Tuesday, 6 August 2013

EVOCATIONS / KHOO HUI LING Piano Recital / Review

KHOO HUI LING Piano Recital
Esplanade Recital Studio
Sunday (4 August 2013)

There are some young local pianists whom I have been tracking over the years. Khoo Hui Ling is one of them. She played at the first SSO Music Marathon in 1998 at the age of ten, and I heard her perform at the 2005 National Piano Competition. In a competition where there were a lot of youngsters furiously banging out the Hammerklavier, she stood out with her musicality in “smaller” works by Bach, Debussy and Haydn. She was awarded an Honorary Mention in the Senior Category of the concours. Later at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory, she won the Piano Concerto Competition with a stunning account of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, a performance of much flair and outright exuberance.

Now a student at the University of Oregon, her homecoming recital presented by the Kris Foundation was another show of great musicality in a variety of repertoire. She began with two contrasting Scarlatti Sonatas, bringing out a very refined and crystalline sound. The first in A minor (K.54) was slow but fluid in its articulation, and the D major (K.96) or La Chasse (The Chase) revelled in its crisp staccato and rapid repeated notes.

Beethoven’s Sonata in D major (Op.28), the Pastoral, is not often heard these days, probably because it isn’t serious or probing as some of the others. A pity, as its delicious and homespun quaintness can be a delight under the right hands. Hui Ling brought out its jocular humour and deliberately foursquare rhythms well, the bagpipe-like drones in the first and fourth movements, contrasted with the droll procession of the second movement, and the clippity-clop rhythm and surprising pauses of silence in the brief but humorous Scherzo. Beethoven obviously knew when a joke outlasted its intended effect, and when to stop.

The second half was another display of contrasts by works of a particular composer. Debussy was represented by his prélude Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir (Sounds and Scents Mingle in the Evening Air) from Book One and L’isle joyeuse. Listen how just the right amount of pedalling can make a little piece sound atmospheric and hazy in the former, and how a little restraint can prevent the trills and rhythmic figures of the latter from being deluged with a wave of over-indulged murkiness. While the voyage to the mystical isle of Cythera was rumbling with effulgence, one could have hoped for its ecstatic climax to be further milked, but there was still much to enjoy in this outing.

Two contrasting faces of Chopin were well-illustrated in two Mazurkas from Op.17 and the dramatic First Ballade in G minor (Op.23). I can’t quite figure out why the famous A minor Mazurka (Op.17 No.4) is called “The Little Jew” in Hui Ling’s little speech before she played, but I can guess it has to do with the melancholic quality of the sighing motif, a falling minor third, which colours this little gem. While the short Polish dances evinced quiet contentment and simplicity, all the stops were pulled for the Ballade, which displayed lyricism and violence to equal measure. The fearsome coda was launched with great vehemence, and employing minimal pedalling the final page with its upward sweep of scales came across almost cut and dried. I would have enjoyed just a tad more resonance, but I respect her choice to make the finale as stark and strident as possible.

Strident would be the apt description of Aaron Copland’s El Salon Mexico, in a transcription by the young Leonard Bernstein. Hui Ling has a penchant for American music, and here it is in all its glory with Latin romances and a drunken barroom brawl rolled into one musical canvas. She looked like she really was having a good time in this piece, the music punctuated with that big cluster-stamp on the bass for grand effect. And when the last one arrived, she stood up, put all her weight and gave it one thumping whack, to close the work on a rowdy high.

Her encore was a Chopin Mazurka, a subtle way to end a recital, making one look forward to more from this fine musician.

Khoo Hui Ling with her patron Kris Tan,
founder of the Kris Foundation

All photos courtesy of Chrisppics+

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