Tuesday 2 April 2024

FEMME-DOM / Li Churen Piano Recital / Review


LI CHUREN Piano Recital 
The Arts House Chamber
Saturday (30 March 2024)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 1 April 2024 with the title "Singaporean pianist Li Churen scores with creative programme and technical fluidity".

If one wondered whether musical compositions by female composers may be distinguished from those of their male counterparts, young Singaporean pianist Li Churen has the answer. Known for highly creative and thought-provoking recital programming, she showed that such distinctions are moot and mostly a waste of time. 

Opening her hour-long recital with Claude Debussy’s Clair de lune, she showed that the Frenchman who crafted such bold scores as La Mer and Iberia also had a tender and elegant side. It would be hard to find a more seamless and luscious reading as Li’s. Score one for femininity. 

Then came three suites of works linked by theme, form or harmonic relationships, first by a woman followed with one by a man. The Chaconne by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina (born 1931) is as hard as nails, based upon an ancient variation form perfected by J.S.Bach. Its grinding dissonances and technical complexities were comfortably surmounted by Li, who brought a lyrical and even jazzy slant to this difficult music. 

Photo: Wan Zhong Hao

This continued directly into Frederic Chopin’s Prelude in E minor (Op.28 No.4), which shared a sequence of descending notes in common. Here was music of touching vulnerability, laid bare by its transparency and utter simplicity. Embedded within its page-long score was an improvisation by Li, fleshing out its material without trying to improve it. 

Photo: Wan Zhong Hao

Two Techno Etudes (2000) by Japanese composer Karen Tanaka (born 1961) delighted in repetitive rhythmic ostinatos, minimalist in feel and even resembling boogie-woogie on crack. The fluent perpetual motion mastered by Li had a strangely calming quality, the waves of sound generated having a precedent in Frenchman Maurice Ravel’s Une barque sur l’ocean (A Boat on the Ocean) from Miroirs (Mirrors) that followed. The musical imagery conjured from her hands of a little vessel buffeted by wind and surf was epic. 

For the final tandem, Li’s new original composition Dream of a Panther sounded impressionist and improvisatory, its shifting tonal centres resembling the big cat’s dark variegated spots. A sequence of chords quoting Russian pianist-composer Sergei Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata may be equated with virility and might. 

Photo: Wan Zhong Hao

In contrast, Russian Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata No.4 opened with a vapourous sensuality but took off with its second movement’s soaring flight of fancy, aptly titled Prestissimo volando (Very fast flying). Unlike Icarus, brought down to earth with a fatal bump, Li remained defiantly buoyant till its rapturous close. 

Shouts of “brava” brought forth two rather appropriate encores, Czech composer Leos Janacek’s gently rocking cradle song Good Night! from the cycle On An Overgrown Path and Li’s own composition Burning Moon

Photo: Wan Zhong Hao

Almost mirroring the recital’s beginning, it reprised the same music as Debussy’s Clair de lune but now dressed in vastly altered harmonies. As if refracted through a distorting prismatic lens, the final outcome became as illuminating as blazing sunshine. Whoever said that women did not understand physics?

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