Monday, 3 August 2020

BEETHOVEN 360° / Wong Kah Chun et al / Reveiw



BEETHOVEN 360°

WONG KAH CHUN, Conductor

Streamed on the Internet @ YouTube Live

Thursday (30 July 2020)


This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 August 2020 with the title "Uplifting performance delivers message of friendship and unity". 

On Christmas Day 1989, a concert at Berlin’s Konzerthaus saw a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, known as his Choral Symphony, led by legendary American conductor Leonard Bernstein. The orchestra and singers comprised an international legion of musicians from Germany, United Kingdom, France, Soviet Union and United States of America. The celebratory occasion had marked the fall of the Berlin Wall just the month before.

 

A similar assemblage of performers, now over a thousand-strong from around the planet, reprised the symphony’s final movement Ode To Joy on International Friendship Day (30 July). Conducting the Internet-united ensemble was Singapore’s Wong Kah Chun (or Kahchun Wong as he is known internationally), winner of the Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition and Chief Conductor of the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra.


 

In what is possibly mankind’s darkest hour of the new millennium, besieged by the Covid-19 global pandemic, Wong’s “universal musical kampong” delivered a heartwarming message. “Alle Menschen Werden Bruder”, or All People Become Brothers, was Friedrich Schiller’s clarion call of 1785, which became Beethoven’s personal credo in his final symphony of 1824.

 

All 25 minutes or so of the Ode was performed. Even for those with limited attention spans, it seemed a breeze. The virtual concert hall, with a 360° view of all the performers in socially distanced screens with Wong leading at its centre, was a marvel of modern innovation and technology.

 

The opening outburst and low string declamations suggested a world in primordial chaos, and the visual was that of Wong conducting within a fiery sea of lava and rising steam. With each measure of Beethoven’s iconic melody, each player was introduced in a puff of smoke, until a revolving wall of humanity surrounded the maestro. Disorder had given way to a semblance of form.


 

Then it was bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee’s declaration of O Freunde (O Friends), a coming together of peoples, leading into the greenery of Beethoven Im Garten, Wong and Singapore German Embassy’s shared vision of bringing Beethoven to the masses. A celestial band of angel-winged players (providing unusually comic moments) accompanied tenor Gerard Schneider for the Turkish march episode before the tutti chorus’ glorious statement of the big tune.


 

With hundreds, possibly a thousand faces appearing onscreen for the first time, this was the proverbial “lump in the throat” moment, sending shocks of frisson coursing down the spine. The choral fugue was accompanied by four staves in German (with English transliterations), each corresponding to a SATB (soprano alto tenor bass) voice part, a nifty concept that hinted of karaoke inspirations at play.


 

The ensemble was then transported into a smart pencil-drawn 3-D representation of Esplanade Concert Hall before closing with a coda in the clouds, all players being united for the final time. With excellent recorded sound and crystal clear visuals, Beethoven 360° was a truly memorable and immersive experience to savoured over and over. 




Watch it here:


Monday, 20 July 2020

POULENC'S LA VOIX HUMAINE / Review



POULENC’S LA VOIX HUMAINE
Jennifer Lien, Soprano 
Shane Thio, Piano
Ivan Heng, Director
Streamed on the Internet @ SISTIC Live
Saturday (18 July 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 20 July 2020 with the title "Home-grown rendition of The Human Voice a rare gem".

Until the embargo of live concerts is lifted post-circuit breaker, music lovers will have to be content with pre-recorded digital concerts. Presented by the Singapore Symphony Group in its Victoria Concert Hall Presents series, this 2018 production of Francis Poulenc’s single-act, single-singer chamber opera La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice), first streamed last weekend, was a rare gem.


Performed before a live audience, its plot involved Elle (the generic “She” in French) in a final conversation with her former lover. Central to the 1958 opera, adapted from playwright Jean Cocteau’s 1928 script, was the telephone, a modern convenience and prop that was supposed to figure prominently throughout.


Wrong numbers, crossed connections and inept telephone operators were comedic elements in the serious melodrama. However, in director Ivan Heng’s conception, that physical means of communication was totally expunged. This allowed protagonist Elle the freedom of movement, to wander about onstage and sing without impediment.

The telephone’s only hint was a long red cord tightly wound around the grand piano on which pianist Shane Thio played. Also absent was Elle’s faithless lover, although his insidious presence might be inferred in furtive onscreen projections and Thio’s sockless red sneakers.   


