Sunday, 14 October 2012

THE JOY OF MUSIC FESTIVAL 2012 / JINSANG LEE and the London Chamber Orchestra Strings / Review

JINSANG LEE, Piano with the
London Chamber Orchestra Strings
Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall
Saturday (13 October 2012)

Korean pianist Jinsang Lee, 1st prize winner of the 2008 Hong Kong International Piano Competition, now leads a double life of concert pianist and piano technician. He is presently based in Hamburg, where he works at the Steinway and Sons piano plant on a full-time basis, and gives concerts in his spare time in between. He flew in this morning, had a rehearsal with the LCO chamber group, and is expected to perform this evening, before returning to Germany tomorrow. Is he in any shape to perform?

His recital opened with a selection of Préludes by Rachmaninov and Chopin. I wondered how this would fit in with the three pieces by Estonian spiritualist composer Arvo Pärt that followed. All scepticism was dispelled with the G major Prélude (Op.32 No.5) of Rachmaninov, which he played with a glacial slowness, as if in a trance. When the right melody emerged, it came with the gentle pealing of bells as if from a great distance. I have never heard this number played so deliberately, but with his exemplary pedalling, it has never sounded so beautiful. In fact, I would go on to add that he makes Horowitz sound choppy and agitated. The G sharp minor Prélude (Op.32 No.12) with its repeated right hand arpeggios tolling over the left hand’s lament gave a different perspective of bell sounds.

Then the penny dropped. Lee’s selections were all about tintinnabulation, a procession of bells in the six solo pieces. The four Chopin Préludes (from Op.28) followed in the same vein; No.23 in F major flowed like spring water, the A flat major chorale of No.18 was backed by warm reassuring chords, the brief No.7 in A major was in gentle mazurka rhythm, before closing with the tempest of No.24 in D minor, which ended with the three fateful (and deadly) low Ds.

This is truly inspired programming, which continued with Pärt’s short solo piece Für Alina, a brief sequence of bell-like notes. At once, Romantic effulgence had given way to the spare and lean harmonies of a different era. Although Pärt belongs to the 20th and 21st centuries, his music fondly looked back into the medieval age. Violinist Andrew Haveron then joined Lee for two more Pärt classics, Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror) and Fratres. Both are static, hypnotic minimalist pieces, with minute variations in harmonies and tonal colour stretched over a course of time which make up the music’s main content. Spare arpeggios from the piano define the former; Beethoven himself had a similar idea in the first movement of his Moonlight Sonata. Violin arpeggios and triads, punctured by single piano octaves occupy the latter. I am not exactly crazy about the minimalists, but both Haveron and Lee play with such conviction that and sympathy that it is hard to ignore.  

Jinsang Lee performed the First Piano Quartet (Op.25) of Brahms on his way to winning first prize at the 2008 Hong Kong International Piano Competition. Here was a reprise, not under the microscope of competition but rather in the warm presence of friends. By this stage of the festival, a sizeable number in the audience had plucked up the courage to seat themselves on the stage, far closer to the music making. I had already made this a regular habit; one definitely feels more involved with the music and musicians within sniffing distance. Here, Lee was partnered by violinist Andrew Haveron, violist Joel Hunter and cellist Pierre Doumenge of the London Chamber Orchestra.

This great work may be viewed as Brahms’s first symphony in all but name. The ideas and themes were conceived symphonically but cast modestly as a work for piano and strings. The first movement is a most substantial utterance, rich in textures and a triumph of the sonata form. The mood is sombre but somewhat lightened by the piano’s presence (this is also echoed in the Piano Quintet Op.34), and these contrasts made it an absorbing listen. The tension is continued in the second movement, with a gradual relaxation of weightiness by occasional “lapses” into schmaltz and Lee’s whimsical piano flourish at the end. The hymn-like countenance of the third movement was merely an introduction to a martial episode and its mighty climax. Again the players provided the contrasting themes with body and contour, and one truly feels the tension building up to the big moment.

Note the little boy in the Chelsea FC jersey (left background) has fallen fast asleep in the Brahms.

However all this scarcely prepared one for the furious pace whipped up for the final Rondo alla Ungarese, the most unbuttoned of Brahms’s many Hungarian-flavoured finales. Split-second precision timing defined its frenetic pace with Lee’s flying fingers on the keyboard striding over the string players’ rapidly accelerating dance. The elan in which the players exhibited was simply a joy to behold, culminating with the piano’s cascading cadenza which swept from the top of the keyboard to its depths. The coda was a breathtaking show of togetherness, certainly worthy of a welcome encore. However such musical moments are a wholly spontaneous manifestation of top class musicianship, caught at the spur of the moment. A repeat would be almost anti-climactic, because one already knows what to expect.

What can one hope for in The Joy of Music Festival 2013? Another feast of great music and great playing beckons.
Glenn Gould's piano technician Verne Edquist asks Jinsang Lee, "You want to be a piano tuner when you can play like thisss?"

Jinsang has a legion of female fans!
The Joy of Music Festival is presented by The Chopin Society of Hong Kong.

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