Wednesday, 6 September 2017


Esplanade Recital Studio
Monday (4 September 2017)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 6 September 2017 with the title "Taking on a dynamic range of Liszt".

Imagine coming on stage to give an all-Liszt recital and not knowing what pieces are to be performed. That was the quandary facing American pianist Steven Spooner, who had offered five lists of piano works by the virtuoso Hungarian pianist-composer for the audience to vote on before the concert was to begin.

Comprising mostly young people and their parents, the audience probably had the good sense of shunning the half-hour-long Sonata in B minor, instead opting for Franz Liszt's song transcriptions, Transcendental Études and Hungarian Rhapsodies. Despite being mostly shorter pieces to accomodate shorter concentration spans, it was still a daunting prospect.

One of Liszt's legacies was to promote the music of less celebrated colleagues by transcribing their songs as piano solos for performance. Spooner began with one selection apiece from Schubert's three great song-cycles. In Wohin? (from Die Schöne Müllerin) and Ständchen (Schwanengesang), he found a mellifluous singing line, with the echoing voices of the latter being a particular treat. These were contrasted with the seemingly optimistic galloping rhythm of Die Post (Winterreise), a song bearing false hope.

Liszt's filigreed take on Chopin's Maiden's Wish called for nimble fingers while the gift of romantic love in Schumann's Widmung (Dedication) was gratefully consummated in sweeping arpeggios and emphatic chords. Leaving the most difficult for the last, Schubert's Erlkönig only promised tetanic spasms from the right hand's repeated octaves with the left hand's octaves scrambling to keep up. The sense of desperation, of a father's plight in rescuing a sick child, was palpable, but unlike the song's plot, the performance did not end in tragedy.

Two of twelve Transcendental Etudes also gave a sense of breadth and depth that was Liszt's art. Preludio (No.1), just a minute long, was a warming up exercise for Harmonies du soir (No.11), a glorious paean to the riches of chordal piano writing.

Even the two Hungarian Rhapsodies performed were not familiar favourites. Some listeners might remember the great French pianist Cyprien Katsaris polishing off Hungarian Rhapsody No.5 some years ago, a funeral procession that carried the title Heröide-Elégiaque (Heroic Elegy).

Its lugubriousness was tempered by a central section of rare Chopinesque lyricism, and Spooner's reading showed that this rather than the oft-performed Funerailles might have been Liszt's true tribute to Chopin. More Magyar in spirit was the Hungarian Rhapsody No.13, and with Vladimir Horowitz's swashbuckling additions, Spooner raised the decibel level and lifted the roof off the piano.    

With the noisy audience enthused, Spooner's encore of Liszt rarely-heard Rienzi Paraphrase, using themes from Wagner's early opera, was another work that tested the Steinway's dynamic limits. To proved that utmost sensitivity was also an attribute of complete pianism, Chopin's melancholic Mazurka in A minor (Op.17 No.4) provided a sublime and quiet end to an otherwise stormy evening. 

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