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Fou Ts’ong Piano Recital in Hong Kong

Hong Kong
Hong Kong City Hall, Central
12/02/2007 -  
Claude Debussy: Berceuse Héroïque
Joseph Haydn: Piano Sonata No.33 in C Minor, Hob. XVI:20
Fryderyk Chopin: Three Mazurkas Op.59 – Barcarolle, Op.60
Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata in B Flat Major, D.960

Fou Ts’ong (piano)

Maestro Fou Ts’ong, who is seventy-three this year, has performed in Hong Kong last night as an invited artist of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. Featuring the works of Debussy, Haydn, Chopin and Schubert, Hong Kong is grateful to host the return of Maestro Fou in this solo recital that filled literally hundreds at the City Hall. A one-stop recital as part of an Asian tour, next being at Beijing’s Forbidden City Music Hall, the Maestro is renowned to be a master interpreter in the music works of classical and romantic composers, spanning a wealth of repertoire from Haydn to Debussy. In a legacy spanning over fifty-years, audience tonight are the witness of a physically frail but musically energetic pianist on a slightly off-tuned Steinway at the treble.

Debussy’s Berceuse Heroique is a rarely performed piece on the concert podium, and only with artists such as Maestro Fou Ts’ong would such a work be performed in due justice. This work was written in the early days of the First World War, and formed a contribution to King Albert’s Book, which was a tribute to the monarch and the Belgian people. According to the story, Debussy was inspired to write a march, but somehow, by happenstance, a march turned into a beautiful lullaby! There is a nod to nationalistic patriotism, however, with a glimpse from the Belgian National Anthem. Ironically, Maestro Fou has chosen to open his recital with such a fitting piece that reflected his physical-state, for obvious reasons it is filled with darkness, tremor and mystery, and rarely was there a light break-through. What one hears from the soundboard of the concert grand is a haunting beauty with this work that contradicts and transcends its horrific genesis.

Earlier this year, Maestro Fou had indicated to the local HK newspaper, South China Morning Post, regarding his profound new passions in the music compositions of Haydn, not the very least, his Piano Sonatas. So, it was unsurprising that his programme included Haydn’s Piano Sonata No.33 in C Minor. The classical piano sonata doesn’t seem to attract public appeal until one step into the territory of Beethoven.. Mozart’s sonatas are fancied by youngsters, but not really taken into people’s hearts and soul in the same way that Beethoven’s Moonlight (Op.27 No.2), Appassionata (Op.57) or Hammerklavier (Op. 106) manage to do. The same is true of Haydn’s five-dozen worth of examples, it is still looked upon as a specialist territory, and only under the hands of Maestro Fou who has a wealth of musical insights and experience would we be able to appreciate the inner beauty of such music under the eyes of a revered artist. Again, the C Minor Sonata no less displayed Meastro Fou’s attempt to reach a pearly sonority, but its ethos is darker, the lyricism more akin to Mozart’s introspective fantasies. The Andante con moto communicates nervous delicacy, and many of times, we hear the Maestro fallen into the trap of wrong hit-notes, memory lapse, and signs of musical fragility that reflected his physical condition. The last movement seemed conceived to be a two-manual harpsichord, due to the out-tuned register on the concert-grand, and it demanded a series of unbroken ornaments and rolling arpeggios from our musician, to which he faced occasional slippages, whereas otherwise, it resolved with aplomb.

With the works of Chopin, most notably in the Mazurkas, these are composition which remained personal throughout Fou Ts’ong’s lifelong career, as he continues to marvel audience from East to West till this day with such poetic and Chopinesque character that has become a rarity in today’s musical world. Held by the late Hermann Hesse as “the only true performer of Chopin … it was real Chopin … the Chopin of Warsaw and Paris, the Paris of Heinrich Heine and the young Liszt,” these very Mazurkas led him to be the winner of the Mazurka Prize at the Chopin Piano Competition in Poland some 52 years ago. Tonight, the three Mazurkas Op.59 met.

