Wednesday 3 August 2022

OFF THE PIANO BENCH / Tian Kexin, Piano Recital with Kerim Vergazov & Lucas Cheong / Review


Tian Kexin, Piano

with Kerim Vergazov & Lucas Cheong

Esplanade Recital Studio

Tuesday (2 August 2022)


Summer is the season when students pursuing music overseas return to their homeland to perform, sharing with local audiences what they have learned and experienced during their course of study. This was one of many such concerts this year, given by Tian Kexin, an undergraduate at the New England Conservatory of Music.


She opened her recital with the first ten pieces from Prokofiev’s cycle Visions Fugitives (Op.22). Its unusual title comes from a verse by Russian poet Konstantin Balmont, “In every fugitive vision, I see worlds filled with the fickle play of rainbows.” These are essentially short prelude-like pieces, fleeting impressions dabbed with a variegated palette of colours.


With the young Prokofiev, one senses an enfant terrible but also a Romantic at heart. Tian’s interpretation of these miniatures does nor aim for shock value, evident from its angular melodies, jagged harmonies or seeming grotesqueries. She rather brings out the aural beauty inherent in the harp-like figurations of Pittoresco (No.7) or the lyrical Commodo (No.8). Prokofiev isn’t Prokofiev if he cannot thumb his nose at tradition, which is best heard in the final number, entitled Ridicolosamente (No.10), which Tian plays straight but with tongue firmly lodged in cheek.


The late Brahms was a master of short essays, with his Three Intermezzi (Op.117) being prime examples. The hymn-like melody of the first piece was followed with the dark smouldering textures of the second, both of which were keenly contrasted by Tian. The more complex third intermezzo was the most difficult to pull off, and it felt somewhat episodic in her hands. It nonetheless brought her solo segment to a satisfying end.


This recital afforded a short cameo for 14-year-old Lucas Cheong, who studies with Kexin’s mentor in Singapore, the Russian pianist Kerim Vergazov. One will rarely encounter more passion than his take on Rachmaninov’s very early Elegie in E flat minor (Op.3 No.1) which also displayed a mastery of sonorities. In the familiar Prelude in G minor (Op.23 No.5), he showed power and projection, and could have better brought out the inner voices from its lyrical central section.


The short Rachmaninov pieces served as a teaser for the evening’s tour de force with Kexin joined by Kerim Vergazov in Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances (Op.45). This was the Russian’s final masterpiece, almost a symphony in conception. There has not been a public performance here of the two-piano version since Dmitri Alexeev and Nikolai Demidenko at the 2003 Singapore International Piano Festival, thus this was a rare treat. Like the famous Russian duo, Kexin (Piano I) and Kerim (Piano II) played with the keyboards placed side-by-side rather than at opposite ends, thus facilitating better communication.


This is music of nostalgia that lays bare Rachmaninov’s Russian soul, expressing his sorrow and regret of leaving his homeland for good. After opening outbursts from both pianos, the first movement’s plaintive melody (heard on alto saxophone in the orchestral version) was well brought out. Just as resonant was the famous quote from his First Symphony, now sounding resigned and retiring, greatly contrasted from the earlier boldness and defiance of his youth.


A keen awareness of his mortality drove this work, not least in the spectral waltzing of the central movement. Tinged with sentimental sweetness, this ghostly ballroom dance recalling bygone Tolstoyesque nights was given a chilling realisation by the duo. The finale, now dominated by bells and chants of the Russian Orthodox church rang out in all its glorious clangour. Other quotes, the ever-present Dies Irae and one from his Vespers (All-Night Vigil, Op.37) now came into the fore, standing out through the plethoric textures of both pianos. There was much to enjoy in this performance, mostly because there was a lot of heart and soul in it. The small audience (with Russians among the guests) heartily concurred, according the duo with long and appreciative applause.     

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