Wednesday, 22 September 2021

NO TENORS ALLOWED / Lirica Arts / Review




NO TENORS ALLOWED

Lirica Arts

Victoria Concert Hall

Sunday (19 September 2021)


This review was published in The Straits Times on 22 September 2021

 

The cheeky title marking the debut of newly-formed opera society Lirica Arts plays on the fact that tenors often steal the show in operas. Not this evening, they don’t, as the 90-minute concert centred wholly on duets for soprano and baritone.

 

Tenors usually portray heroes, while deeper-voiced baritones mostly play jealous rivals, fatherly and avuncular sorts, pitiable buffoons or outright villains. The soprano-baritone duet, while less glamourous, are often more complex and multi-layered. These still pack in emotional heft as amply demonstrated by soprano Teng Xiang Ting and baritone Martin Ng. Both singers are already  veterans having helmed pivotal roles despite their relative youth, and their experience showed.

 

Opening the show was Ng singing Tonio’s disclaimer in the Prologue of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, advising listeners that the stage mirrors life, with lines of distinction often blurred. There was no accompanying orchestra but pianist Beatrice Lin’s contribution was so good that none was needed. Shridhar Mani, a most engaging host, filled in the intrigues between the genders.




 

A spirit of levity occupied duets from two comic operas. In Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Ng’s Malatesta plots subterfuge by getting Teng’s Norina to impersonate a woman of virtue in Pronto Io Son! In Dunque Io Son, Tu Non Mi Inganni from Rossini’s The Barber Of Seville, Teng’s Rosina is abetted by Ng’s Barber to have a tryst. In both instances, the chicanery involved revealed an instinctual and playful chemistry between the two.



 

Teng is the more expressive and better actor, her brightly ringing voice always a pleasure to behold. She was matched by Ng’s more stoic demeanor, whose steadfastness became a pillar of strength throughout. When the ante was upped in more serious duets, dramatics were also ratcheted accordingly, especially in the evening’s lengthiest duet.

 

Pura Siccome Un’Angelo was the focal point in Act II of Verdi’s La Traviata. The consumptive demi-monde Violetta’s act of self sacrifice following her lover’s father Germont’s pleas was angst-filled yet intensely lyrical, leaving the listener chastened and saddened on her behalf.



 

Two further bleeding chunks confirmed that duets could also lead to fatal consequences. Silvio! A Quest’iora from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci was a follow up to the concert’s prologue. The love that united Nedda and Silvio was an illicit one. Their ardent proclamations, although realistic and lovingly voiced, provided brief bliss but concealed ill fates.  

 

The over-protective relationship between father and daughter in Verdi’s Rigoletto was fleshed out in Tutte Le Feste Al Tempio...Si Vendetta!, which had some of the evening’s most moving music. Regret and rage were conflicting emotions displayed by Teng and Ng respectively, the pair oblivious to the tragedy to follow.




 

Superb singing, enhanced by Tang Xinxin’s no nonsense direction, Theresa Chan’s evocative costumes and Zennie Casann’s effective make-up, laid bare the human emotions and frailties to be found in opera. One only wished the programme’s printed libretto and transliterations, rendered almost unreadable in dim lighting, were replaced by projected surtitles instead. Nonetheless, this was a fine first splash for Singapore’s newest opera company.   




Thursday, 16 September 2021

VIVALDI'S FOUR SEASONS / Red Dot Baroque / Review




VIVALDI’S FOUR SEASONS

Red Dot Baroque

Esplanade Recital Studio

Thursday (9 September 2021)


This review was published in The Straits Times on 15 September 2021 with the title "Red Dot Baroque evokes the seasons' wonders with Vivaldi concertos".

 

One question is asked about attending live concerts during a Covid pandemic: Why bother, since there are many commercial recordings are available, not to mention ubiquitous YouTube videos? Red Dot Baroque, Singapore’s first professional period instrument ensemble, provided the best possible riposte in four concerts devoted to the Italian baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi.

 

The nine-member ensemble attempted to relive actual sounds heard in an intimate chamber setting some three hundred years ago. This was neither a big band with modern steel-stringed instruments found on many recordings, nor a common-garden string quartet surrounded by hundreds of candles, which at best simulate a musical experience.

 

Red Dot Baroque looks, feels and sounds like the real thing. Four violins, viola, cello, bass supported by theorbo (a long-necked lute) and harpsichord created a sound unlike any other, once heard and not easily forgotten.

 

The concert opened vibrantly with the short Concerto Alla Rustica. Cellist Leslie Tan established a sturdy rhythm to which violins entered in unison, a show of solidarity after which they would go on their own separate paths. There was a clue in the brief slow movement when disparate instruments were highlighted in short individual phrases.



 

Before long, the concert’s main work, the four violin concertos that make up Vivaldi’s Four Seasons took centrestage but with a difference. The oft-quoted sonnets by Vivaldi were replaced by newly commissioned poetry from locally-based philologist Sara Florian. Her clever verses, combining Venetian and Singaporean elements, preceded each of the seasons. It was interesting to hear words like Supertree, kopi-O, Pulau Tekong and kampong in the mix, but that did little to influence the music’s course.

 

The solos were shared by four violinists, beginning with Brenda Koh in Spring. It was clear from the outset that each soloist would not stick strictly to the written score, with free ornamentation and improvisation being encouraged. Hers was also a leisurely stroll in May, far cry from the frenetic versions most are accustomed to. While these liberties may not do in CD recordings, it however came across freshly-minted and with much immediacy when heard live.

 

Gabriel Lee had arguably the most virtuosic role in Summer, with mimicry of buzzing insects and a tempestuous rainstorm. In between these natural phenomena were also moments of bleakness and solitude which he captured most intuitively. Placida Ho’s account of Autumn saw a punch-drunk peasant slurring and stumbling, with hiccoughs simulated on her violin. This was musical imagery laid on thick with a shovel, as were the startling dissonances revealed in the slow movement.



 

Finally, Red Dot Baroque founder Alan Choo completed the journey with a happiest possible interpretation of Winter. Gone was the icy snowfall, replaced by the reassuring warmth of a fireplace. He is an artist who knows only joy whenever he performs, and this infectiousness rubbed  off on his entire ensemble. So why do we attend live concerts? In concerts, joy - an all-too-precious commodity - can be found in abundance.    


Photos by Moonrise, with courtesy of Red Dot Baroque. 

Monday, 13 September 2021

SILVER AGE / Daniil Trifonov / Review




SILVER AGE

Daniil Trifonov, Piano

Mariinsky Orchestra

Valery Gergiev

DG 483 5331 (2 CDs)

 

The “Silver Age” was used by impresario Sergei Diaghilev referring to an epoch of musical activity in Russia that lasted from the death of Tchaikovsky to the rise and entrenchment of Soviet socialist realism. That period of creative efflorescence spanned some thirty years, from the mid-1890s through the fin de siecle and First World War to the late 1920s. Prize-winning Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, having served Rachmaninov’s music (mostly the piano concertos) well on Deutsche Grammophon, now turns his attention to the piano works of Scriabin, Stravinsky and Prokofiev.   

 

In the notes, he describes “an increasingly fractured, social, political and intellectual environment – a cocktail of different artistic expressions, in agitated interaction.” This handsome double album has a convenient dichotomy: solo works fill up the first disc while concertos occupy the second. The formula works pretty well for continuous listening except for issues of chronology.


Great Russians:
Scriabin, Stravinsky & Prokofiev

 

Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) was a Chopin devotee before turning into a self-styled mystic and messianic spiritualist. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) began as the folksy disciple of Rimsky-Korsakov, later espousing primitivism (for The Rite of Spring) and neoclassicism. Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was the enfant terrible of modernism but eventually settled down to an appeasing lyricism during the Stalin years. Trifonov, for reasons best known to him, somehow gets these dates jumbled up.

 

The first disc opens and closes with Stravinsky. However one first gets to hear his neoclassical phase with the Serenade in A (1925), a four-movement suite based on antique forms. Its polite sensibilities are however rocked by Prokofiev’s five Sarcasms Op.17 (1912-14), music from his iconoclastic phase, deliberately grotesque and provocative as one can get. Then its a thirty year leap forward to his Sonata No.8 in B flat major (1944), the most lyrical (albeit its fair share of barbed wire and gunfire) of his “War Trilogy” and the dainty Gavotte from the ballet Cinderella (1940-44). Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1910) as transcribed by Guido Agosti makes a suitably sonorous end to the recital, but should this have been the Prokofiev sonata instead? Make no mistake, Trifonov performs these varied works, despite stylistic differences and quirks, to the manner born.