Enlivening the anguished Elle was USA-based Singaporean soprano Jennifer Lien, whose monologue was a tour de force of lyrical and dramatic role-play. The former Business Times journalist turned operatic diva was fully immersed in the multi-faceted part and emoted brilliantly in idiomatic French (with the audience well served by English transliterations).


Through the opera’s compact 40 minutes, she brilliantly lived through Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. Shifting effortlessly between denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, she often mixed these up in an intoxicating melange of fraught and barely-contained emotions. With hysterical outbursts alternating with episodes of lucidity, this was a multi-layered and grandstanding performance.


Poulenc’s music was unremittingly tonal, but liberally laced with dissonances and abrupt figurations. Lien flitted through recitative and outright song, where a penchant for sentimentality was revealed, albeit briefly. There was a short waltz-song sequence midway through, with a cascade of falling pills projected behind the performer. This was more than an allusion to a drug-induced fit of pique, also fortified by a well-placed bottle of liquor.


Whatever was Elle’s fate (suicide by overdose, gunshot or strangulation by telephone cord) became immaterial by the opera’s passionate but lyrical close. All that remained were the frenzied circumstances and states of mind that led to her fateful (and ultimately fatal) decisions. In short, The Human Voice was an in-depth treatise of the human condition, fragile psyche, warts and all. That it was captured with such trenchancy speaks volumes of all the artists involved.       



Tuesday, 14 July 2020

SSO 2020/21 SEASON OPENING CONCERT / Review



SSO SEASON OPENING CONCERT
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Streamed on the Internet @ SISTIC Live
Saturday 11 July 2020

This review was published in The Straits Times on 14 July 2020 with the title "Moving orchestral performance an optimistic sign of SSO's future".

In a Covid-19-free alternative universe, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra would have given its first concert under newly introduced Chief Conductor Hans Graf this evening at Esplanade Concert Hall. In reality, the opening concert of the 2020-21 season was instead a stay-at-home event under current circut-breaker and social distancing rules.

Nonetheless, electronic tickets were issued on a pay-as-you-wish basis. There was even a glossily produced digital programme booklet complete with full programme notes and all the trimmings to accompany the viewing experience.


The concert’s main event was a reliving of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony in B minor, also known as the “Pathetique”, recorded on 17 January this year. That evening was incidentally the Austrian maestro Graf’s first concert after being named as Shui Lan’s successor at the orchestra’s helm.

Despite being the Russian’s bleakest and most depressing work (premiered in 1893 just a week before his untimely death), Graf’s vision was one of clear-headedness, steering clear of a surfeit of histrionics and hysteria.

By no means undemonstrative, the opening movement’s theme of pathos from the strings came across as sufficiently weepy, and the furious fugato that interrupted the catharsis was a jolt to the senses. The slow movement’s waltz was guileless and bittersweet, with Christian Schioler’s insistent timpani taps providing hints of underlying menace to come.


The unrelenting march of the Scherzo was a crescendo of true vehemence, with an inexorability that was gripping, almost to the point of suffocation. There was a smattering of uneasy applause at its conclusion. In between movements, there were also chorus of coughs from an audience not wearing facemasks, a scenario surely to be a thing of the past.


The finale’s descending chordal strings mirrored the opening movement, but now worn down with a genuine desolation. A glimmer of hope offered by the major key in its central section was short-lived, soon descending into despair, depression and doom. This was a truly moving performance, well-captured on video by multiple camera angles with high defination visuals and realistic sound. This might well be a glimpse into the future, a brave new world of SSO music-making under Graf’s inspired direction.


There was also a delicious encore, a performance of the Largo slow movement from J.S.Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins. The soloists were the prodigious 13-year-old Singaporean violinist Chloe Chua and Japan-born, Berlin-based violinist Karen Gomyo, who was originally scheduled to perform at this opening concert. They performed most sympathetically but remotely, partnered by 24 SSO musicians and guest harpsichordist Darrell Ang, all playing from their homes.


While one longed for the real-time live concert experience, modern technology has provided a well-meaning and worthwhile but hopefully temporary surrogate. 


Wednesday, 8 July 2020

CD Review: EVOLUTION by DONALD LAW



EVOLUTION
DONALD LAW, Piano
KNS Classical A/085

Its been several years since a Singaporean pianist produced a recital disc, and Donald Law’s debut album is much welcome amid this Covid-19 pandemic. The award winning pianist who pursued studies at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and London’s Royal College of Music provides an hour-long chronological history of the piano sonata form. Beginning with the late Classical (Beethoven in 1821), following through to the Romantic era (Chopin, 1844), before closing in the early 20th century (Janacek, 1905), this an enthralling musical journey.

