Wednesday, 17 August 2011

RAKH-MANIA! / NICHOLAS HO Piano Recital / Review

NICHOLAS HO Piano Recital
NUS High School Auditorium
Monday (15 August 2011)

An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 17 August 2011 with the title "Musical soul needs taming".

Prodigiously talented young musicians are common these days. It is difficult to avoid them without missing real gems in the making. Curiosity is piqued when a recital takes place not at the School of the Arts, but at the National University of Singapore High School of Mathematics and Science.

Nicholas Ho majors in Chemistry but hopes to study at New York’s Juilliard School of Music. Such lofty ambitions can only be boosted by a daunting recital programme that this audacious 18-year-old has devised.

He chose to open with five virtuosic studies, beginning with Ligeti’s terrifying Der Zauberlehling (The Sorceror’s Apprentice). One is immediately struck by his facility and crisply articulated repeated notes, flying across the keyboard like magic power. Far less satisfying were Chopin’s C sharp minor Étude (Op.10 No.4) and Debussy’s Étude No.5 (For The Octaves), where obsession with speed and volume clouded any semblance of nuance or clarity.

Liszt’s Transcendental Étude No.10 was similarly dispatched with ultimate bravura in mind, poetry being left in the dust far behind. Only in Scriabin’s C sharp minor Étude (Op.42 No.5) was an attempt being made to delve into the music’s inner soul. In between, Schubert’s G flat major Impromptu provided lyrical respite, but even this sounded impatient. It is hoped he has yet to obtain his driving licence.

Ho also performed two pieces on the violin (below), his secondary instrument. A thin flaky sound in under-rehearsed readings of a Handelian movement and Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, accompanied by his teacher Tedd Joselson on piano, suggested which instrument was his true love.

To close was Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata in B flat minor (Op.36), in a rarely performed edition by Vladimir Horowitz (combining both 1913 and 1931 versions). Ho clearly revels in this music, which brought a surfeit of feral instincts and emotional excess, not reciprocated by the bland, constricted sound of the hall’s Yamaha grand.

He could do with less of extraneous effect, including a theatrical gesturing of the hand and gasp of ecstasy upon conquering a particularly difficult cadenza passage. There were some lovely and reflective moments, but the assault on its finale, with all the intricate detail lost at high speed, was all a blur.

The last of three encores offered, Scriabin’s Nocturne in D flat major (Op.9 No.2, above) for the left hand, demonstrated that deep beneath all the raw edges and youthful exuberance, a musical soul resides. May he, with patience and introspection, rediscover that muse.

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