 

In a logical and natural progession of things, Scriabin’s youthful Piano Concerto in F sharp major (1896), with its Chopinist musings, ought to precede Prokofiev’s brooding yet swashbuckling Piano Concerto No.2 (1913, reconstructed 1923) with Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka (1911) as sandwich filling. From a listener’s stand point, that should have been ideal, but Trifonov however reverses the sequence, opening with Prokofiev before going back in time to Scriabin. In doing so, he seems to be reclaiming the nostalgia of the pre-Bolshevik revolution era, by turning his back on decadance to witness the last hurrah of lush Romanticism.

 

It is interesting to note that both concertos have not been particularly well-served by DG over the decades. For the Scriabin, there is only the eccentric Antol Ugorski (remember him?) with Pierre Boulez from the late 90s. Trifonov is preferable here. For the Prokofiev, which has enjoyed a renaissance at the turn of the millennium, Trifonov’s rivals are two Chinese pianists: Yundi Li (with Seiji Ozawa) and Yuja Wang (with Gustavo Dudamel). Wang edges this contest simply because her reading generates the greatest excitement.

 

Make no mistake, Trifonov double-disc album is a worthy addition to any pianophile’s library. He is a commanding artist in his native repertoire, but do have a programming facility ready on your disc player to enjoy the music in a chronological and historically-informed sequence. 

Friday, 10 September 2021

ROMANTIC PIANO ENCORES / KENNETH HAMILTON, Piano / Review




ROMANTIC PIANO ENCORES

KENNETH HAMILTON, Piano

Prima Facie PFCD160

TT: 74’46”

 

It is no great secret that for many people, the favourite part of a piano recital takes place at the end when the pianist begins to perform encores. Encores are an invaluable part of the concert experience, offering additional insight to a performer’s artistic personality besides being delicious little bonbons to send the audience home happy.

 

Encores have become so important that the Sydney International Piano Competition now includes a mandatory segment for the performance of encores during its preliminary and final rounds. The choice of encores with respect to recital programmes also determines the competitor’s overall success in the eyes of the jury.

 

Scottish pianist Kenneth Hamilton’s generous album of encores encompasses both the familiar/popular and obscure/little-played, from miniatures to truly substantial pieces. Many are transcriptions or paraphrases, but there are also several original pieces. Already well-known are the Schumann-Liszt Widmung, Bach-Siloti Prelude in B minor, Tchaikovsky-Rachmaninov Lullaby and Percy Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry, all played with eloquence and idiomatic flair.

 

Several surprises take the form of popular melodies from unexpected sources. J.S.Bach’s flute Siciliano as transcribed by Alkan does not sound all that different from the familiar Kempff. It certainly is not unkempt, pardon the bad pun. Saint-Saëns’ The Swan as reconceived by Lawrence Glover (late Scottish pianist, former teacher of Hamilton’s) is unfussy and straight, shorn of all Godowskyan filigree. It is believed that this is a World Premiere recording.


Original works include Elgar’s In Smyrna (a less-than-exotic look at Turkey), Grainger’s Colonial Song (close cousin to his Londonderry Air) and Paderewski’s splendidly un-Chopinesque Nocturne.    

 

Kenneth Hamilton
pondering what to play next.

Among the longer encores, there is a rare airing for Mendelssohn’s Fantasy on The Last Rose of Summer, a virtuosic set of variations on the same Irish melody heard in Friedrich von Flotow’s opera Martha. Also of operatic origin is Grainger’s Ramble on the Love Duet from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, and has there been a more cumbersome title (other than Schulz-Evler’s Arabesques on Johann Strauss II’s On The Beautiful Blue Danube) than this? The Ramble on Love (for short) receives a tender and perfumed reading that deserves many listens.

 

The two Johann Strauss waltz tributes are also the lengthiest pieces on show. Voices of Spring (Frühlingsstimmen) by Ignaz Friedman is perhaps less well-known as Alfred Grünfeld’s, but is an extended and elaborate affair, more a fantasy than mere transcription. Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Artist’s Life (Künstlerleben), besides being quite a mouthful, is the most complex and gloriously polyphonic of the lot. Hamilton takes two minutes longer than Earl Wild’s famous 1960s recording but he is no slouch. The decadently insouciant music gets the grand treatment it deserves.

 

This encore album is totally enjoyable, with witty and insightful programme notes penned by Hamilton himself, which can only be added pleasure.

