27TH SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL
Kseniia Vokhmianina, Li Churen,
Nicholas Loh & Chang Yun-Hua,
Victoria Concert Hall
Thursday to Sunday (3-6 June 2021)
AN EXTRAORDINARY TIME
Zhang Haiou, Piano Recital
Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (5 June 2021)
An edited version of this review was published in The Straits Times on 9 June 2021 with the title "Extraordinary weekend of piano".
The Singapore International Piano Festival was cancelled last year because of the Covid pandemic. It returned this year to limited audiences of 50 members per recital, featuring a cast of young pianists who are presently based here. There was however an international flavour with artists from Ukraine and Taiwan alongside two Singaporeans. Significantly, three of the four had completed undergraduate musical studies in local institutions, and for the first time, women pianists outnumbered the men.
On the opening evening, Kseniia Vokhmianina’s inclusion of Three Preludes by Ukrainian composer Levko Revutsky was an exploration of nostalgia and longing. The late Romantic and Slavic flavour, reminiscent of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, looked back to a bygone era of harmonic opulence. This was prefaced by J.S.Bach’s First Partita, six dance movements crisply articulated and buoyantly dispatched. The short preludes also ushered in Rachmaninov’s Six Musical Moments, more extended essays that traversed from grief to ecstasy through lyricism and prodigious fingerwork. Vokhmianina’s grand manner of pianism follow in the illustrious tradition of great compatriots like Cherkassky, Gilels and Richter.
It was curious to see music of American avant-gardist George Crumb (born 1929) championed by Singaporean pianists. This tradition was started by Margaret Leng Tan, and now carried on by Li Churen and Nicholas Loh. Crumb was a pioneer of the “string piano”, where the instrument’s interior is played as an extension of the traditional keyboard.
In Crumb’s Five Pieces (1962), Li plucked, strummed and scraped the strings, creating a nether-worldly soundscape that was atonal, violent yet intermittently soothing, but always provocative. Her programme was a masterclass of sonority, opening with her own Prelude After Bach, an improvisation before launching directly into the eight rhapsodic pieces of Schumann’s Kreisleriana.
Similarly, Crumb’s timbral ambiguities fused almost seamlessly with Ravel’s impressionistic Miroirs (Mirrors). Fantastic visions of night moths, sad birds, a boat assailed by surging waves and pealing bells gave way to the most extroverted reading possible of Alborada del gracioso (Morning Song of the Jester). Li’s sense of imagination and colour knows little bounds.
The following evening, Loh’s take on Crumb’s Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik (A Little Midnight Music, 2001), built around a motif from jazzman Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight, was just as impressive. In addition to afore-mentioned string piano techniques, Loh struck the piano’s wood, threw in quotes from Debussy, Wagner and Richard Strauss, before shouting out in Italian a countdown to midnight.
The companion work was Frederic Rzewski’s North American Ballades, essentially fantasies based on popular melodies. Its fourth and final piece, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, seemed custom-made for Loh’s leather-clad burliness, with a bruising feat of piano pugilism, where palms, arms and fists rendered the keyboard black and blue.
Completely separate from the Piano Festival and presented by Altenburg Arts were two recitals by Chinese pianist Zhang Haiou, the first overseas-based pianist to perform in Singapore since last year’s circuit breaker. Two pieces of transcribed Bach (by Samuil Feinberg and Dinu Lipatti) established a rich tonal palette for two late Beethoven sonatas that followed. Romantic era outpourings were served without reservation or apology. In the opening movements, mellowness and fluidity (Op.109) were contrasted with defiant vehemence (Op.111). Both works converged with variations on hymn-like subjects to close. Zhang’s stunning mastery of the narrative was not without humour too, such as cheekily inserting the Ode To Joy motif in one of the final sonata’s variations.
Two masterly sets of variations also distinguished Taiwan-born Chang Yun-Hua’s recital that closed the piano festival on a high. Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations were astringent but compact, carved out with a granite-like resolve, while Brahms’s Handel Variations gradually built on its expansivity, culminating with the most mighty of fugal finales. The 21-year-old’s enormous range also encompassed Beethoven’s programmatic “Les Adieux” Sonata and Spaniard Isaac Albeniz’s lilting Almeria from Iberia, both handled with sensitivity and idiomatic nous.
Four evenings and five recitals of piano music, uniformly of high standard and without a weak link, would scarcely be thought possible during a pandemic. One can only be grateful by quoting the title of Zhang Haiou’s recital, and count this as “an extraordinary time” indeed.
For the record, the encores performed at the end of each recital were as follows:
Kseniia Vokhmianina (3 June, 7.30 pm):
Rachmaninov Elegie in E flat minor Op.3 No.1
Marcello-Bach Adagio in D minor
Li Churen (4 June, 7.30 pm):
Li Churen Butterfly
Li Churen Llama’s Land
Zhang Haiou (5 June, 3 pm):
Chopin Nocturne in C sharp minor Op.Posth
Chopin Nocturne in E flat major, Op.9 No.2
Nicholas Loh (5 June, 7.30 pm)
Kapustin Etude in Seconds, Op.68 No.1
Gulda Prelude and Fugue
Chang Yun-Hua (6 June, 7.30 pm)