The essence of Beethoven's style
City Hall Concert Hall
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concertos No.1, opus 15, No.2, opus 19, & No.3, opus 37
Aristo Sham (opus 15), Wong Wai-yin (opus 19), Rachel Cheung (opus 37) (piano)
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Edo de Waart (conductor)
To kick off the new 2007-2008 concert season, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra (HKPO), under joined sponsorships from SWIRE and Tom Lee Music and media coverage from the Radio Television of Hong Kong (RTHK), opens the “Swire New Generation” series today entitled “Beethoven + 5 Pianists.” In the span of two afternoons, five young talented Chinese pianists, ranging from the ages of 11 to 28, will be the featured soloists in this concerto marathon, under the baton of Maestro Edo de Waart. Today’s Saturday performance began with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.1 in C Major, a careful and succinct reading of this work as performed by the 11 year old pianist Aristo Sham. This was followed by 14 year old pianist Wong Wai-yin’s rhythmic and flamboyant Piano Concerto No.2 in B Flat Major. To complete the second half of the programme, 15 year old pianist Rachel Cheung captured a refine and colourful interpretation of Piano Concerto No.3 in C Minor. Each pianist accompanied their concerti respectively with a technically-challenging encore.
Kudos to the HKPO for programming this fantastic series of all five Beethoven's Piano Concerti in Hong Kong. The first three concerti spanned the first quarter of Beethoven’s life, when we can really get to grips with his evolving use of the orchestra in these works. From the First’s originality in the Classical style, to the Second’s experimentation with thematic moods and musical contrasts to the Third’s action packed finale, Beethoven’s piano works are never short of beautiful expressions in grandeur and reflections of grace.
All three of the pianists today had with them playing that were precise, dramatic and full of energy, as indeed it should be. Aristo’s reading of the C Major Concerto was a literal, but careful and simple reading of the score. None of the overt bravura, as some interpretations recall off the top. Although the second movement Largo sounded at times more to the extent of a Larghissimo, Aristo’s technical ease was unquestionable on the keyboard as he wittingly drove through the third movement Rondo. Aristo has played the classical Beethoven cadenza in this work, and though his age might appear to be a limiting factor, the tactility in his finger passages overcame the potential challenges in maintaining a steady control between lightness and heaviness. He most certainly produced a crystal quality in sound, that might well exceed many 11 year old pianists nowadays.
One’s eyes simply couldn’t stop glaring at Wai-yin musical gestures, who was completely absorbed in the music of the B Flat Major Concerto. Her bravura style, at times full-swung arms, created some visual disturbances to her audience at times, but nonetheless, her playing maintained a graceful dialogue between the piano and orchestra. This was a work that demanded “con gran espressione” (lit. “with great expressiveness”), and certainly, Wai-yin was a pianist full of voices. As a student of Mr. Gabriel Kwok’s, Wai-yin’s performance could be best remembered by her brilliant capture in rhythmic control and serenity in sound; though, her interpretation would have excelled even greater if she could have maintained her climatic build-up in dynamics during several critical phrases of the boisterous third movement Rondo in order to highlight the stark contrasting themes. Nonetheless, compliments should be given on her jolly light-hearted playing, which she comfortably mastered throughout the work.
Rachel Cheung's playing of the C Minor Concerto was well-crafted and beautifully shaped. Together with Aristo, Rachel is currently the student of Professor Elenor Wong’s. This was an insightful interpretation that has certainly taken the pianist an awful lot of hard work and studying. Rachel brought out both the strength and delicacy required in this only Piano Concerto written in the minor key. The tempi and phrasing she maintained throughout was consistent and well-planned. Here, the real stars of Maestro de Waart and the HKPO should be worth a mention. By far, this was the best orchestral accompaniment to the three concerti thus far: incredibly warm, heartfelt and synchronous, albeit a few minor glitches from the horn players. In her third engagement with the HKPO at this concert, Rachel and the HKPO blended very well synergistically to deliver a well-balanced singing tone. She was by far the pianist who communicated most effectively with her audience through her playing, particularly in the imaginative second movement Largo. No wonder the whole audience came out with full cheer with over 5 ovations by the end of the work. The audience salivated for her playing, and as our reward, Rachel decided to entertain us with an additional encore from a selection of Chopin’s Mazurka.
All three of our pianists today certainly have with them the technical facility and musical skills to handle these great works of Beethoven, no doubt, but all three of these youngsters suffered from the same diagnosis of pedaling overuse on the Steinway concert grand. At times, this might have been the acoustics of the hall. However, this was particularly evident with the playing of Wai-yin and Rachel, as their foot hammered quite excessively at times on the pedal, unwisely at parts where singing legato playing was called upon. Care in legato playing is the foundation that defines a beautiful phrase, and often of times, it comes as a balance between the simplest approach to sound-making and that to touch. All three of our pianists today certainly have growing potential that could excel far beyond the technical flare they attained today, but the art of listening and the skill of effective [musical] communication shall remain the core objectives to all three of our performers. With experience and care in practice, the boundaries of our three rising stars are boundless. More work here is certainly warranted to craft their true identity as musicians in the coming years ahead.
Patrick P.L. Lam