Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Geoffrey Saba Piano Recital: Beethoven's Last Three Sonatas

Piano Recital
University Cultural Centre
29 August 2008

This review first appeared in The Straits Times on 1 September 2008

"When it rains, its pours" so they say. Not a reference to Singapore weather but how musical events seem to cluster together. Right smack in Singapore's first Beethoven piano sonata cycle at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts was yet a further Beethoven recital presented by another education institution (the National University of Singapore’s Centre for the Arts), featuring the last three Sonatas of the great German. The interloper was the Australian-born pianist London-based Geoffrey Saba.

Performed without interval, there was a natural flow to the trilogy that was both logical and spontaneous. Beginning with the Sonata No.30 in E major (Op. 109), poetry issued forth from Saba's hands. His was not an over-analysed, over-calculated reading, often encountered in competitions or student recitals, but one that suggested a lifelong experience and struggle with the inner messages of Beethoven. Knowing when to surge forward and then hold back was part of the game, and the contrasts in the three movements were well brought out. Nostalgia was emoted in the theme and variations finale, notably with the reappearance of the E major theme, which provided some magical moments.

Between each sonata, a selection of Beethoven's letters dating 1821-23 were read, and acted out by Mark Sim, an NUS chemical engineering student. Although not a theatre major, he successfully brought out the composer's angst, which centred not so much on musical matters but the mundane - publisher's whims, proofreading woes and money worries.

While the Sonata No.31 in A flat major (Op. 110) juxtaposed lyricism with legendary temperament, the static calm of the third movement proved the most gripping. The concluding fugue and its inversion displayed clarity but was dogged by lapses towards the end. Nobody's perfect, not even Schnabel. Especially Schnabel. The ultimate Sonata No.32 in C minor (Op.111), with its abrupt and tonally ambiguous opening, received arguably the best performance. Saba was fully in tune with Beethoven's fist-shaking and sabre-rattling rhetoric, and the valedictory final movement - another set of variations - exhibited his full gamut of dynamics. That this epic cycle of 32 sonatas ends quietly, on a harmonious C major chord, speaks volumes. All is well in the world.
Footnote: Geoffrey Saba gave the Singapore premiere of Bartok's Piano Concerto No.1 with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Choo Hoey in the late 1980s, and his last recital here in 1989 featured Liszt Sonata in B minor.

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