Thursday, 27 November 2008

Sa Chen Piano Recital (Huayi Chinese Festival 2007): Review

Huayi Chinese Festival

Esplanade Concert Hall
Sunday (4 March 2007)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 8 March 2007.

Sa Chen has been named (by Fou Ts'ong) along with Lang Lang and Li Yundi as being the three most important Chinese pianists of the new generation. Her debut recital in Singapore suggests that she might even be the most exciting of the triumvirate.

Eschewing Lang's trademark mannerisms, Chen tops Li's technical brilliance by having that element of the personal human touch. She sports a girlish charm and winsome smile that immediately wins an audience. And she goes on to charm with a keyboard touch that radiates a wide palette of colours, and is both warm and whole-hearted.

Hers is not the cold, clinical, pugilistic kind of virtuosity that characterises today's piano competition winners. Some of her notes are fallible but these do not come in the way of poetically expressing the storms and stresses of Beethoven's Tempest Sonata (Op.31 No.2) alternating between restless agitation and uneasy calm.
Romantic repertoire is clearly her forté. In a handful of Chopin Waltzes often considered student fodder, she marries propulsive drive, a graceful lilt with just the right touch of rubato. Seldom have the hackneyed pair of Opus 64 waltzes (including the infamous "Minute" Waltz) sounded this fresh and untainted. In the broader canvas of the Polonaise-Fantasy Op.61, she never allowed the often-elaborate figurations and narrative asides get the better of the underlying rhythmic pulse, admirably holding this demanding masterpiece together.

If there were a faint hint of reticence in the first half of the programme, all the stops were pulled in the second. Four pieces from Flowers and Paintings by Young Chinese pianist-composer Wang Xiaohan (bom 1980, and who shared the same piano professor as Chen, that is Arie Vardi) displayed an eclectic smorgasbord of 20th century Chinese keyboard styles. Musical mimicry of Chinese instruments and influences of Debussy, Messiaen, Bartok, Ginastera, Cowell, you name it, were breathtakingly blended in these atmospheric tone poems in miniature.
Chen's repeated note technique was put to the test in Isaac Albeniz's El Corpus en Sevilla (from Iberia), a heady Spanish festival procession that spewed fireworks and penitence in equal quantum. Passing with flying colours, the grand finale remained in Iberia with Franz Liszt's even more fearsome Spanish Rhapsody.

Here no technical hurdle seemed beyond the reach of Chen's fingers, and despite the requisite barnstorming, there was nary a single harsh, ugly or missed note. Effortless pianism on ten fingers may be commonplace these days, but it is the heart and soul of an artist that make "live" recitals such as this one well worth attending.

No comments: