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Delicate Beethoven Upstaged Reckless Chopin

Hong Kong
Hong Kong Cultural Center, Concert Hall
01/09/2010 -  
Sofia Gubaidulina: Chaconne
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat major, Op. 31 No. 3 – Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major, Op. 110
Sergei Rachmaninov: Two Etudes-Tableau, Op. 33, Nos. 3 and 5
Frédéric Chopin: Two Mazurkas, Op. 68 No. 1 and Op. 24 No. 2 – Two Waltzes, Op. 64 No. 3 and Op. 42
Maurice Ravel: La Valse

Chen Sa (Piano)

Chen Sa (© Hong Wai)

After clinching the fourth prize and the best Polonaise performance award at the Chopin Competition in year 2000, Chen Sa has appeared regularly on the stage of Hong Kong Cultural Center (read here for the review of her concert with the HKPO last year). But the program of her recital on Saturday evening was a surprise. The recital began with Russian female composer Gubaidulina’s Chaconne and ended with Ravel’s La Valse, both as courageous attempts, especially in front of Hong Kong audience.

The opening work, a rarely performed concert piece, is among the composer’s earliest compositions. Ms. Chen came across this demanding showpiece with a secure technique, the arm-blurring octaves on left-hand and scurrying runs on right-hand being all overcome with aplomb. But this textually intricate and harmonically clashing contemporary work was certainly not a delicious appetizer of a piano recital, and it was the choice and coherence of this recital’s program that remained most in question throughout the evening.

Before the intermission, Ms. Chen rendered two Beethoven’s sonatas from the middle and late periods respectively. Ms. Chen’s vaporous pianissimo and tiptoe delicacy at first sounded not very Beethovenian. There was no impetuous pace and impulsive drive that we usually find in Beethoven’s music. Instead, every phrase was carefully polished, even in the last Presto movement of the Op. 31 No. 3. This refinement and elegance soon became Chen’s own Beethovenian sound, though not very authentic in some scholar’s view, but still convincing and charming. The slow movements in both sonatas, under Chen’s warm tone and suave legato line, were particularly enchanting. The third movement from Op. 31 No. 3 was transformed into a Song Without Words from a Menuetto, and the meaning of every word Moderato cantabile molto espressivo, the opening movement of Op. 110, was also thoughtfully brought out. However, for ears attuned to an impetuous Beethoven, Ms. Chen’s interpretation sounded too understated and plainspoken.

The second half began with two of Rachmaninov’s Etudes-Tableaus, a set Ms. Chen recently recorded for the Penta Tone as her first solo recording. The sketch under her pencil clearly delineated the music’s melancholy and mournfulness.

Pairs went on, but without any reason perhaps. Besides the tonal sameness, the two Mazurkas (both in C major) and the two Waltzes (both in A-flat major) showed no coherence authentically and historically. Nor did they sound like a contrasting pair that could bring freshness to audience’s ears. I would have preferred them to be delivered as encores rather than in between those ‘serious’ concert pieces. Notwithstanding, Ms. Chen obviously felt more comfortable with Chopin’s music. She got rid of the overcautious temperament in the first half and rendered these four works with exuberant, sometimes even reckless articulation. But Ms. Chen’s awareness of these pieces as popular genre somehow defamed Chopin’s name as the ‘poet of piano’. The introversive and conservative composer’s rapt lyricism was found in nowhere.

The technically demanding La Valse rounded off the recital. Once again, Ms. Chen fully displayed her virtuosic technique through many of the technical hurdles at which she overcame without stress. And for the first time, the concert hall was filled with some glinting sparkle. For encore, Ms. Chen delivered Chopin’s Nocturne in B-flat minor Op. 9 No. 1. Her excessive and artificial rubato made the reading stodgy. And it was this slacken control that sacrificed the ‘always measured and strict tempo’ (mentioned by Chopin’s pupil Mikuli) of Chopin’s music.

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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