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One Recital, Two Anniversaries

Hong Kong
Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall
03/01/2010 -  
Frédéric Chopin: Four Mazurkas, Op. 6 – Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 “Funeral March” – Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 1
Samuel Barber: Nocturne, Op. 33 “Homage to John Field” – Four Excursions, Op. 20 – Piano Sonata, Op. 26

Leon McCawley (Piano)

L. McCawley (© Sheila Rock)

‘Gentlemen hats off, [here is] a genius!’ - the famous sentence by Robert Schumann. Two hundred years ago, on 1 March 1810, one of the greatest composers in the music history was born. Throughout the two centuries, none of the great pianists could eschew the charm and appeal of his music. From Liszt and von Bülow in the Romantic era, through Rachmaninov and Horowitz in the Golden Age, to Pollini and Zimerman at our time, his music, through these pianists’ fingertips, have tenderly soothed the souls of hundreds of thousands of music aficionados . The name of this man is … Fryderyk Chopin.

When every corner of the world is celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of Chopin’s birth by pianists playing all-Chopin program in their recitals (such as Maurizio Pollini in Royal Festival Hall, Aglaia Koras in Carnegie Hall, and the Gala concerts in his homeland), pianist Leon McCawley intriguingly chose to render works by Chopin and Barber alternatively in his recital on Monday (the later composer is also celebrating his 100th birthday on 9 March).

Mr. McCawley opened the recital by Chopin’s first published set of Mazurkas, the Op. 6 published in 1832 when the composer first arrived in Paris. His interpretation was more ‘Parisian’ than ‘Polish’. The melodies were so elegantly polished that they sometimes evoked the composer’s another popular genre – Waltz. In the meantime, hardly a colorful harmonic demeanor went by without Mr. McCawley bestowing sensitive touch to it. But it was this elegant refinement that somehow compromised the indigenous taste of the Polish folk dances.

What followed was Barber’s Nocturne Op. 33. From the title “Homage to John Field”, we know that Barber composed this piece pouring tribute to the Irish composer, the inventor of piano nocturnes. Musically, nocturnes by these two composers who lived one century apart have many things in common – tuneful melodies, exquisite filigrees, and ethereal accompaniments. Unexpectedly, Mr. McCawley’s reading showed more emphasis on the music’s exuberance and ebullience, with a fluent tempo that was almost reckless. This was also the case in his account of the following Chopin’s Second Sonata, to which he went on without pause. Was the audience’s noise of yawns, sneezes, and children’s yells that brutally obfuscated the pianist’s musical thought? Again, the Sonata was rendered with whirlwind ebb and flow that reminded us of Argerich-like impetuousness. The scurrying runs in the second movement sometimes even sounded Lisztian. The benign middle section of the Funeral March was shaped with excessive rubato that it came across as a Nocturne with warmth and pliancy. For ears attuned to a sober and majestic approach like the one by Pollini (read here), Mr. McCawley’s account sounded too flighty.

The second half consisted of two rarely performed piano pieces by Barber, interpolated by a Nocturne of Chopin. The lightheartedness and directness Mr. McCawley possessed seemed more trenchant in Barber’s music. The technical hurdles in the Sonata, a showpiece of Horowitz, were also overcome with aplomb. Though Barber’s piano works are not among the mainstream concert repertoire, especially in Hong Kong, Mr. McCawley’s effort of bringing them onto the stage edifying Hong Kong concertgoers was highly commendable. Many other attendees would agree with this. The reaction of audience was apparently more enthusiastic than in the first half. Mr. McCawley delivered two classic encore pieces – Schumann’s Dedication (arranged by Liszt) and Chopin’s Minute Waltz, both with a compelling sense of ebullience and vehemence.

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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