A Champ In The Making
SubCulture, 45 Bleeker Street
Johann Sebastian Bach: Organ Prelude in B minor, BWV 855 (arranged by Alexander Siloti)
Johannes Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Paganini (Book I), Opus 35
Micheal Brown: Suite for Piano (World Premiere)
Richard Wagner: Isolde’s Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (arranged by Franz Liszt)
Avner Dorman: Three Etudes
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in E flat major, Opus 31, No. 3
Sergei Prokofiev: Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Opus 28
Anna Han (Pianist)
A. Han (© Hall Piano Company)
When a slender 18-year-old girl from a windswept Arizona town treks out to the Big Cities of the East, don’t be surprised if she comes out swinging. In her recital last night at the always adventurous SubCulture Club, Anna Han wasn’t coyly dancing and dodging like a Mohamed Ali. She looked reserved enough, but Ms. Han was a musical Sonny Liston.
No Chopin and Mozart lollipops for this girl. Anna Han was set to slug the audience with a smashing Brahms Paganini Variations, plunge ahead with the Herculean laughter of Beethoven, kill ’em with a Prokofiev Sonata and play around with two modern pieces, both of which were commissioned by the same Stecher and Horowitz Foundation, which awarded Ms Han First Prize Winner of the Sixth New York International Piano Competition.
But getting prizes for this wunderkid (sic) was old hat by the time she was sixteen. Ms. Han, who had garnered a dozen other awards in her years upon the stage, is not one to hide her prodigious talents behind that beguiling smile. Perhaps, her allegros were inspired by running from a town besieged by packs of giant rattlesnakes. Or trying to practice a fortissimo louder than the screams of vultures and a pianissimo softer than the hiss of venomous scorpions haunting the town of Chandler.
Yeah, I made that up. But whatever the motivation, Ms.Han seems utterly fearless. So her program was an sometimes amazing showpiece.
But how good is she really? In only one piece, she was not totally convincing. Granted, her fingers and phrasing were faultless in the Liszt-Wagner Liebestod. But perfection, as Somerset Maugham said, is likely to be boring. The Liebestod exudation of passion, the unalloyed sensuality was turned into a somewhat banal piece of music . I confess this could have come from the asymmetrical vision of an American teenager trying to simulate legendary sex on the piano, but the piece still seemed too clean, too…well, too pretty.
Compare this with a work in which she absolutely soared. The non-stop laughter of Beethoven’s Opus 31, Number 3. Others might play it with felicitous grace, but Ms. Han played this with the unfettered youth of an 18-year-old. Granted, Ms. Han hardly resembles the Titan which Beethoven felt about himself. Pianist Edwin Fischer called this Beethoven’s “feminine psyche”, but that is an antediluvian view, and Ms. Han obviously knew it. By playing this at a conservative tempo, she had all the time in the world to experience Beethoven’s laughter, his joy, the rustic poetry of the second movement and the grace of the third.
One would have imagined that Ms. Han would have run away with the final Presto con fuoco, but the music never ran away from her. I have no idea what Ms Han could do with a Pathetique or Hammerklavier, and have no desire to hear it. This was joy enough.
Like the seasoned virtuoso Nelson Freire two nights ago, Ms. Han started with Bach arranged by the Russian composer Alexander Siloti. Mr. Freire’s Bach was other-worldly, decidedly distant in Alice Tully Hall. Partly because of the intimacy, the collegial atmosphere of the always adventurous SubCulture Club, and partly because of the familiarity of this transcription from the Well-Tempered Clavier, this more human, more welcoming. Ms. Han is more than deft with cross-rhythms, and she took advantage of this both here and later.
There were certain misgivings about the first book of the Brahms Paganini Variations. Not that she didn’t play them with brilliance and that she had mastered its intricacies was without doubt. She ran through the third variation unhindered by technical problems, her trills in the fourth variation were seamless, and the ninth variation was played with silken legato. Yet one had the feeling that, like Sonny Liston between rounds, she was anxious to get the more thoughtful slower variations done so she could show her muscularity. Yes, this is a showpiece for any virtuoso with fingers of steel, but Ms. Han rushed into the diabolic passages with more care for her brilliance than the (sometimes) Brahms meditation.
In this most eclectic program, she played one world premiere, Michael Brown’s piano work, which was short and Suite. Mr. Brown must be a helluva pianist himself, though she played the intricate fairly jazzy work without score, without problems. The truly imaginative slow movement, organically urging on a simple theme, was charming.
Avner Dorman is played frequently in New York, for he is quite the craftsman, and his three “games” also trenchant and inventive, were caviar for Ms. Han.
The final Prokofiev Third Sonata packs so much invention in seven minutes that it takes a seasoned pianist to bring it out. Calling this teenager “seasoned” might be an overstatement, but again her clarity, her enthusiasm and mastery came to the fore.
That should have been enough to convince us of Ms. Han’s youthful brilliance. But like a champion taking a victory lap or two, she did three encores, including Earl Wild’s Gershwin (brilliant playing, but Mr. Wild himself made it sound like improvisational music), and a Flight of the Bumblebee.
We didn’t need that. We were convinced of her brilliance, grace and understanding already. What is inevitable from Ms. Han is the depth and expansion which will come when she starts her obviously splendid third decade.