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Cries and Whispers

New York
SubCulture, Bleeker Sttreet
06/13/2015 -  
Béla Bartók: Szonáta, sz. 81
Marc Neikrug: Sun Moon Lake (World Premiere)
Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata in G Major, Opus 78, D. 894

Weiyin Chen (Pianist), Marc Neikrug (Host)

W. Chen/M. Neikrug (© Sam Von Doggenstein)

Starting a piano recital with Béla Bartók’s demonic Piano Sonata is equivalent to suddenly appearing on a high-wire juggling eight balls at once. The effect is startling, but for the performer, it’s inviting an artistic plunge.

Still, Weiyin Chen is not only a student of Richard Goode and Leon Fleischer, she has been making a name for herself on three continents, and a musical crash was the last thought on anybody’s mind. Young as she is, the Taiwan-born pianist seems to challenge herself at every turn. Her first love may be Schubert–and her G Major Sonata was stunning. Yet she has already taken the step of commissioning one of America’s most prominent composers, Marc Neikrug. And it was the premiere of his Sun Moon Lake which took the centerpiece in last night’s recital at SubCulture.

Ms. Chen had already given two concerts here, both with ensembles. Here she was on her own, save for delightful comments about the art of composition by Mr. Neikrug. And yes, she did begin with Bartók’s composition, rarely played by any musician.

The Piano Sonata is not your catalogue of Magyar folk songs, and clever Orchestra Concerto riddles. It is tough, primitive, the pianist frequently pounds the keys, zips through the most difficult counterpoint–and still must pay fierce attention to dynamics which change with every measure. Bartók was never afraid, during the most dizzying measures, to direct a sforzando followed by a pianissimo, followed by more dynamic directions every three or four notes.

Ms. Chen’s fingers mastered all the algorhythms (and Hungarian rhythms) on the score, her dynamics never failed, it was a performance worthy of great respect. Yet in this 1926 work, one awaits to be grabbed and strangle-held by those first notes and the ominous thumping in the bass, and one expects never to be let go. For this first movement, Ms. Chen was careful–all too careful–she allowed the composer to show his enormous skill, and her own proficiency, even potency with the music.

One couldn’t honestly say this Allegro moderato had even the intimation of violence. Theoretically, an audience should be gaping, eyes goggling at the final sforzando glissando. Here it showed civilized admiration Not that she should have pounded the piano into submission. But the music should be dangerous, not simply brilliant.

After the slow movement (not one of Bartók’s best), Ms. Chen met Bartók on his own terms. The folk dances, the Magyar rhythms were driven hard, far too hard for any peasant to actually dance, and Ms. Chen got into the spirit of the thing. Like Richard Goode, she stresses clarity above all, and one heard both the fire and the menace in this finale.

Composer Neikrug is far too fine a composer to speak much about his own work, yet he did briefly talk about his inspiration from Scriabin and Ravel–and also reveal (as if we didn’t know it) that “no composer has ever made ’water music’ sound like water.”

Sun Moon Lake is not a literal reflection of that most tranquil and beautiful landscape of mountains and water in the middle of Taiwan. Yet it is certainly “water music”. The lake itself is very deep (if I remember from many years ago, the lake has a depth of almost 100 feet), and Mr. Neikrug starts on the lowest notes of the piano, a single line, picked up immediately with more notes, more fingers, up to the top of the scale before zipping down again for a better look at the body of water.

Now begins an extended exercise for the pianist. I don’t know whether Mr. Neikrug was writing especially for the virtuoso pianist, but Weiyin Chen surveyed the piece with all the virtuosic tricks set out for her. The piece dazzled with those Ravel-style trills and multiple trills, gallons of arpeggios in alien keys, counterpoint for only the most skillful player.

Mr. Neikrug is one of those rare composers never averse to wearing his heart on his sleeve, as he showed in another piano work, Passions and in his Quintessence symphony. Here, one feels he composing the most difficult work to show off the skills of Ms. Chen. And in that, both succeeded.

The last work outside of a luscious Brahms encore, was Schubert’s G Major Sonata. Ms. Chen has already created concerts around Schubert, and she obviously feels the deepest personal affinity for the composer. Still, having heard both Brendel and Horowitz do this work, I wasn’t expecting greatness.

And perhaps “great” is the wrong word. Perhaps since Ms. Chen was unfettered by those Bartók dynamic marks, she could free her own emotions with the work. And with that freedom, one felt that this work was not simply a piece of utter serenity. Ms. Chen at times seemed to sense the skull beneath the skin.

She started with literal, deceivingly disinterested playing. Within seconds, she was immersed into the layers of sound. The waltzes, the wisps of Viennese melodies were easily digestible until the very end. And then, surprise! With the final repetition of that first theme, she slowed the tempo down to almost half. As if she had explored to the best of her ability what had to be said. And now it was time for a “Amen”, a memory of things past.

The second movement was not taken particularly slowly, so she could drive through the scherzo. And play the middle trio with a pastoral faraway nostalgia.

For the finale, Ms. Chen again showed an individuality, a personal touch. She played through the storms and dances with the right vivacity, with transparency. Yet those last few measures–like the final measures of the first movement–were played not like an “Amen” but with the whisper of farewell.

For which we, reversing the Latin Ave atque vale, have no choice but to offer heartfelt hails for this short but always intriguing recital.

Harry Rolnick



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