Tuesday, 26 October 2010


Sofya Gulyak & Jinsang Lee, Piano
University Cultural Centre
Sunday (24 October 2010)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 26 October 2010)

This bicentenary celebration of piano music by Frederic Chopin and Robert Schumann, both composers born in the year 1810, turned out to be a three-hour long marathon. In the company of two of the planet’s brightest young piano talents, hours passed like minutes.

The Russian Sofya Gulyak was the first woman to win top prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2009. She proved her mettle in Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto in F minor (Op.21) and Schumann’s Carnaval (Op.9). The former was accompanied in the chamber transcription by Uruguayan composer Carlos Levin, played by a string quintet formed by the National University of Singapore’s Centre for the Arts.

The quintet’s balance of experience and youth proved a mixed blessing, and the amplification of strings was not necessarily to their advantage. Ensemble was often ragged, staying in tune was a struggle and the first violin’s intonation often straying excruciatingly off pitch. It was Gulyak’s indomitable personality and musicality that held the work together, her sense of drive and cantabile admirable, aided by faultless fingerwork.

Left on her own in the Schumann, the composer’s dual personalities of Florestan and Eusebius were given full rein, exulting in passionate outbursts and gentle pleadings. The lead up to the final march and closing climax was thrilling edge-of-the-seat stuff, with all caution thrown to the winds.

The Korean Jinsang Lee, winner of the 2008 Hong Kong International Piano Competition, brilliantly combined the visceral with the cerebral. Instead of launching into Schumann’s Fantasie in C major (Op.17), he warmed up with Beethoven’s song cycle An Die Ferne Geliebte (To The Distant Beloved) in Liszt’s transcription. There was good reason to this impromptu inclusion, as the final Beethoven melody was quoted in the Schumann, its déjà vu appearance lent a moment of magical nostalgia.

The balance of the work was no less fine, with fearsome octave leaps at the end of the second movement overcome with stunning aplomb, and the finale’s rapturous musings and valedictory big tune finding a sympathetic conclusion.

Closing the memorable evening was Chopin’s First Piano Concerto in E minor (Op.11). The quintet acquitted itself far better in this outing, leading to a more cohesive and satisfying performance all round. Lee’s understated virtuosity was matched by his lyrical facilities, and it may be said that the fragile genius of Chopin and Schumann were more than well served.
The Joy of Chopin & Schumann was part of the NUS Centre for the Arts' ExxonMobil Campus Concert series, and proudly supported by The Chopin Society of Hong Kong.

No comments: