Twenty-two-year-old Daniel Hsu courageously selected three well-beloved works of the piano repertoire which demanded a significant degree of intellectual as well as technical mastery for his recital at the Gardner last Saturday night. While the 2017 Van Cliburn Bronze Medalist’s interpretations rarely expanded the boundaries of the mainstream, he evinced a sufficiently individual and personal approach to suggest that he had spent time pondering the music away from the keyboard. In presenting Hsu, the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts, continued its valuable support of emerging talent.
In Schumann’s Kinderszenen Hsu introduced the two well-known archetypes dividing the composer’s musical personality—Eusebius, the reflective, romantic dreamer, and Florestan, the passionate, vigorous man of action—but also allowed many nuances between them. Hsu also skillfully mixed genuine childlike simplicity with the greater sophistication of adult reminiscence. Among many moments to savor: the gently highlighted, sweetly beckoning bel canto melody in Of Foreign Lands and Peoples; the headlong, obsessive pursuit of Blind Man’s Bluff; a youngster’s quiet insistence in Pleading Child; the serene and hypnotic stream of (semi)consciousness painted with rich tone in Dreaming; delicately treading the line of Almost Too Serious with singing tone and rubato that carried us smoothly over many major/minor transitions; and finally the affectionate benediction of an elder in The Poet Speaks. While his takes on the more adult-influenced (i.e., sophisticated) movements sounded consistently convincing, Hsu also revealed levels of introspection and simplicity beyond his tender years.
One might easily take Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110 (the middle of his valedictory three) for an earlier work since it is less experimental and mystical as well as more conventionally lyrical than other works from his late period. Here too Hsu displayed his gift for keyboard “singing” while affectionately shaping the first movement’s melody and its frequently accompanying 32nd-note-arpeggiated passage work. Beethoven created his Scherzo second movement’s A sections out of two contrasting “voices”: a quiet question in the minor and a forceful, emphatic answer in the major or minor. Hsu limned these contrasted exchanges convincingly enough though a bit more differentiation of dynamics and articulation might have made them still more vivid. The trio (or B section), bubbled merrily, and the artist skillfully rendered Beethoven’s “three hands” effect. I learned from the full program notes (online) that the composer incorporated two popular drinking songs into this movement–Unsa Kätz häd Katzln ghabt (“Our cat has had kittens”) and Ich bin lüderlich, du bist lüderlich (“I am a slob, you are a slob”); perhaps this is an inside joke as he betrays little of the earthy humor one would expect from drinking songs. Hsu created genuine mystery in the arpeggiation of the final chord now in the major. This led with surprising naturalness to the minor-mode desolation of the third movement’s recitative-like introduction to the Klagender Gesang (mournful singing). In the most Romantic passage of the sonata, the pianist stirred emotions, evoking tragedy as well as sunnier memories. Following a subdued, bare-octaves ending in A-flat minor, the final movement fugue commences with a seemingly modest subject in the major. More than one musician and music commentator has likened the interweaving of the last two movements to the struggle between grief (even annihilation) and joy (resurrection). Hsu’s juxtaposing of the near-improvisatory freedom of the Klagender Gesang with the polyphonic techniques, steady rhythm, and clear textures of the fugue well portrayed this struggle. Though one couldn’t deny the ever-mounting excitement of the artist’s playing of the final fugue, I wished he had not allowed his tone to turn somewhat abrasive and metallic as he reached the height of ecstasy. No doubt that modicum of restraint will come as his artistry matures.
If Beethoven’s Op. 110 represents a stern test of a pianist’s interpretive abilities and a not inconsiderable one of his technical prowess, the Liszt Sonata in B Minor may be its mirror image: a Himalayan test of virtuosity that also requires imaginative, well-planned interpretation. One must admit that as Liszt wrote a prodigious quantity of music, a certain portion of it inevitably is empty bravura catering to thrill-seeking audiences. Yet the Sonata, which doesn’t lack spectacular technical display, integrates it into a larger, more meaningful work bound together by a number of prominent leitmotivs. While Hsu met the daunting technical challenges well, his more introverted, poetic passages resonated most with me. His detached bass octaves at the opening were like warning tremors followed by descending legato scales, an oracular pronouncement. When the agitated first full theme arrived, its staccato repeated notes were properly obsessive, but they also led the pianist into employing a rather harsh tone, though some might say that a stronger case could be made for it here, in Liszt’s infernal vision, than in the Beethoven sonata. If the first extended double-octaves passage came across as slightly tight and not immaculately accurate, the titanic chordal theme that followed indeed transpired as Grandioso and powerful. Following a calming transition, a dreamy D-major reimagining of the obsessive first theme brought sweet echoes of Eusebius (one should bear in mind that Liszt dedicated this work to Robert Schumann). Hsu’s hands delivered multiple such reimaginings, always clearly recognizable. The second sequence of double-octaves rang out freer and with more accuracy; the final recapitulation of the Grandioso theme appeared possibly still more imposing than its first iteration. The lengthy coda provided something of a reunion of most of the principal themes and leitmotivs, now gentled, at a distance, and recast largely in a warm, luminous B major.
Daniel Hsu possesses undoubted technical mastery, but his uncommon poetic gifts will be most important in attracting listeners to him. We hope to follow his career as his artistry deepens and expands.
Geoffrey Wieting holds Bachelor’s degrees in organ and Latin from Oberlin College and a Master’s degree in collaborative piano from New England Conservatory. He is a freelance organist, collaborative pianist and vocal coach. He sings with the Back Bay Chorale and serves on the Board of Directors of the Old West Organ Society.