Law gives an idiomatic reading of Beethoven’s Sonata No.30 in A flat major (Op.110), the most formal member of his final sonata trilogy. Its lyricism is well-realised, as is the third movement’s sense of pathos. The contrapuntal lines of the fugal finale are delivered with utter clarity, and on this count, I am certain that he will be a convincing Bach player. Only in the folk-flavoured central fast movement does the fast Trio section comes across as being hemmed in by politeness and discipline.


Moving on to Chopin’s Third Sonata in B minor (Op.58), Law has a strong grip of the first movement’s narrative sweep, and omitting the exposition repeat helped. All through the work’s arch lyricism, there is an undercurrent of tragedy and vulnerability that pervades, and this is best heard in the Largo third movement. If there were any music to compliment the gaunt and haunted look of the consumptive Chopin’s famous daguerreotype of 1849, this would be it. Law shapes this with much sympathy and understated beauty. While the etude-like second movement could have been more mercurial, the finale’s Rondo romp is delivered with a sure-headed and often thrilling inexorability.     

Arguably the best performance comes in Leos Janacek’s two-movement Sonata 1.X.1905 (“From The Street”), prompted by the murder of a worker in a street demonstration. Besides covering all the notes, Law gets to the dark heart and soul of this disturbing work. From its brooding opening movement (Presentiment) through an arch-like progression to its violent climax (Death), the canvas is filled with myriad shades and nuances of grey amid stark black and white musical imagery. A third movement had been discarded by the composer, but this “unfinished” torso stands, like a life cruelly interrupted, a masterpiece completed by its bleak finality.

With this excellent recital disc, Donald Law announces himself as a true artist and major new voice in Singapore’s classical music scene.

This recital may be enjoyed at:

Spotify:

Amazon:

Apple Music: 

Monday, 29 June 2020

ART + LIVE / RESONATES WITH ALBERT TIU / Review




ART + LIVE / 
RESONATES WITH
ALBERT TIU Piano Recital
National Gallery Facebook Live
Saturday (27 June 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 30 June 2020 with the title "Sustenance for the soul delivered with deft fingerwork".

Singapore is slowly but surely coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic circuit breaker period. Live concerts with live audiences have yet to commence, so online concerts have become a godsend. The concerts presented by the National Gallery bring to mind London’s National Gallery recitals organised by Dame Myra Hess during the Blitz years. Those were a morale-boosting salve for a populace under siege, albeit of a different kind.

Singapore-based Filipino pianist Albert Tiu’s recital, dedicated to Singapore’s healthcare workers, was conceived as a response to artworks by Liu Kang and Chia Yu Chian. Playing on a Shigeru Kawai grand piano from his living room, Tiu opened with a short prelude, the Happy Birthday song in the style of a Chopin waltz.


Three of Liu Kang’s Studies Of A Nurse, simple pencil sketches, prefaced slow movements from famous piano concertos. In these he skilfully wove solo piano parts with orchestral accompaniment so as to be seamless performances. First of these came from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23, a melancholic aria in F sharp minor in the gentle rhythmic lilt of a sicilienne. Deeply reflective and almost tragic in countenance, the music simply tugged at the heartstrings.


The spirit of Mozart lingered in the slow movement from Frenchman Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. It is an elegant slow waltz which one wished could go on forever. Its textures and harmonies gradually get complex to a point Tiu begins simulating three hands at play.


The right hand’s piano filigree, the left thumb’s melodic line (singing a woodwind tune) in tandem with accompanying harmonies from the other fingers was an intricate and delicate juggling act. It was also fascinating to view these sleights of hand from a video camera’s overhead perspective. Through all this he maintained utmost composure and poise, with nary a note nor beat out of place.


Packing in even more notes was the slow movement of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, the only major work dedicated to a psychiatrist. The Russian composer had recovered from depression and writer’s block, having been rehabilitated by hypnotherapy and auto-suggestion, and this was his unforgettable gift in return.


Chia Yu Chian’s painting The Treatment was the inspiration for this selection, which found glorious fruition in Tiu’s hands. Its brooding and slow-building passion was to culminate in a rollicking cadenza and harmonious chords, signifying that even during the darkest hours, a cure was at hand and thus the impetus to carry on living. 



