Friday, 19 February 2016


PHILIP FOWKE Piano Recital
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory 
Orchestral Hall
Wednesday (17 February 2016)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 19 February 2016 with the title "The encore makes or breaks the concert".

The most anticipated moment of a concert can sometimes take place after the event itself, when the performer chooses to perform encores. Selecting what to play can  make or break a recital, as veteran British concert pianist Philip Fowke explained in his hour-long lecture-recital at the Conservatory.

This is a stratagem of performance psychology that may redeem a recital that has not gone as well as an artist had intended, and often turns an audience from an indifferent one into something far more positive. It is also the “art of the miniature”, as short and rarely heard morsels of music sometimes by little-known or forgotten pianist-composers are served like after-dinner mints.

When was the last time anyone heard in performance Ignace Paderewski’s Minuet in G major? This used to be an extremely popular and regularly-played piece, one which the pianist-turned-President of Poland resented for its sheer ubiquity. In Fowke’s hands, it was a charming and unpretentious little gem that has its obligatory flashy bits.

Next came two Lyric Pieces by Edvard Grieg, the gently rocking rhythm and ravishing harmonies of Melodie (Op.47 No.3) contrasted with the flitting skittish swirls of Butterfly (Op.43 No.1). Of a more barnstorming nature was Erno Dohnanyi’s Rhapsody in C major (Op.11 No.3), which delighted in big chords and that grandstanding melody at its centre.

Fowke also presented a couple of his own transcriptions. From Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker, the Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy highlighted the celesta’s tinkling sonority, one achieved with cunning pedal-work, and the athletic romp that is the Trepak (Russian Dance).

Fowke’s journey back in time also revealed his vintage, including mention of 78 rpm shellac discs, piano rolls, player-pianos and a salute to two late pianist friends of his, Eileen Joyce and Shura Cherkassky, themselves legendary practitioners of the encore.

Ever obscure was the Waltz in A major by the Ukrainian Mischa Levitzki, its salon appeal enhanced by highlighting hidden inner melodies magically voiced by the left thumb. This was balanced by Christian Sinding's solitary hit single, Rustle Of Spring, with gentle murmurs overshadowing its more virtuosic flourishes.

Pride of place went to two pieces by Billy Mayerl, sometimes known as the British Gershwin. Song Of The Fir Tree, based on a Swedish folksong, first heard straight and later in a bluesy swing, as if transformed by a swig of scotch. His signature tune Marigold exuded much lilting gaiety, with ragtime taking a teasing turn on The Strand.

Fowke's final two pieces are justly celebrated, Moskowski's scintillating Etincelles (Sparks), a Horowitz favourite which is a study in staccato, and Chopin's familiar Heroic Polonaise (Op.53). In the latter, how he managed to evince pathos and melancholy amid the thundering octaves made this reading a memorable one. The perfect encore is one which makes one crave for more, and Fowke had just seriously whetted everybody's appetite.

Philip Fowke with his former students
from London's Trinity College:
the Conservatory's Jenny Ang & Yun from Korea. 

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