 

Thursday, 2 September 2021

SSO NATIONAL DAY CONCERT / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review




SSO NATIONAL DAY CONCERT (ONLINE)

Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Sistic Live, from Sunday (29 August 2021)


This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 September 2021 with the title "New local commissions shine in SSO National Day Concert".

 

Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s annual National Day Concert has become the marquee event when Singaporean composers get new works commissioned and performed by the national orchestra. Local works ideally deserve to be heard alongside the likes of Beethoven and Brahms in subscription concerts, but one should nonetheless be grateful for an evening that featured no less than five world premieres.



 

Entitled New Music, New Hopes and hosted by Jason Lai, the orchestra conducted by Joshua Tan opened with Syafiqah ‘Adha Sallehin’s Dengan Semangat Yang Baru (In A New Spirit). With its title coming from Zubir Said’s National Anthem, recognisable motifs from Majulah Singapura and original melodies coalesced into a gratifyingly tonal whole. Its gentle pastoral feel and absence of dissonances or harmonic tensions was telling, as if describing an utopia without personal or societal strife.



 

Jonathan Shin’s Folk Games played on three familiar songs - Rasa Sayang, Singapura and Chan Mali Chan - by finding contrapuntal possibilities and cleverly dressing them in the string garb of Bartok, Shostakovich and the Second Viennese School.  



 

The most modern-sounding work was Koh Cheng Jin’s Luciola singapura, named after a rediscovered local species of firefly. Ingeniously scored by including yangqin, harp, piano, trumpet and multiple percussion instruments, its short duration was made up by a vivid portrayal of bioluminescence, filled with brilliant scintillation and ebullient scherzo-like effects.



 

Yong Kailin was violin soloist in his Raising The Life, a concertante work with cadenza inspired by a haiku he wrote years ago about taking care of one’s roots and later flourishing as a result. The heady music combined multifarious influences, from Chinese, Carnatic, Middle Eastern, American bluegrass, pop and Paganini, reflecting a cosmopolitanism that Singaporeans aspire to.  



 

Film and television composer Jessica Tam’s A Little Trip Down Memory Lane mixed Xinyao songs, Singapore Pie, Moments Of Magic and Singapore Town (with its calypso beat), into a well-tossed rojak. The colourful score not just evoked nostalgia, but also certain pride. The same may also be said about Dick Lee’s iconic song Home, now heard in the orchestrations by Kelly Tang and Bertram Wee.


No National Day event would be complete without it, and coming to the home stretch, Tony Makarome’s Sing Singapore Medley relived best-loved National Day Songs including Stand Up For Singapore, We Are Singapore and Count On Me, Singapore. The last of these achieved certain notoriety after a recent case of intellectual property theft. Face it, these songs are simply irresistible.



 

The obligatory Zubir Said Majulah Singapura received a spiffy new arrangement by Ho Chee Kong. After which, Tanya Chua’s Where I Belong (2001 NDP theme song), arranged by Avik Chari, was performed with vocalists Syakirah Noble and Umar Sirhan, violinist Chloe Chua and the Singapore Symphony Youth Choir, and filmed at iconic locations on the island. Guaranteed to tug on all heart-strings, there will hardly be any dry eyes among the viewers. 





Wednesday, 25 August 2021

NIGHT OF THE SAXOPHONE / AZARIAH TAN & YANG SHUXIANG Recitals / Review




NIGHT OF THE SAXOPHONE

Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Victoria Concert Hall

Thursday (19 August 2021)

 

AZARIAH TAN Piano Recital

Esplanade Recital Studio

Friday (20 August 2021)

 

YANG SHUXIANG Violin Recital

Esplanade Recital Studio

Saturday (21 August 2021) 


This review was published in The Straits Times on 25 August 2021 with the title "Homegrown talents shine in saxophone, piano and violin".

 

Whether now is a good time to be a young professional musician is debatable. While competition for performance opportunities is stiff due to sheer numbers of homegrown talents, the dearth of visiting overseas artists has also meant that locals get a better chance to be heard. One thing is certain: many of Singapore’s young soloists are excellent and often comparable with those of international standing.


Photo: Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Aloysius Lim

 

A shining example is saxophonist Samuel Phua, recent graduate from Finland’s Sibelius Academy, who performed the Saxophone Concerto of Russian composer Alexander Glazunov with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra led by music director Hans Graf. Not only did he have the requisite expertise to overcome the single-movement work’s technical hurdles, his alto saxophone’s creamy smooth tone also oozed charm and seductiveness.

