Saturday, 13 October 2012

THE JOY OF MUSIC FESTIVAL 2012 / GIUSEPPE ANDALORO and London Chamber Orchestra Strings / Review

London Chamber Orchestra Strings
Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall
Friday (12 October 2012)
Concerts featuring the piano at The Joy of Music Festival over the years follow a distinct format – a short solo recital followed by chamber music. The pianists are invariably first prize winners of the Hong Kong International Piano Competition or members of its jury. This year’s concerts brought back the three first prize winners, with the most recent victor Giuseppe Andaloro (from the 2011 competition) giving the most unusual of recital programmes.

The unorthodox juxtaposition of Baroque and 20th century music suggests a whiff of Glenn Gould, but there is method behind the madness that unites Frescobaldi with Gershwin. Being Italian, Andaloro decided to devote the first part of his recital to works inspired by the La Follia (or La Folia) theme. Its origins come from Spain (hence La Folies d’Espagne or The Follies of Spain) or South America, but we know it through the music of Vivaldi, Corelli, Liszt (Rapsodie Espagnole) and Rachmaninov (Corelli Variations). Frescobaldi’s Partita sopra l’aria di Follia uses an earlier version of the theme, and Andaloro applies the most delicate of touches to its procession of fine filigree. It’s a fussy little piece, full of decorative flourishes and grace notes, and he makes it sound as if coming from a harpsichord. Pasquini’s Partite diverse di Follia, now based on the more familiar D minor La Folia theme, is a more traditional set of variations. In Handel’s Suite in D minor, the theme appears as a graceful Sarabande. Andaloro’s refined approach on the piano make those piano versus harpsichord debates irrelevant.

Variations are what these baroque pieces have in common with what we call 20th century jazz. Even Morton Gould’s Boogie Woogie Etude, a favourite encore of Shura Cherkassky, is composed of micro-variations over an ostinato bass, in this case the infectious boogie woogie beat. Andaloro simply rocked. In the Three Preludes by George Gershwin, an incisively rhythmic beat defined the outer pieces which sandwiched the famous Blues number. Here, Andaloro took many liberties by varying the syncopations and later adding a little ornamental doodle of his own. I am sure GG would not have minded. Turkish pianist-composer Fazil Say’s outrageous Paganini Jazz, an improvisation on that ubiquitous Caprice No.24, completed this jazz outing.

As a tribute to the host nation, Andaloro closed with Abram Chasins’s Three Chinese Pieces. These are as authentic as the likes of Fu Manchu, Ming the Merciless through Western eyes and Sir Peter Ustinov playing Charlie Chan. A Shanghai Tragedy and Flirtation in a Chinese Garden contained all the clich├ęs of the Far East thought possible, and ending with the ching-chong chinoiserie of Rush Hour in Hong Kong (another Cherkassky favourite). Andaloro played these most sympathetically and got the rush hour part of Des Voeux Road Central spot on. 

The second half’s chamber music began with Rachmaninov’s single-movement First Piano Trio in G minor, an early work heavily indebted to his mentor Tchaikovsky. The brooding opening theme, first heard on the piano, could only have come from a Russian. It is one of those melodies or romances (rather laments) founded on grief and tragedy, and Rachmaninov toils at it like a work horse, only relieved by a second, soaring theme on the violin. Without outstaying its welcome, it closes with a pall of doom and gloom and unfathomable darkness. This is not vintage Rach, but wearing his heart on his sleeve, this clearly states his inclinations and how later works would turn out. This rare performance was well brought out by Andaloro and his string partners, violinist Andrew Haveron and cellist Pierre Doumenge. Could we get to hear the Second Trio Elegiaque in D minor in a future festival?

Also in a similar vein was Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, also in G minor, with violist Joel Hunter and cellist Pierre Doumenge joining in. It begins like a neo-Bachian Prelude and Fugue, updated in the Soviet’s acerbic colours and trade-in-stock dissonance. Andaloro’s opening piano solo, heralded by a fortissimo G minor chord, served like a declamatory statement, and from the first measure, the performance was a gripping one that went for the jugular and never let go. The rather substantial fugue opened in hushed tones, raptly delivered by muted strings, and the movement ambled from strains of beauty to mounting screeching discords and a massive climax. The big chord from the piano returned, but it isn’t in the home key of G minor! Shostakovich was indeed a master of surprises.

The Scherzo, returning to G minor, was anarchic and subversive in thought and deed. Cryptic messages abound but what were these? Without further pondering, the slow movement, pensive and meditative as Shostakovich’s passacaglias tend to be, seemed to provide some respite in its deep and dark funereal repose. The finale, instead of offering solutions, was unexpectedly light and even cheery. But this is the irony that a composer in Stalin’s repressive regime has to live with, grinning from ear to ear but concealing a veil of masked scowls. The quintet played it straight, po-faced but in the face of the strings’ comic responses towards the end, could not truly suppress the music’s true nature.

For this listener, this trenchantly delivered performance, with its wide-ranging plethora of emotions, surpasses the last outing of the Shostakovich Quintet at the 2006 festival, helmed by the late Russian virtuoso Vladimir Krainev and another group of LCO string players. That’s saying quite a lot. 

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