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The Essence of Beethoven's Style, Part II

Hong Kong
City Hall Concert Hall
09/09/2007 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concertos No.4, opus 58, & No.5 "Emperor", opus 73

Sa Chen (opus 48), Sun Yingdi (opus 73) (piano)
Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Edo de Waart (conductor)

Although one may have heard these Concerti on numerous occasions ¡V sometimes singly, while other times in a cycle ¡V each performance gives the audience a fresh unique outlook to these works, synonymous to a ceremonial event. These two compositions can be distinguished to their earlier three counterparts by their almost miraculous character, which revolutionize the music world of the 18th century at their premiere as much as they have championed the music scene even till this very day. Call it hidden powers, call it supernatural, whatever it may be; but realistically, these two masterpieces could single-handedly illustrate the ingenious creativity of their creator on the keyboard, Ludwig van Beethoven.

Here on stage today, we have two internationally acclaimed pianists in town with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, under the direction of Maestro Edo de Waart, as a continuation of the Swire New Generation Series ¡§Beethoven + 5 Pianists.¡¨ Sa Chen, winner of the Crystal Prize at the 12th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, is one of those rare musicians who acquired at the young age of 28 the rare talent of a poet, filled with emotional depth stretching the depths and breaths of an intellect. At her age, she has reached a caliber only to be envious by many. As the soloist to the Piano Concerto No.4, Miss Chen opened the first half of the programme with a pair of story-telling hands, a wordless musical narrative, which became immediately apparent even as she approached the first pair of G Major Chords in the first movement Allegro Moderato. Her playing was one about narrative, told in a natural and unexaggerated manner, but also filled with all the technical mastery embellishments. She would allow the written music to flow as freely as if she was engaging a conversation with her listeners, not by voice or words, but by the touch and sound she produced by her very fingertips.

Unconventional to the many performances of this work, Sa Chen has chosen the rather piquant, dynamo cadenzas of Johannes Brahms¡¦s for the choice on the 1st and 3rd movements. Here, the opening of the cadenza had an early hint to the original Beethoven cadenza, but which then transcended to what seems like shadows of Liszt or even post-Moscheles. Miss Chen approached the solo parts in the cadenza with almost a complete lack of effort, despite the monstrous demands on technical accuracy and speed. The second movement Andante con Moto opened with a set of string motifs, which brought out the dramatic, dark, maybe even menacing quality in the music. Here, Sa Chen¡¦s playing was light, frail, and reminiscent to the very qualities of a new-born baby in which the orchestra would help to vitalize. To this end, the pianist was required to maintain a gentle, but lyrical approach from start till the final echoes of the last notes on the bass. From these pages of the score, we hear Miss Chen the Poet at her very best, mastering the intricate weaving of phrases as they intersect from one bar to the next, while maintaining the fine delicacies in dynamics and the drive on rhythmic impulse.

The chauvinistic artistry of her interpretation evolved as we entered the majesty opening of the third movement Rondo. In the rippling opening of this final Rondo, the very idiosyncrasies were part of the magic accountable to the music-making of Sa Chen¡¦s. They were the tokens for her unfailing ability to respond freshly to whatever music she played on stage, whether it was Scarlatti or Chopin, and evidently, Beethoven was no exception to the rule. The ability for Miss Chen to convey spontaneity and fresh discovery of style in playing had been the pinnacle quality which helped to mark Sa Chen¡¦s unfailing excellence on the concert stage. To meet this end, her music making required the support from a group of musicians that spoke from their hearts, rather than purely sound made from their instruments. Maestro de Waart provided an extraordinarily sympathetic and lustre accompaniment here in this Concerto, and the overall sound reached fullness and warmth over, at times, what seemed a Caribbean breeze.

Without a question, Miss Chen¡¦s playing turned out to be the finest performance of the last two Beethoven piano concerti heard this afternoon. All-in-all, she was at her soulful best in this Fourth concerto, playing with much warmth and tenderness, at times sorrowful, while in other, simply lively. And, if one thought this was all the narrative she was capable underneath her fingertips, her encore also spoke no less to the audience, as she sensually interpreted the Schumann-Liszt Widmung transcription. While Evgeny Kissin¡¦s live interpretation of this lieder transcription remained to be one of the very favorite of many, Sa Chen¡¦s playing shone no less ¡V it was truly a dedication that floated from her heart.

