Tuesday, 12 June 2018

DANG THAI SON Piano Recital / 25th Singapore International Piano Festival / Review

DANG THAI SON Piano Recital
25th Singapore International Piano Festival
Victoria Concert Hall
Sunday (10 June 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 12 June 2018 with the title "Heartfelt piano pieces with a singing quality".

Of the six artists showcased in this year's Singapore International Piano Festival (SIPF), only one had performed in Singapore previously. Vietnamese pianist Dang Thai Son, first prizewinner of the 1980 Chopin International Piano Competition, played a solo recital in 1990 and more recently partnered the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in concertos by Chopin and Grieg in 2010 and 2011.

His SIPF debut presented music close to his heart, works that bring out a singing quality, coloured by no little pathos. Schubert's Allegretto in C minor, the opener, was such a piece. An innate feeling of pensiveness was immediately brought out in its bare plaint with notes a parallel octave apart. It even sounded slow despite its “a little less fast” designation, but never plodded.

The shifts from minor to major key provided some variation, but the heartfelt grief was only dispelled by Schubert's 12 German Dances (D.790). These landler or little three-quarter time dances are homespun and rustic, but would later gain respectability as waltzes by Chopin, Brahms, Liszt and most notably Johann Strauss' family. Dang's performance was lively and true to the music's gift of simplicity.

Chopin had to be on the programme, and Dang obliged with the Barcarolle Op.60 and Second Scherzo Op.31, two very well-contrasted works. The Venetian gondolier's song revealed a loving cantabile accompanied by a gently rocking rhythm, while in the latter, quickfire responses and volcanic volatility. Even in the loudest of passages, Dang never resorted to banging in order to project. Such is the mark of true musicianship.

Another quality is the curiosity to explore less well-trodden repertoire. To this end, Dang included five short pieces by pianist-composer Ignace Paderewski, the supervirtuoso and latter-day popstar who became Poland's prime minister after the First World War. The influence of Chopin was inescapable in the Melodie and Legend (from Op.16), and the Krakowiak (from Op.5), a folkdance related to the better known mazurka.

Salon charm exuded in the playing, even if these were not top-drawer material. Ten-year-olds would have mustered the ability of playing Paderewski's Menuet Antique in G major (Op.14 No.1) but they would certainly not possess Dang's suaveness or svelteness. Best of all is the Nocturne in B flat major (Op.16 No.4), a gem of understated beauty that could not have sounded more beautiful.

Franz Liszt's Reminiscences de Norma, based on themes from Vincenzo Bellini's bel canto opera Norma, closed the programme proper. It might have appeared that Dang was holding back all this while, before letting loose on this outsized transcription-paraphrase. Less vulgar than the same composer's Reminiscences de Don Juan, it nevertheless proved a showstopper in Dang's magisterial control and finely-honed fingers.

Again he made the instrument sing, but also supplied the high octane fuel to make this virtuoso vehicle work. Both his two encores were by Chopin, naturally. The Waltz in A minor (Op.34 No.2) and Mazurka in F minor (Op.7 No.3) were a soothing balm for the ears. 

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