 

Whether in lyrical passages or young composer Jonathan Shin’s tricky cadenza specially written for this performance, Phua was spot on in his execution. As if further proof of prowess were needed, the encore of Gershwin’s Promenade, arranged by SSO librarian Avik Chari, was stylish swagger personified.



 

The balance of the concert illustrated Mozart’s genius in two contrasting serenades. Serenata Notturno and A Musical Joke were perfect examples how to properly craft or ruin a composition respectively. The former was taken perfectly straight, while the latter played strictly for laughs, and one admits it takes true skill to make deliberately music sound bad.

 

On two consecutive evenings presented by the Kris Foundation, pianist Azariah Tan performed a solo recital as well as partnered violinist Yang Shuxiang. In the recital, two early Romantic sonatas by Chopin and Schubert were coupled to gripping effect. Both composers had led tragically short lives, prematurely curtailed by infectious diseases.


Photo: Kris Foundation / Lisa Peh

 

In the tuberculous Chopin’s Third Sonata, Tan found the right balance of tortured self-reflection and outright passion, evidenced in the nocturne-like slow movement and tumultuous finale. Even better was his journey through the syphilitic Schubert’s sprawling Sonata in A major (D.959), a slow burn that captured world-weariness in the most lyrical way possible. Through his ten fingers, Tan became a vivid storyteller.       


Photo: Kris Foundation / Lisa Peh

 

Heart-on-sleeve expressiveness defined Yang in his account of three Austro-German violin sonatas. The brief diversion that was Hindemith’s Sonata (Op.11 No.1) was merely a prelude to Schubert’s Grand Duo in A major (D.574), where its sheer congeniality and melodiousness could just melt hearts. This was chamber music at its most intimate, the give and take between violinist and pianist being close to perfection.


Photo: Kris Foundation / Lisa Peh

 

And when one thought the passion quotient had been exhausted, then came Richard Strauss’ Violin Sonata, a concerto-like romp through the full gamut of emotions. Yang’s brawny string tone and faultless intonation, allied with natural showmanship, made his performance a truly memorable one. The last three evenings proved that one does not need to leave our shores to witness greatness of musical artistry. 



 


Monday, 23 August 2021

ALBERT TIU PLAYS CHOPIN / Orchestra of the Music Makers / Review




ALBERT TIU PLAYS CHOPIN

Orchestra of the Music Makers

Esplanade Concert Hall

Sunday (22 August 2021)

 

The Covid pandemic has altered concert life in Singapore in many ways. While audience numbers are strictly limited, with only vaccinated and those tested negative for Covid admitted, ensemble sizes have also been reduced, with not more than 30 performers on stage. Performers travelling from overseas are subject to quarantine, which caused the change of programme in this concert by the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) led by its Music Director Chan Tze Law.

 

Cellist Qin Li-Wei was to have performed the solo part in Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, but recent changes to stay-at-home notices meant that he had to miss this concert. No worries as fellow Conservatory colleague pianist Albert Tiu gamely stepped in to perform Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, memorising it within three weeks of the concert date.

 

Tiu is the finest performer of Romantic piano music in Singapore bar none. In Chopin, his artistry encompassed every facet of early Romantic piano writing – cantabile passages inspired by bel canto singing and florid ornamentations, gestures of impetuosity in fantastic flourishes – all came together in a heady mix. This was a virtuoso concerto, written as Chopin’s calling card, but was also exquisite chamber music writ large. This was no better illustrated in the nocturne-like Larghetto slow movement, where discreet strings accompaniment and principal cellist James Ng playing a counter-melody to Tiu’s piano proved truly sublime.   



 

With the exclusion of all blown instruments (double woodwinds, horns, trumpet and trombone), the string arrangement adapted from Chopin’s string quintet version worked extremely well. One hardly missed winds in the big tuttis, and during the climatic pause in the finale, when the French horn’s call was substituted by Wang Dandan’s solo viola, she stood up to be counted. The scintillating end was greeted with appreciative applause, and the encore was a reprise of those precious final minutes from the Larghetto. Just perfect.

 

The programme’s second half was devoted to a string orchestra arrangement of Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor (D.810), better known as Death and the Maiden. Mahler himself penned a version of his own, but the version heard this evening was a rearrangement of an arrangement. Whatever the differences may be, it worked very well too. What strikes the listener is the sheer sumptuousness of the string sonorities, where the original group of four is multiplied manifold (up to 29 players in total). In this arrangement, there was division of labour too, with concertmaster Zhao Tian’s violin and James Ng’s cello providing solos that stood apart from the rest.



