Sunday, 25 August 2013

LAURA PEH Harp Recital / Review

Esplanade Recital Studio
Friday (23 August 2013)

Piano and violin recitals are fairly rare occurrences in Singapore, so what more a harp recital? Of course there are concerts by the indefatigable Katryna Tan and her lovely I-Sis Trio, and the HarpFest (also organised by Katryna), but beyond that, a harp recital is a positive rarity. So there is cause for celebration when a teenager takes up that challenge. 19-year-old Laura Peh, a student of Katryna, is the first Singaporean to be accepted as a harp student at the famed Paris Conservatory. She has been there for two years and studies with Isabelle Perrin.

Straight off, let me say that this serious-looking and thoughtful young lady is a wonderful musician with the makings of a true artist to come. Her 70-minute programme was varied and interesting, even though there was a preponderance of music from the 20th century and France in particular. Although the harp has existed since biblical times, harp repertoire truly took wing in the 19th century, and it was the French and Belgians who led that renaissance. I am no expert in this area, but Laura’s very encouraging performance made me wish I were.

Laura Peh is a figure of grace and concentration.
(Photograph by courtesy of Katryna Tan)

She began with the music of Bach, a transcription of his Lute Suite in E minor (BWV.996), which begins with a French overture followed by a series of ancient dances. She gave a very spirited display of the fast movements, contrasted with the aria-like Sarabande which breathed an air of elegance. 

Then came three French works. Jacques de la Presle (1888-1969) is a new name for me. His Le jardin moulle (The Wet Garden) has the same impressionist colourings as Debussy’s more famous scores, and the use of the whole tone scale gave it that exotic feel. The pitter patter of the rain as suggested by the music was on a whole gentler than the windswept pages of Debussy’s Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain), just to compare two pieces on a similar subject. The music reached an impassioned climax before closing quietly.

Laura, performing completely from memory, was confident and sensitive throughout. This continued into the more modern Bamyan by Philippe Hersant (born 1948), inspired by the stark Afghan landscape and Buddha statues destroyed by the Taleban (the inbred mongrels). Here she adopted a different sound palette for its mysterious and more desolate (but still tonal) idiom. Its quiet opening was contrasted with a more dramatic and starkly surprise close.

The stage was shared with excellent young flautist Cheryl Lim for Bernard AndrĂ©s’s Narthex, which presented this euphonious combination in a series of linked musical tableaux inspired by biblical sculpture in French cathedrals. Special effects were employed in this work, requiring Laura to use the tuning key to slide down the tuning pins, hitting the wood of the harp, rattling a tuning fork against the strings and the like. She seemed to produce these items at will, reaching behind her with a conjuror’s sleight of hand. Cheryl, for her part produced a curious glissando by sliding a finger through the flute’s head joint, which sounded like some lascivious wolf whistle. This is a curious but entertaining work to say the least, one which has some currency, as it will be heard again later this week at Jin Ta and Gulnara Mashurova’s recital at the Conservatory.

The programme was completed by Hindemith’s three-movement Sonata (more melodious than one would have expected from this master of musical astringency), Heinz Holliger’s Sequenzen uber Johannes I,32 (the only truly atonal work in the concert, one requiring the services of a screwdriver) and Ekaterina Walter-Kuhne’s Fantasy on Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The last has the same music and sequence as the Paul Pabst Fantasy for the piano, with the main focus on the Waltz and Lensky’s Aria, but without the magical sequence uniting the two melodies. It is a sparkling work of great virtuosity, one in which taxed Laura to the fullest of her abilities. There were some awkward moments with the widely spread chords of the Waltz, which almost came unstuck at one point, but she ultimately held the work together to close the recital on a high.

Laura Peh does not stun you with flashy showmanship, but moves one by her musicianship and sincerity, which are far more enduring qualities. She is still young, and will undoubtedly go on to further heights in the long road that is being a professional musician. She has accomplished much for her tender years, and the sky’s the limit for one who shows dedication to her art. I look forward to hearing more of her in the near future.     

Note: According to the Singapore Harp Society, Laura Peh is the first Singaporean to give a solo harp recital in Singapore. (Katryna Tan, her teacher, was born in Malaysia but is now a Singapore permanent resident.)

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