Thursday, 9 March 2017


Yong Siew Toh Conservatory
Tuesday (7 March 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 9 March 2017 with the title "Evening of unexpected harmonic twists".

It now seems inconceivable that any piano piece by Mozart or Beethoven be heard in concert on anything other than a grand piano. Almost all keyboard music from the late 18th century to early 19th century were conceived on smaller and limited instruments without steel strings. The 9-foot behemoth had yet to be a twinkle in the pianomaker's eye till much later.

German pianist Rolf-Dieter Arens, rector of the Franz Liszt Music Hochschule in Weimar, thus crafted his Mozart with the above in mind despite playing on a modern Steinway. The Sonata in B flat major (K.570) was crisply articulated, with minimal use of pedal yet bringing out a singing tone above myriad figurations. The hymn-like slow movement was lovingly voiced, highlighting its lingering beauty, while the finale sparkled wittily, delighting in unexpected harmonic twists.

This similar thread continued with two shorter pieces, the joyous Rondo in D major (K.485) with yet more surprises up his sleeve, and Fantasie in D minor (K.397). The latter's free form (as opposed to sonata form) began like an improvisation, then worked its way from plain seriousness to final jollity. Only Mozart could countenance such stark emotional shifts, which Arens did well to bring out.

Beethoven's famous Moonlight Sonata has its title Sonata quasi una Fantasia, which means “Sonata like a fantasy”. That explains why its dreamily familiar 1st movement is unique, unlike any other sonata movement.

For this, Arens stepped on two pedals to deliver its soft liquidy wash of sound, lifting his right foot only intermittently with changes in harmonies. The central movement's country dance had lilt and charm, while the finale's maelstrom was given a dry touch, helping to realise its threat of agitation and potential violence.

The recital's second half opened with the rarely-heard Polonaise in B flat major by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Mozart's most famous student. This note-spinner straddled both classical and romantic sensibilities, its unashamedly florid introduction leading to an even more unbuttoned dance in Polish rhythm. Arens' no holds-barred approach made for a refreshing change, the piece fully living up to its nickname La Bella Capricciosa or The Capricious Beauty.

For a Liszt specialist residing in Weimar, the Hungarian pianist-composer's music was sine qua non. Arens offered three pieces from the Third Book of Years of Pilgrimage. The well-known Les Jeux d'eau à la Villa d'Este (Fountains of Villa d'Este) came through heavy weather, building up to a gushing climax without subtler gradations of plumbing in between.

More satisfying was the first of two threnodies titled Aux Cypres de la Villa d'Este, where dark shades painting towering cypresses were served with stark octaves and heavy chords portending death. Following this, Sursum Corda (Lift Up Your Hearts) with its angelus of bells brought the recital to a resounding and life-affirming close.

Two encores further sweetened the deal: Liszt's lyrical Impromptu and the Prelude in B minor of J.S.Bach sublimely dressed up by Liszt's Russian student, Alexander Siloti. 

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