It is not necessary to point out any more highlights after tonight’s performance – save to say, despite the Maestro’s physical state, one hears an audience who tried his best to deliver a satisfying and evocative performance of great works. However, if the listener was to pick-and-choose one from tonight’s repertoire of a representation of Maestro’s Fou current development as a musician, let it be the Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B Flat. Whereas Schubert wrote this Sonata in the very end of his career, here it is interpreted by an artist who likewise reached his pinnacle in career, a tribute to display all his musical and lifelong expertise as a true “Poet of the Piano.” Similar to Lang Lang, the Maestro felt short with grand bodily bravura (notably with his head swings), but the sound he created was clearly an old-fashioned manner of addressing the keyboard. At times, it had an almost naïve simplicity, Rubinsteinian, and the feeling that somehow no matter how impassioned matters become, his emotional outbursts could be contained, and constrained by the very Polish elements of these three dances. This created an atmosphere as if one caught glimpses of an approaching storm transcending through the Palladian colonnade, albeit, fill with the frequent slippages and roadblock of fingers as he romanced through the latter two Mazurkas. Like Rubinstein, Maestro Fou treated the Mazurkas less as dance pieces than as “dance-fantasies,” but his playing of these works remained much freer and direct than the former. Take the F Sharp Minor as an example – despite many years of interpretation of these Mazurkas, the Maestro’s performance continues to strike the ear as being almost flirtatious, but interpretively creative that offer a new breathe to appreciate this little miniature. Chopin’s Barcarolle, on the other hand, met the Maestro with the greatest challenge. Here, he failed to impress the grandiose of this music, lacking in the great dynamic range and contrast, with little of the shading many of us loved in the playing of Chopin forbearers such as the Rubinstein or the Zimerman. Maestro Fou doesn’t exactly overwhelm us with the music – he’s enveloped within - not nearly in the composer’s original scale, but not badly performed either. All in all, it is 20th century Chopin. Compared to his famed recording of Sony, the interpretation from the Maestro lacked the finer renditions, less movable and vivid. In fact, one can sensed that the Maestro was deeply bothered throughout the piece, as if he was distracted by his physical fatique or haunted by bodily pain. No one is perfect, and though one may second guess whether he runs with Polish blood, Maestro Fou was noted for his charisma, sensible with characteristic rubati and phrasings that are hallmarks to what defined him as a “true Chopin interpreter” till this day.

Schubert’s Piano Sonata D.960 was simply the highlight after the intermission, let alone in tonight’s entire recital. All-in-all, the music was subtle, yet impressive enough to move the >1000 audience to a deeply moved state. Symbolic to Maestro Fou’s very own life, perhaps, this last sonata of Schubert was played with breath-taking intensity, personal reflections that foreshadowed an artist in the last chapters of his life. Certainly, it was a great loss to our music world then some two hundred years ago as it would be a great loss to our music world today should we hear on Maestro’s retirement from the concert-stage. It is ironic and remains an awe to many of how the rotund little man, known as Schubert, who died so young could gone through such music, speak to the human heart with such profoundity, depth and vision that few men in history could have achieved, let alone even well pooled together. Under the hands of the Maestro, this music connected at a deeper level than any of the other works he previously played in the first half of the recital – as if he wanted to tell everyone about the concluding chapters of his life. Many interpreters ruined such a masterpiece simply because they lacked the life-experience to understand the immensity and underlying pulse running between the lines of this music, but Fou Ts’ong spoke in the language of the composer as much as for himself. Literally, it was a vision, where the Maestro used his coloristic resources as a piano-poet into turning the Sonata into a harrowing journey; he painted on the piano an abstract version of the wanderer on Schubert’s Winterreise, and such music, can only come from a musician no less than Fou Ts’ong. What is characteristic of the Maestro’s reading from many others is not the difference in tempos or other meticulous details such as wrong notes or memory lapse (which every pianist succumbs to every now and then), but it is care of thought and purposefully articulation to details and phrasings that decipher a good performance from a sublime performance. Take example, at approximately halfway through the Molto Moderato (First Movement), just before the development, time almost seized and the audience was suspended in awe before returning to a gentle landing of grasslands before approaching the moderato. Even as poor as the HK City Hall acoustics were, piano, pianissimo, pianississimo could all be differentiated with grace and fluidity. This was no gazing despondently into the abyss, rather from the hands of a 73 year old, it was a wistful and eloquent reading. However, suffice to say, the performance is slightly tamed – not as sharp and brittle as one would have liked, however, it is a much warmer and diffused performance than say, the Richter of the Sokolov live readings. If one wished to recall what kind of imageries this piece brought upon as the Maestro stroke the final keys of the Allegro ma non troppo (fourth movement), one can recall the music back to its elements – to the approaching the sounds of nature that were defined by soughing of trees, swelling of the sea, and organic cohesions that unite the forces of the great wilderness. This is the music sung from an artist’s soul.

Thinking the Maestro might be exhausted by his back pain, and what seemingly appear to be long distance marathon on the concert-stage back-and-forth from the returning applause, Maestro Fou gave an encore as a gratitude to the heated applause and observant audience another Mazurka delicacy, and so it was – this time, Chopin’s Mazurka in B Major, Op.41 No.2. With this, it ended Maestro Fou’s 2007 visit to Hong Kong, and how we long for the next in 2008.

Patrick P.L. Lam



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