Thursday, 26 March 2009

Azariah Tan's Debut Solo Recital in 2007: A Night of 400 Years / Review

28 February 2007, NUS Theatrette

This review first appeared in The Flying Inkpot in 2007.

At the last National Piano and Violin Competition in December 2005, one pianist had caught my attention, not so much for his virtuosity but his courage. I had written:

Heart-warmer of this morning: Azariah Tan may be hearing-impaired but in Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata (1st movement) and a Chopin nocturne, he outplayed many of his peers. Although he may not make the cut, he’s a thousand times better than those tone-deaf people who auditioned for Singapore Idol. No, make that a million!

No, he did not make it past the quarterfinals, but he did make me sit up and listen. Yes, he did perform with hearing aids on and that - and the playing - was what impressed me. Little that I know that fourteen months later, Azariah was to give his first full-length piano recital.A small but appreciative audience braved the drizzles to hear the sensitive 15-year-old perform. His recital was ambitiously titled A Night of 400 Years, and he played – more or less – in chronological order, from J.S.Bach to Kevin Kern. Prefacing each work with a short chat about the music, it was an engaging way to break the ice.

What characterised Azariah’s playing is a sense of freedom and latitude, not bound by the metronome. This immediately came across in Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No.13 (from Book One of the Well Tempered Clavier), which sounded improvisatory – and almost Romantic - in feel. The crossing lines in the fugue were however very clearly enunciated, satisfyingly closing the piece. Purists – and some teachers - might quibble about his apparent indiscipline at the altar of old Johann Sebastian, but that would have been pedantic.

In the three movements of Haydn’s Sonata No.23 in F major and Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata, his strengths became more palpable. For a young person to discern the stürm und drang of the great masters would have been admirable, but for one with progressive hearing loss to so convincingly carry it out borders close to the miraculous. Azariah’s assured grasp of the sonata form was also a testament to his intelligence in these things. The contrast of the Grave and Allegro molto e con brio sections of the Pathetique’s opening movement were particularly well brought out. While the famous Adagio cantabile plodded on for a bit, the free-flowing Rondo with cheeky touches of rubato made the reading memorable.

Repertoire choice is important and this is where some guidance in programme building would have helped. Azariah chose to play Chopin’s Nocturne in E major Op.62 No.2, which began a little too loudly and he did not have enough dynamic range and variation of tonal colour to follow through. He also seemed overawed in Rachmaninov’s Prélude in C minor Op.23 No.7. Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, in the same key, might have been a better choice.

Moving into the 20th century, Azariah shone in Debussy’s La cathedrale engloutie, which allied power and subtlety in equal degree. Even more impressive: his mercurial handling of Copland’s Scherzo Humoristique: The Cat and the Mouse, which bristled and scampered like no other. This was without the best performance of the evening His ease at repeated notes and keyboard leaps, and wide palette of shades all suggest that he will enjoy discovering much more 20th century music – more Debussy, even Messiaen and Ligeti.
Has there been a greater purveyor of
music cheese than Richard Clayderman?

So ended the “serious” part of the recital. Azariah’s last three offerings were from popular music. His take of Paul Desmond’s Take Five sounded strangely fettered. His free-ranging right hand runs were not matched by a stiff unyielding left hand. Paul de Senneville’s Ballade pour Adeline is without doubt the cheesiest piece of waffle ever conceived for the piano (putting into the shade Badarzewka-Baranowska’s The Maiden’s Prayer forever). No one should ever include it in any recital, ever. Not even its most culpable perpetrator – the colossally mediocre Richard Clayderman (above). At any rate, Azariah played it well, mastering its oh-so-fearsome rising arpeggios, but so what?

Leaving the best for the last, Azariah’s playing of Kevin Kern’s simple Paper Clouds (inspired by Bach’s very first Prelude and Fugue in C major) was simply magical. His feathery light and sensitive touch, coupled with a fine of rhythm would have made the composer proud. There were two encores. Azariah’s handling of the wistfully melancholic Chopin Nocturne in B flat minor Op.9 No.1 more than made up for his earlier Chopin offering, while another Kevin Kern classic – The Enchanted Garden – lived up to its title and closed the recital on a very lyrical note.

Azariah has a very special talent. Even if he does not make music a career (I can think of only one hearing-impaired musician who has made it really big, the phenomenal percussionist Evelyn Glennie), he has what many far more efficient technicians of the keyboard lack – a very high EQ (Emotional Quotient). He will touch the lives of many people with his music wherever he goes.
Update: Azariah Tan is now a student at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

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