The recital closed with a short encore, reveling in the ecstatic throes of the 18th Variation from Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody On A Theme Of Paganini. Amid the ongoing debate of an artist’s value in society, one thing is certain. Artists provide beauty, nourishment and sustenance for the soul, constantly reminding us what being human is all about.    




You can view the video here:

https://youtu.be/IMPet9Sq8rI

Monday, 15 June 2020

CONCORDIA QUARTET @ HOME / Review



CONCORDIA QUARTET @ HOME
Streamed Live on the Internet
Friday (12 June 2020) 

This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 June 2020 with the title "Hurdles aplenty, but quartet's first online concert a success."
  
The Concordia Quartet, Singapore’s latest professional chamber group, made its debut in February  at the Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre (Funan Centre) to critical acclaim. Its second public concert was another first, a live performance by four musicians on the Internet, separated physically by Covid-19 circuit breaker and social distancing rules.

Its players, violinists Edward Tan and Kim Kyu Ri, violist Matthias Oestringer and cellist Theophilus Tan, never had face-to-face rehearsals for this concert. Instead, they played from their own living rooms, united by nifty technology, employing the Jamulus audio software, high-tech headsets and microphones, and the ubiquitous Zoom app for visual cues.


Its audience was alerted via social media, and tuned into Youtube for the concert experience. While it seemed a surreal experience attending a concert remotely, one was spared of extraneous distractions like rustling programmes, fidgety children, and worst of all, coughs and sniffles.

Concordia’s programme was a compact one, just under half an hour of music, boosted by a question-and-answer session hosted by technical controller and Resound Collective’s founder Mervin Beng. These precious few minutes were however hard earned, given the logistical hurdles to overcome, but paid off handsomely.

There was a false start at the beginning with Mozart’s Divertimento in D major (K.136) which was quickly remedied. As there was a lag phase between visual and aural inputs for the musicians, it seemed a miracle they even came together at all. All that will be down to hard work getting used to the medium and how professional musicians adapt to each other’s music-making.    

Like in a jazz combo, a three-count from first violinist Tan was needed to start the music flowing, when a nod of the head used to suffice. The issue of balance surfaced for a short while in the lively opening movement, when accompanying low strings sounded over-emphatic but that was also corrected. The slow movement was lovingly coaxed, while the fast finale which necessitated pin-point accuracy was driven to a breathless close.

This was what viewers got to see at home.

Judging by positive live comments from its audience, this experiment was going to be a success. The heart of the concert belonged to Russian nationalist composer Alexander Borodin’s Second String Quartet. While some hoped to hear its popular and melancolic Notturno, the more meaty opening movement was performed instead.

By now, the quartet had more than warmed up and wearing heart on sleeve, this ultra-Romantic music’s passionate throes were milked for all its worth. For the online listener, this was as good as it gets. As a short encore, the world premiere of young local composer Jonathan Shin’s highly idiomatic arrangement of the Beatles hit-song Eleanor Rigby was the icing on the cake. Judging by positive live comments from its audience, this experiment was a success.

While live concerts witnessed by a live audience in a concert hall will not die an ignominious death, could online concerts such as this be a regular feature of the new normal?

You can view the video here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k14_9OQX4zA

Monday, 16 March 2020

THE GENTEEL HORN OF MR HAN / Singapore Sy,phony Orchestra / Review



THE GENTEEL HORN OF MR HAN
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (13 March 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 March 2020 with the title "Awe-inspiring romp as SSO French-hornist says goodbye".

The Singapore Symphony Orchestra has reached an age when long-serving musicians have begun to retire. Earlier this year, it bade farewell to veteran Leader, violinist Lynnette Seah. This evening, Principal French hornist Han Chang Chou, popularly known as Han Xiao Guang, said goodbye. Of his 41 years as a professional musician, 33 were spent with the SSO.


In August, he returns to his homeland China to teach at the Tianjin Juilliard School. His parting gift was a performance of Mozart’s Second Horn Concerto, ironically receiving its belated SSO premiere. Perhaps that speaks of the orchestra’s relative neglect of Classical era repertoire, but its redress was an invigorating outing with Han firmly in control.


Just last week, he confidently blew away the treacherously exposed repeated solo horn passages in Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. This evening revealed a more sensitive side to his virtuosity, and that sonority that spelt mellow nobility. Eschewing outward display for its own sake, he was a figure of unwavering steadfastness and unflappable calm.

In the aria-like slow movement, his seamless singing tone reminded that much of Mozart’s lyricism was inspired by opera. In the Rondo finale, close sibling to that of the Fourth Horn Concerto, his agility to jump through assorted musical hoops proved to be a most enjoyable romp. An awe-inspiring one too, judging by the hearty applause that greeted its end.

Judging by the smiles, Mr Han
is well-loved by the orchestra.

The Mozart was sandwiched between two contrasted suites inspired by Moliere’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Would-Be Gentleman), both local premieres by chamber-sized forces conducted by Darrell Ang. This was inspired programming for the 75-minute concert which had no intermission.

Opening was the Overture and Dances from Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lully’s accompanying music of 1670. Here was actual baroque music but performed on modern instruments in Ang’s own edition. The Overture was a French overture, a form comprising a syncopated opening section leading into a fugue.

Note the presence of the harpsichord and theorbo.

The music was crisply articulated with three dances that followed courtly and charming. The Turkish  influences (then trending in Western Europe) were graced by a small battery of percussion, and concessions to authenticity were provided by Shane Thio’s harpsichord and Christopher Clarke’s theorbo (an antique long-necked lute).   

Richard Strauss’ Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme suite from 1920 concluded the concert. Here was an example of neoclassicism, where modern composers relived old forms and styles with contemporary means. Its nine short movements were tuneful and tasteful, mostly accomplished by small groups of instruments, and often festooned with solo flourishes.   

Returning as guest concertmaster, Lynnette Seah and her violin worked tirelessly, while Jon Paul Dante’s trumpet added gloss to the showy movements. Shane Thio now commanded the piano as the music danced to a more modern beat. By the final movement, The Dinner, tutti forces resounded like one of Strauss’ classic scores, Don Juan or Don Quixote. Such is the magic of chamber-sized orchestras.

Judging by the smiles, Darrell Ang
and the orchestra had a good time!

Monday, 9 March 2020

PHILIPPE QUINT: THE RED VIOLIN / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review



PHILIPPE QUINT: THE RED VIOLIN
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Thursday (5 March 2020)

This review was published in Bachtrack on 9 March 2020 with the title "Litton, Quint and the Singapore Symphony provide light at the end of the tunnel".

The Covid-19 virus crisis has hit the world hard, and Singapore is short of going into complete shutdown. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra has, however, bravely continued its subscription concerts, bringing semblance of normality and much-needed cheer to the beleaguered city-state. Healthcare and public transport workers were granted free admission to this concert of 20th century music.

Led by SSO Principal Guest Conductor Andrew Litton, the evening opened with the high energy of Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, the 1956 operetta based on Voltaire’s satirical novella. Filled with Rossinian wit, champagne bubbles fizzed and sparks flew in its brief duration, bringing a smile to even the most jaded soul. It was simply the best start in the best of all possible worlds.

Smile turned into frown for John Corigliano’s The Red Violin, the four-movement violin concerto crafted from music for the 1997 movie directed by Francois Girard. Tragedy and tribulation follows the three-hundred-year journey of the violin varnished with blood from the luthier’s late wife Anna. Anna’s theme, wistful and melancholic, appears in the opening Chaconne and returns like an apparition in the ensuing three movements.


The grim introduction, carried by growling brass and bassoon, was gripping in intensity, heralding Russia-born American violinist Philippe Quint’s entry. The virtuosic solo part, highly characterised and fantasy-driven, found a perfect soulmate in Quint’s artistry. The 17-minute-long Chaconne (often performed as a stand-alone concert piece), while not strictly a baroque chaconne, was just the vehicle of moving pathos. The music was dirge-like in parts and escalated exorably to an explosive finish, representing the cruel hand of Fate and ultimately Death.

Quint revelled in ethereal and otherworldly pianissimo effects of the mercurial Scherzo, while some lyrical respite was provided by warm ensemble strings in the slow third movement. Through all of this, the spectre of Anna’s theme hovered ominously, continuing into the breakneck Accelerando finale. This was a hell-for-leather chase between violin and orchestra to its violently percussive close. Quint’s 1708 “Ruby” Stradivarius had become the living embodiment of the titular red violin in this ultimately depressing work. His encore was something else, a perfectly voiced take on Charlie Chaplin’s most popular melody, Smile from the movie Modern Times.  