Sun Yingdi, winner of the 7th International Franz Liszt Piano Competition, completed the second half of the programme with the magestic Piano Concerto No.5. The so-called Emperor Concerto represented the climax of Germanic-heroic composition. Here, the pianist must overcome both the technically and artistic challenges to bring off the performance to a victorious end. Here was a double opportunity for Sun Yingdi on the piano to meet this end. Did he and the ensemble live up to such standards for heroism?

As this work belonged to one of the best-loved classical piano concerti of the standard repertoire, one would naturally expect much more from its performers. But alas, though Mr. Sun struggled for the means, he did not conquer to meet the ends like some notable performers of this work. This was also true for the orchestra, which seemed content to rest on its laurels. The second half pro forma performance met little subtlety overall, and the interpretation from Mr. Sun did highlight some crowd-pleasing bravura playing with no serious technical flaws. However, in spirit and in emotion, one could not entirely sense the adventurous and majestic apparels, albeit at times, there were moments when one would have foreshadowed for an emotional high. The playing failed to convince and convey the heroic quality demanded on this work. In the first and third movements, for example, both Mr. Sun and the HKPO were at times by themselves playing on different platforms and slipping in unity. One would question if there was sufficient communication between the pianist with the rest of the musicians. While Mr. Sun had managed to display nice tone-colours at times, with his own brand of athleticism shown by his Lisztian virtuosity, there was nothing ¡§Emperor-like¡¨ in his playing that warranted the known association to this piece. To the connoisseurs in the field, what separates an average to a fine musician in this work is in their ability to relinquish lyricism and pyrotechnics complimentarily, qualities indispensable to a soloist for mastering a repertoire such as the Emperor. On the other side of the spectrum, speaking of Maestro de Waart¡¦s direction, he conducted the HKPO with warmth and agility, always requesting more sensuous vibrati from the strings on one end of the spectrum, while highlighting the individual woodwind and brass segments to help build up the apparent tension and contrasts. But, this interpretation was not ideal without faults; one could rarely feel that the conductor and the soloist were en par in conceptions of the work, making one to feel if the soloist belonged to a one man infantry.

If one were to select the best movement played in this performance, it would have no doubt gone to the second movement Adagio where Mr. Sun shined with a golden lustrous tone. Sadly, this beautiful playing did not last too long, when he started to sound a little clumsy and almost struggled at the end of the movement as the music transcended to the third movement Rondo. Suffice to say, this was one of the three movements where the soloist and the conductor really seemed to cooperate at their best. At the end of the work, one would envision that Mr. Sun would have fair far greater if he had chosen more appropriate virtuosic piano concerti by Liszt or even the Prokofiev 2nd, where technical skills and agility in speed spoke louder words over the musical demands.

At the end, the perceptions of one¡¦s eyes definitely could not meet up in equilibrium to the complimentary auditory signals, as Mr. Sun approached his final encore: the demonic Cziffra-Strauss Tritsch-Tratsch Polka. Hearing such a piece would make one to wonder if there were any blank spots left on the registers of the written score. The playing was truncated, filled with wide-octave leaps, and the technique was simply unsurpassable. By the end of the ~2hr performance this afternoon, audience was finally invited to an educational Q&A session with Mr. Sun and Miss Chen. This was an excellent educational endeavor instigated by the HKPO to give audience a chance to ¡§meet the artist¡¨ and learn something from them. What can be a better way in appreciating music, first by hearing, and then second by hearing their first-hand experience and accounts to their stages of music-learning?

One can only continue to ask for more, but in the case our two pianists, getting them back to Hong Kong will certainly become increasingly difficult. It is no doubt that their concretizing career will become as filling as the number of notes seen in some of the scores [and encores] they play!

Patrick P.L. Lam



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