Friday 4 November 2022

TWO PIANO RECITAL / Brian Hsu & Nellie Seng / Review


Brian Hsu & Nellie Seng, 2 Pianos

Lee Foundation Theatre, NAFA

Thursday (3 November 2022)


You know that the pandemic is over when there are concerts to catch every day of the week. This is just the beginning of a most hectic schedule of concerts of the post-Covid season. Many events involve international soloists, the definite sign that international travel has resumed with a vengeance. This evening saw a very enjoyable two-piano recital of Russian music at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, given by Taiwanese-American pianist Brian Hsu (presently based in New Orleans) and Nellie Seng, head of piano studies at the NAFA School of Music.

Nellie related how foreign students in USA
spent their Thanksgiving weekend holidays,
by keeping each other company,
almost breaking into tears in the process!


Opening with Rachmaninov’s Fantasy for two pianos Op.5 (also known as Suite No.1), one could feel the chemistry between the duo who were once classmates at the Juilliard School, specifically in the studio of Jerome Lowenthal. The Barcarolle was taken at moderate pace, with time enough for the filigreed ornaments to be properly savoured. Slow movements such as this and The Night... The Love that followed could fatally drag, but this was not allowed to happen. Instead the nightingales came to roost, building up to a rapturous climax.  


Tears, the third movement, was also slow, built upon an ostinato of four descending notes. This too was well-paced and did not linger without bringing out hand-wringing pathos. The brief Russian Easter, arguably Rachmaninov’s most representative bell piece, pealed rowdily and joyously to close the work. His Suite No.2, more varied in colour and mood, has greater appeal but that does not diminish this fine earlier effort.  


The recital’s highlight was a rare performance of Nikolai Medtner’s Two Pieces Op.58, last heard in Singapore at the 2003 Singapore International Piano Festival played by Dmitri Alexeev and Nikolai Demidenko. Its rarity is well-founded, as Medtner does not readily wear his heart on his sleeve, unlike his good friend Rachmaninov. Medtner’s subtlety and penchant for counterpoint may prove a hindrance to popularity, and it is also fiendishly tricky for performers. However, if one persevered, the rewards are immense as Nellie and Brian’s performance proved.


The shorter Russian Round Dance skipped lightly and effortlessly. Sometimes referred to as a skazka (fairy tale), it had a rustic folk-like quality that was endearing, completed with upward glissandi on both keyboards at its end. More complex is Knight Errant, first cousin to Medtner’s March of the Paladin (Op.14 No.2), which is rhythmically sophisticated, and made more arduous with a fast-running fugue at its centre. Despite its thorns and brambles, the duo had a field day, lapping up its challenges with splendid aplomb. It is hoped that 19 years would not have to pass before these are heard again.


Completing the evening was the very familiar Stravinsky Three Pieces from Petrushka, staple of piano competitions, but in its more filled-in version for four hands. With the division of labour between two pianists, it is less daunting than the solo version. However, both pianists have to work very hard as two halves of one brain. Brian played the primo part, which was flashier, ably supported by Nellie’s secondo,  providing the rich harmonies and rhythmic impetus.


The Russian Dance romped home in break-neck speed - which is always thrilling - while Petrushka’s Room showcased the juiciest harmonies (including that grating Petrushka chord) that sealed Stravinsky’s notoriety. The Shrovetide Fair had the right hustle and bustle, building up a good head of steam with its procession of folk dances. There was a brief moment of desynchronisation and an odd bum chord but that did nothing to derail an imperious reading that took no prisoners.


One would have loved an encore or two, given loud cheers from an enthused audience, but spare a thought for both pianists. It was darned hard work performed without a break, but a solid 70 minutes well spent.

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