It was back to darkness with a commanding performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony by the SSO. It was after the death of Stalin when this darkest of Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies saw light of day. From subterranean rumbles by low strings in the first movement, Litton coaxed from the orchestra one great arch of sound. The mysterious opening was broken by the lone voice of Ma Yue’s clarinet solo. Further solos from flautist Jin Ta, bassoonist Christoph Wichert and oboist Rachel Walker helped define its progression to a mighty climax, culminating with deafening brass and percussion.


Soon after the movement closed with just two piccolos, the second movement’s juggernaut was unleashed. This was a four-minute-long portrait of Stalinist malevolance and pure evil, its savagery heightened by Jonathan Fox’s snare drum. The third movement’s autobiographical agenda was underlined by the DSCH motif (D, E flat, C, B natural, spelling the composer’s initials in German), later insistently bandied about in a demented waltz. This was countered by another repeated motif (representing a sometime love interest) from Han Chang Chou’s French horn.

The apparent tug-of-war would resolve in the finale, which came like light at the end of a tunnel. This was a roller-coaster of mood and emotion, first reliving the opening movement’s doom and gloom, and later lapsing into actual satire and comedy. The tongue-in-cheek was resolutely defended, with pin-point and precise timing of punch lines, firmly driven by conductor Litton’s mini leaps into the air. The cheer that greeted its close was noisy and tumultuous. Trust Shostakovich (and music itself) to wangle out from a difficult situation some wry smiles.     

Star Rating: *****

This review was reproduced here with the kind permission of Bachtrack. Photographs by the kind permission of Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Monday, 17 February 2020

ROMANTIC SCHUMANN / KUN WOO PAIK Piano Recital / Review



ROMANTIC SCHUMANN
KUN-WOO PAIK Piano Recital
Victoria Concert Hall
Friday (14 February 2020)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 February 2020 with the title "Schumann afresh".

There has been no composer with a more tumultuous life than Robert Schumann (1810-1856). The epithet Romantic wholly applies to the German, whose love life, trials and tribulations was often stranger than fiction. That was the basis for celebrated Korean pianist Kun-Woo Paik’s all-Schumann recital, fortuitously held on what today’s romantics know as Valentine’s Day.

Even the fear of Covid-19 virus transmission did not deter a sizeable audience (including many Koreans) from witnessing Paik’s marvellous two-hour long show which was substantially expanded from its original programme. The selection encompassed very early to very late works, familiar pieces and rarities, from the technically simple to ferociously virtuosic, with a multitude of nuances captured within.


Schumann’s very first opus was Abegg Variations (Op.1), based on the five notes in the name of an early romantic interest. Encumbered with the fussy filigree which obsessed early Romantic composers, Paik easily overcame relentless note-churning without losing the thrust of its melodic interest. Equally note-laden was his Toccata (Op.7), a notorious finger-twister which could have easily descended into vacuous machine-gun rapid fire. Again, his prodigious fingers were fully in service of the music.  

Between the barnstorming were five Album Leaves from Bunte Blätter (Colourful Leaves, Op.99), character pieces traversing varied moods and shades of disposition. The first, which famously became the theme for Brahms’ Schumann Variations, was a study of calm and melancholy. Turbulence, geniality and pensivity followed before the set closed with hymn-like lyricism.

By now, one would have discerned that Schumann was a miniaturist non pareil, and the entire recital consisted of suites with multiple short movements. Waldeszenen (Forest Scenes, Op.82) comprised nine such pieces, exploring a world of woodland rusticity and mysticism. It was the latter that found most traction in Verrufene Stelle (Haunted Place) and Vogel Als Prophet (The Prophet Bird), slow numbers which were quietly haunting.


The two most frequently-heard works were Arabeske (Op.18) and Papillons (Op.2), which can often be tainted with over-familiarity. Not so, in Paik’s case. With multiple and quixotic shifts in dynamics and mood in both, surprises may be expected in each and every turn. These he negotiated with a sense of wonder and fantasy, such that the music always sounded fresh and newly minted.

This sense of discovery applied to the least familiar works, Fantasiestücke (Fantasy Pieces, Op.111) and Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn, Op.133), conceived near the close of Schumann’s tragic life which ended in an insane asylum. The former were championed in concert by the great Vladimir Horowitz during his late years, and Paik’s view was every bit as vivid.


The latter are elusive and cryptic, but he unlocked their secrets through a near-seamless emotional arc spanning all possible cerebral and visceral experiences. His encore was a continuation of this poetic and lyrical bent: the Aria slow movement from Schumann’s First Sonata (Op.11), dedicated to his beloved Clara, whom he later married. Such is the measure of a true artist.