. One perfect, beautiful arc of music, a microcosm of his evening’s program. Xu’s fidelity to the composers elevated their novelty and their genius, providing something revelatory for each composer.

I spoke again with the wife of the publisher after the recital. She added that her husband had asked her, after the program, to please never again play Liszt either [not that she ever has].

*A seven-year-old boy’s mother wouldn’t keep him in check, as he crumpled paper, tapped on metal and wood, rustled about, and made sure everyone around him was annoyed.

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. Jim McDonald: “…one of the finest musical performances and piano recitals I have had the privilege to witness.”

    If you were unfortunate enough to have missed Hong Xu’s recital, it’s possible you’re wondering if this sensational review exaggerates. I can only say what I too sensed throughout: rapture and astonishment. As detailed above, the artist’s unique insight and fidelity to each composer were matched by incomparable prestidigitation – no less staggering in his limpid Clair de lune than during the explosive ecstasies of Liszt’s devotional Bénédiction, or Scriabin’s climactic Third Sonata. Rare as well was this concert’s “perfect, beautiful arc”, in which each piece fully inhabited its uniquely luminous band of the rainbow, with all coming to rest in the pellucid glow of Debussy’s moonlit trove. As Verlaine mused, it “set the birds in the trees to dreaming…”.

    Comment by nimitta — October 2, 2019 at 12:07 pm

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