Wednesday, 16 September 2009

RACHEL CHEUNG Piano Recital @ The Joy of Music Festival 2006 / Review

Rachel Cheung has just been awarded the 5th Prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition 2009. She made history by being the first pianist from Hong Kong to reach the final of this competition. Here is the review of her solo piano recital in 2006 which I wrote for The Flying Inkpot.

@ The Joy of Music Festival 2006
14 December 2006
Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall

The Joy of Music. What a great and totally appropriate name for a music festival! TJOM is a 10-day piano-cum-chamber music festival organised by The Chopin Society of Hong Kong, the very same people who inspired the first Hong Kong International Piano Competition held in September 2005. Ambitious, all-encompassing, eclectic and inspirational were just some adjectives that came to mind to describe the scope of this very commendable enterprise that attempted to inject some culture and sanity in a metropolis trapped in the frenzied throes of festive shopping and hyper-commercialisation.

My healthy dose of pre-Christmas musical sustenance began with a solo recital by Hong Kong’s pre-eminent young pianist, 15-year-old Rachel Cheung. She was the 1st prizewinner of the Gina Bachauer Junior Artists Piano Competition in 2004, and her photograph was splashed on the pages of International Piano. In 2005, she also became the youngest pianist ever to give a solo recital at the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Was she up to all the hype? Yes, very much so. With a confident stage demeanor, impeccable deportment and totally winning musicianship, Rachel could be described as every piano teacher’s dream.

Beginning her recital with Mozart, the Fantasia in C minor K.396 was characterised more by the polish of the playing rather than sheer interpretive insight. It was more Romantically inclined, with generous use of the sostenuto pedal and not a little rubato. And she does not shy away from making a big sound. The Sonata in D major K.576, Mozart’s last, highlighted a fine and fluid technique that found her most comfortable with the running notes in the outer movements. The song-like slow movement “flowed like oil”, but and she could have done more to vary her tonal colour as her well-spun notes remained on much a single plane. It is said that Mozart Sonatas are too easy for amateurs but too difficult for professionals, and Rachel has just about crossed that threshold.

Her Liszt selection posed some questions of balance. Benediction de Dieu dans la solitude (from Harmonies poetiques et religieuses) is one of Liszt’s greatest and most sublime works. In this lush slow extended movement, her right hand filigree was just about ideal, maintaining a finest pianissimo possible while the left hand baritone melody struggled – in vain – against sounding stodgy. Although she managed to bring the work to an impassioned climax, the overall impression was a mixed one. Perhaps she is not totally ready for this piece. The great Claudio Arrau also had similar problems in his recording, so Rachel is in good company.

No ifs or buts in the Two Concert Études, the second of which – Gnomenreigen - received a totally stupendous performance. Staccatissimo e scherzandissimo, Rachel’s goblins are of the supersonic kind, progenitors of the wildest and naughtiest antics, and capable of leaping over Victoria Harbour and IFC 2 (HK's tallest building) in a single bound. I cannot possibly imagine it being better played.
Rachel Cheung with her teacher
Eleanor Wong (right) and Annarosa Taddei.
(Photo taken in December 2007)

The second half showed the same promise. In Schubert’s Three Pieces (Drei Klavierstücke, D.946), she alternated between muscular, big-boned playing and lyrical beauty of the cantabile kind, with all the contrasts well brought out. In the third piece, there was drama and humour, suggesting that she is fully immersed in and has a full measure of Schubert’s idiom. More of the same please.
The obligatory Chopin included Four Mazurkas Op.24, which despite their beguiling simplicity, housed a world of nostalgia and deep-seated emotions. “Cannons in flowers” was Schumann’s aphorism and Rachel did much to reveal their melancholy, mystery and a muted kind of playfulness. The large work, Ballade No.4 in F minor (Op.52), however felt too deliberate. Refusing to go headlong into rapturous elaborations of the main theme, Rachel remained on a slow boil throughout until the climactic three chords just before the tumultuous coda. Unfortunately the tightly wound-up spring had gotten loose and the desired impact had slipped away. She has no problems technically with the piece, but will need to work on its delivery. Like a good stand-up comic, always keep the audience hooked on your story and later slay them with a totally wicked punchline.

The recital proper ended with Poulenc’s Trois Pieces (composer pictured left). Her dreamily impressionistic vision of the languorous Pastorale suggested she might revel in Szymanowski, while the triumphant chords of the Hymne pointed to her probably having heard and enjoyed Poulenc’s Gloria (If not, she ought to!). But it was the sewing-machine prestidigitations of the Toccata that seemed to impress the most – there is hardly any technical difficulty that fazes Rachel – even if the memories of Vladimir Horowitz or Pascal Rogé are not effaced.
There were two encores: a ubiquitous Chinese melody (Autumn Moon on a Calm Lake) and more sewing machine music - Poulenc’s Mouvement perpetuel No.1 - played with the keen spirit and verve that distinguishes the young.
Rachel Cheung is by no means a finished artist. And that is the good news. Her teacher Eleanor Wong is doing a fine, fine job. She will – with the further guidance, inspiration and in her own time – grow and further develop as a musician. The sky’s the limit for her, so it would be a total pleasure to witness her again in three to five years.
Rachel Cheung's début solo recital CD will be issued on the Alpha Omega Music label in October 2009.

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