 

The omission of exposition repeat for the first movement was astute and well-founded, lending a tautness to the music’s narrative flow. The second movement’s variations on the lied Das Tod und das Mädchen (the subject being the piano introduction of the eponymous song, and not the song itself) were the highlight of the performance, with the ensemble responding magnificently to each change of dynamics. The ensuing Scherzo was decidedly short-winded but well handled before the finale’s swirling tarantella rhythm provided a sweeping close to an energised performance which can only be a product of youth and vitality. One cannot imagine another group of strings other than the national orchestra’s that could have conjured a reading of such vivaciousness and immediacy.



 

OMM’s next concert on 1 October at the same venue will be a showcase of the orchestra’s winds, brass and percussion. One can hardly wait. 

Thursday, 12 August 2021

A FEW WORDS WITH SINGAPOREAN PIANIST MAY PHANG



A FEW WORDS WITH 

SINGAPOREAN PIANIST MAY PHANG

 

The name of MAY PHANG may not be as familiar with music lovers in Singapore as she ought to be. As a rising piano virtuoso pursuing overseas studies during the 1990s, she performed Tchaikovky’s First Piano Concerto with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and was invited to give a solo recital at the Singapore Arts Festival as part of its Homecoming Series. 


Now based in Indiana, USA where she is Professor of Piano at DePauw University, she has just released a CD recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. This is a musical landmark, as she is the first Singaporean pianist to record this milestone of the keyboard repertoire.  

Pianomania's review of the CD may be found here:

pianomania: BEETHOVEN Diabelli Variations / May Phang / CD Review (pianofortephilia.blogspot.com) 


Pianomania has a few words with this interesting artist, who not only masters the classics but also has a keen interest in rarities and byways of the piano repertoire.

 


 

2020 was an extraordinary year, not just because of the Covid pandemic but it marked the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Was your latest CD recording, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations issued on the Centaur record label, inspired by that premise?

 

It happened that way by coincidence. Covid just came on top of that.

 


 

Anton Diabelli (1781-1858), better known as a publisher of music, lives on because of Beethoven’s cunning composition. The subject was a quite trivial, even silly waltz, was it not?

 

Most sources do say that the waltz is banal, but as explained in my CD liner notes, I somehow find it quite interesting.  Waltzes by nature are not meant to be profound, and this very short one packs a punch in so many ways.  There are so many possibilities to faithfully realize what’s indicated in the score, yet the effects could be quite diverse. The same cannot be said of many other themes in the piano variation literature!

 

 

A work from Beethoven’s “late period”, he employed an encyclopaedic knowledge of  keyboard technique and expression to craft a vast array of moods and emotions in these variations. Do you have any favourite variations or sequences, ones which specially resound with you?

 

There are many, for very different reasons. Some you love for the musical expression, some for their witty brevity, their brilliance of construction, their unusual qualities, the technical and other challenges they pose.  Ultimately, I think it is how nothing is what it at first appears to be.  For example, what may sound simple may not be so. There are layers to be uncovered. That is what I love about the entire work.

 

 


Comedy and wit abound in some of these, including the deliberate quote from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni in Var.22, or more subtly by closing the monumental work with a seemingly anti-climactic minuet following the mighty fugue. What does Beethoven’s idea of humour mean to you?   

 

The sturm und drang part of Beethoven is often emphasised, and his most famous compositions - the Fifth Symphony, the Moonlight and Pathetique Sonatas - further espouse that.  I do not believe Beethoven to be the curmudgeon he appeared to be.  Humour exists in many forms – plain funny, amusing, comedic, witty, sarcastic, allegorical, tongue-in-cheek, parodic, paradoxical, innocent,  or child-like.  Sometimes, it also coexists with despair and disappointment, perhaps as a disguise or foil. Humour is multi-dimensional, the more so the greater the adversities a person has had to experience in life.  That is what Beethoven’s use of humour in this work means to me.

 


 


You also have some original artwork on the cover of the CD booklet. Tell us more.

 

I did create the artwork and designed the entire cover, but it was not a painting per se, but a digital manipulation. Since you show an interest, it is an image of the Hafner Haus in Mödling, outside Vienna, where Beethoven resided in the summers of 1818 and 1819, and composed the Diabelli Variations. I knew that Beethoven lived upstairs, but that is why I can only be downstairs. As close as I can get without disturbing him. 



