Sunday, 3 January 2010

BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata Cycle (NAFA 2008) / Reviews

While waiting for my first review of the new decade, here's a rehash of older reviews not previously published in Pianomania. Let's begin with the Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle from 2008.

Presented by

Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts
& DynamicWorkz (July-Sep 2008)
NAFA Auditorium

The first ever cycle of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas to be performed in Singapore took place in 2008. From July to September, it was spread over a series of ten concerts and shared by twelve local and internationally-based pianists. Due to overseas travel and work commitments, I was only able to attend three recitals in the series. These reviews were published in The Straits Times in August and September 2008.

Recital 3
5 August 2008

The third recital showcased five early sonatas, dating before Beethoven’s so-called “Middle Period”. The sonata which features with any sort of regularity in concert programmes was the “Hunt” Sonata in E flat major (Op.31 No.3), which received an honest, hale and hearty reading from local piano pedagogue Lim Tshui Fang (left).

She was not always note-perfect but brought out the surprising, even ambiguous harmonies in the opening movement, and relived the spirit of the chase in the rambunctious Scherzo. In the pastorale-like Minuet, its declamatory gestures in the music came through well, as did the tarantella rhythms of the vertiginous finale that spun itself to a brilliant end.

Her teacher Patsy Toh (left) of London’s Royal Academy of Music, the “Grand Dame” in this series, was accorded four sonatas, more than any other pianist. The contrasting pair of Op.49, in G minor and G major, are sometimes thought as facile works for beginners, but there was nothing childish in the stylish readings that contrasted pensiveness and gaiety.

The second half presented two sonatas not often heard in concert. The C minor (Op.10 No.1) number highlighted the young Beethoven’s fist-shaking rhetoric, hymn-like musings and a prestissimo finale, which had added elements of misterioso and patetico in Toh’s illuminating performance.

She concluded the recital with the four movements of the A major Sonata (Op.2 No.2), the longest work of the evening. There could have been more vivacity in the first movement, marked Allegro vivace, but the unusually titled Largo appassionato was expansive in its broad and noble strides. Quicksilver reflexes and a feather-light touch distinguished the final two movements, and for a Beethoven recital to end on a quiet and understated note was a touch of the sublime. This Beethoven piano sonata cycle has truly come into its own.

Recital 8
31 August 2008

The business end of Singapore’s first ever Beethoven piano sonata cycle featured the more popular numbers, including those with “nicknames”. Prizewinning Malaysian pianist Foo Mei Yi (left), still in her 20s and youngest member in the series, accounted for three major sonatas, one from each of Beethoven’s three stylistic periods.

The late E major Sonata (Op.109) was curiously juxtaposed with the early A flat major “Funeral March” Sonata (Op.26). It worked particularly well because the successive movements separating both sonatas were sets of variations. The sublime visionary Beethoven followed by the rustic and earthy Beethoven made for a seamless listen, helped by the fact that Foo’s technical mastery was close to flawless.

She judged each work with the maturity of one double her age, and eschewed the temptation to rush headlong into virtuoso mode and let rip. The only exception was in the middle-period E flat major “Les Adieux” Sonata (Op.81a), where her visceral approach to the sorrow of absence and unfettered elation of reunion was totally justified. Her joie de vivre was infectious, and this was not lost to the enthusiastic audience.

Recital 10
5 September 2008

German pianist Valentin Schiedermair (left) certainly has the birthright to play Beethoven. His great-grandfather Ludwig Schiedermair (1876-1957) was, after all, the founder of the Beethoven Archive in Bonn. To the three sonatas he performed, there was an over-arching sense of ownership and occasion – he made each his very own.

Big gestures and orchestra-like textures were brought out in the early E flat major Sonata (Op.7), a symphony for piano that traversed from grandeur to pastoral repose. Has the C major “Waldstein” Sonata (Op.53) ever received a faster and more frenzied reading? Schiedermair’s view was one of constant and unceasing struggle, against the odds of tragedy and impending deafness.

This same vehemence and anger occupied the outer movements of the F minor “Appassionata” Sonata (Op.57), which reaped a whirlwind and concluded the cycle on a high. Politeness, political correctness and prettiness were shown the door and given the boot. In the heat of the moment, it was not note-perfect, but Schiedermair clearly knows what he desires. Beethoven without agony and ecstacy is no longer relevant Beethoven.
N.B. The other pianists who featured in this cycle were Rena Phua, Boris Kraljevic, Ernest Lim, Ng Chong Lim, Albert Tiu, Bobby Chen, Ong Lip Tat and Loo Bang Hean.

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