 


Your earlier CD recording, Travels Through Time (released in 2013) is notable for its catholic choice of repertoire. It included Wagner and Stephen Foster transcriptions, and works by Golden-Age pianists Ossip Gabrilowitsch and Misha Levitzki. Your hunger for rarities and the off-beat is truly admirable. What fuels your interest in music’s less well-trodden paths?

 

The piano repertoire, already enormous, continues to expand, with new music being written, and older, lesser known pieces being unearthed or re-discovered. What drives me is more the compunction to want to explore and experience as much of the piano repertoire as possible, rather than having any specific plan of going down less-trodden paths, or trying to be novel in some way.

 

 


What are your some future plans in the spheres of performance and recording?

 

I wish I had the resources to perform and record more frequently. I am very excited about launching my very first concert series this year “Travels with May Phang”. I also enjoy working with composers and plan to collaborate more and commission in the near future.

 

May Phang’s Centaur recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is available online at:

 

Physical album at Arkiv Music:

https://www.arkivmusic.com/products/beethoven-diabelli-variations-phang-863786 

 

Digital album download at: iTunes and Amazon

 

Online streaming at: Spotify and Apple Music

BEETHOVEN Diabelli Variations / May Phang / CD Review




BEETHOVEN Diabelli Variations

MAY PHANG, Piano

Centaur CRC 3882

TT: 62’45”

 

It had to be recorded sometime by a Singaporean, and that wasn’t Melvyn Tan. The honour goes instead to a former Ong Lip Tat pupil, May Phang who is presently domiciled in Greencastle, Indiana where she is a piano professor at DePauw University.

 

The story of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is worth repeating. The publisher Anton Diabelli had written a waltz-like ditty in 1819 and invited the Who’s Who of Vienna’s musical society to contribute a variation each. People who responded included Czerny, Hummel, Schubert, the pre-teen Liszt and many others who have long been forgotten. The irascible Beethoven dismissed the idea out of hand but later changed his mind by writing 33 variations including a terrific fugue near the end. His masterpiece, completed in 1823, is to the early Romantic era what J.S.Bach’s Goldberg Variations was to the Baroque.

 

Running over an hour, Phang’s interpretation is one of the most expansive in the catalogue. Most performances take between 50 to 53 minutes (Richter at 50’, Staier at 51’, Brendel and Paul Lewis at 52’, and Igor Levit at 53’) although there are some outliers (Anda sprints at 38’ but does not observe all repeats, while Richter-Haaser jogs at 47’). The venerated Claudio Arrau clocks in at 55’, but that’s still seven minutes short of Phang.

 

Hers is at the other end of the spectrum, where the likes of Anatol Ugorsky (61’ on Deutsche Grammophon) and most famously Piotr Anderszewski (63’ on Virgin Classics) habitate. The expansiveness comes mostly in the slow variations (notably Nos.14, 20, 24 or Fughetta, 29 through to the end save the busy fugue of No.32). Beethoven is at his most sober in No.31’s Largo, molto espressivo, which is positively dreamy and almost improvisatory at a leisurely pace. Phang takes 5’24”, Ugorski 6’02” while Anderszewski tops it at 6’33”, all of whom play repeats.

 

It is the Tempo di Minuetto (No.33), the worthy final peroration where Beethoven adds the directive moderato ma non tirarsi dietro / aber nicht schleppend (moderate but do not drag). Here, Phang really takes her time at 5’16” compared with Ugorski’s 5’06” and Anderszewski’s surprisingly short-winded 3’52”. And yet it does not feel she is dragging.

    

Playing this disc repeatedly has been a pleasure, and nowhere does Phang’s view of the work’s architecture and inherent longeurs come across as protracted, nor is there deliberate slowness for profundity’s sake. Her technique stands up well to scrutiny, and she more than copes with Beethoven’s quixotic moods shifts and razor-sharp wit, which make this journey well worth making. The recorded sound is richly resonant but not over-bright. Beethoven has been well served, and listeners (Singaporeans or otherwise) will not be disappointed.

 

 

May Phang’s Centaur recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is available online at:

 

Physical album at Arkiv Music:

https://www.arkivmusic.com/products/beethoven-diabelli-variations-phang-863786 

Digital album download at: iTunes and Amazon

Online streaming at: Spotify and Apple Music