Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Jason Bae – an enterprising, exploratory and heroic performer

By , 13/04/2018

Te Kōkī New Zealand School Of Music

A recital by Jason Bae

Debussy – Images oubliées
Esa-Pekka Salonen – Dichotomie (NZ Premiere)
Grieg – Ballade Op.24
Medtner – Piano Sonata No.11 Sonata tragica Op.39 No.5

Jason Bae (piano)

Adam Concert Room,
Te Kōkī New Zealand School Of Music,
Victoria University of Wellington

Friday, 13th April 2018

Korean-born NZ-adopted pianist Jason Bae made a welcome return a week ago to the Wellington region for a lunchtime recital at the School of Music’s Adam Concert Room, Victoria University. He brought with him a programme he’s taken to a number of venues around the country, one whose content suggested that there would be no compromises on an artistic level, despite the degree of informality and relaxation often associated with a “lunchtime concert”. This was a programme deserving of serious, five-star attention from start to finish, and received playing that fully realised the “serious” intent of the pianist’s enterprising choice of repertoire.

Bae has already made his mark in the world of piano-playing with many prize-giving performances and awards in various places around the world – according to his web-site, his recent activities include performing recitals in Helsinki, Finland and in Seoul, Korea, as well as currently in New Zealand.  The young pianist is also turning his attention to orchestral conducting, making his New Zealand conducting debut with the Westlake Symphony Orchestra in Auckland. He’s obviously one of those multi-talented musicians who has the aptitude to succeed at whatever he turns his hand to.

Judging from the programme we heard Bae perform at the Music School on Friday, there’s no ‘resting on his laurels”, no trotting out well-consolidated warhorses with which to impress audiences. These pieces required his listeners to come some of the way themselves towards the music, itself extremely varied in content and character, rather than simply let it all “wash over” the sensibilities in a generalised way. Perhaps the best-known of these works, albeit in a roundabout fashion, was that of Debussy’s “Images oubliées” (an earlier work than each of the two, better-known sets of “Images”, but one which, for some reason, wasn’t published in the composer’s lifetime). Recently,  though, there has been some recorded attention given both to Medtner’s solo piano works and to Grieg’s hitherto neglected output outside the “Lyric Pieces”. Certainly the remainder of Bae’s programme indicated there were treasures aplenty awaiting more widespread awareness and approval.

The opening of the Debussy work (Lent) brought forth exquisitely-voiced tones from the young pianist, the sounds resembling some kind of ethereal recitative, accompanied by the softest, most velvety of arpeggiations. This accorded with the composer’s own description of the pieces as “not for brilliantly-lit salons…..but rather, conversations between the piano and oneself”. Bae allowed a beautifully-appointed ebb-and-flow of colours and contours, a kind of nature-benediction in sound, allowing the tones at the end to breathtakingly mingle with the silences.

The second piece “Souvenir du Louvre” bore a close relationship with a movement from the composer’s later “Pour le piano”, a rather more fulsome version of what became the Sarabande from the latter work. Again, the pianist’s evocations were meticulously directed towards detailings of wondrous delicacy, with dialogues throughout sounded between the piano’s different registers, sculpted strength set against liquid movement. Debussy’s original was actually written for Yvonne Lerolle, the girl both Degas and Renoir painted at the piano, and for whom the composer described the piece with the words “slow and solemn, even a bit like an old portrait” (hence the title).

The title of the third piece betrays its inspiration even more candidly than does the later work it (only) occasionally resembles – “Jardins sous la pluie” from “Estampes” with its well-known folk-song quotations. Here it is somewhat teasingly called by the composer “Quelques aspects de ‘Nous n’irons plus au bois'” (Aspects of the song “We will not go to the woods”), with the added afterthought, for the benefit of his young dedicatee, “…because the weather is dreadful”…….Bae’s fleet-fingered playing evoked a game of chase through the woods, by turns lightly-brushed and hard-hitting, with some tolling bells sounding towards the end, the piece then disappearing literally into thin air.

By way of introducing the next work on the programme, Bae spent some time talking with us about his relationship with a composer who’s better known as a conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, after which the pianist performed Salonen’s work for solo piano “Dichotomy”. One of a select few of brilliant contemporary performing musicians who significantly compose, Salonen has a number of important works to his credit, for orchestra, two concerti (piano and violin), and a large-scale work for orchestra and chorus, “Karawane”, which premiered in 2014 in Zurich.

Salonen’s work isn’t exactly “hot off the press”, Dichotomie having received its premiere as far back as 2000, in Los Angeles. The composer wanted a short, encore-type piece as a present for a favourite soloist, Gloria Cheng, but, as he discovered, the material he wrote seemed to take on a life of its own,  and expand to proportions bearing little relation to its actual conception. Jason Bae explained to us, along with his account of a serendipitous encounter with Salonen that led to his espousal of the composer’s work, how the music came to be, its two-movement structure representing a relationship between the two “kinds” of music that Salonen seemed to create almost involuntarily. Thus the first movement of this work, Mechanisme, represented machine-like processes, while the second, Organisme, had a more naturalistic way of developing and extending created material. Salonen wanted to explore how these very different styles might, by dint of juxtaposition, “borrow” qualities from one another which could affect their development.

I confess to being fascinated by what I heard, which is a way of paying tribute to Jason Bae’s playing of it as well. The opening of Mechanisme was indeed motoric and Prokofiev-like, the rhythms growing and developing in dynamically varied ways, with different sequences taking on different and unpredictable characters, variously syncopated, symmetrical or angular. Bae’s playing built to almost frighteningly orchestral levels of volume and intensity, before abruptly adopting flowing, legato phrasing that suggested some kind of counter-impulse had been mysteriously, even covertly activated within the work’s being. It preluded a mercurial section where one sensed the creative process was in a kind of ferment of crisis (the machine, perhaps, trying to be human?), with the musical argument appearing to fragment under scrutiny, almost to the point of stasis. A final counter-burst of incendiary energy, notes swirling and figurations exploding in every direction, left the music almost insensible, with only a few legato-phrased, wider-spaced chords holding the centre, and pronouncing the “new order”.

The following Organisme brought forth shimmering, exploratory textures containing reiterating figurations attempting to secure their tentative foot-and finger-holds in the music’s fabric. I thought it Debussy-like in places in a textured sense, the basic materials gradually coalescing and producing a kind of ambient glow, with beautifully voiced fragments of melody floating by on wings of air. The trajectories were passed from hand to hand, thereby suggesting a kind of osmotic continuity of flow, one which inevitably built up tensions of a kind that saw the tones take on increasingly rhythmic and thrustful expression, becoming tumultuous in the sense of a storm, the pianist sending great arabesques of tone shooting upwards and into the ether. Having resisted the temptation to inhabit “the dark side” the music made a flourish of quiet triumph, and the piece ended enigmatically – all told, an enthralling listening experience, thanks in part to Bae’s brilliant advocacy.

Further explorations were furnished by the pianist with his programming of Edvard Grieg’s rarely-heard Ballade Op.24, in my view one of the composer’s greatest works. It was one of the pieces that the tragically short-lived New Zealand pianist Richard Farrell recorded (as part of an all-Grieg recital disc), but has yet to claim a regular place in the concert repertoire. Though part of this is due to the piece’s technical difficulty, my feeling is that Grieg is still regarded by many people as a “miniaturist”, able to turn out  pretty Scandivavian picture-postcards in the form of his numerous “Lyric Pieces”, but lacking the ability to handle larger forms (despite his magnificent Piano Concerto!). Debussy’s well-known swipe at Grieg (“a pink bonbon filled with snow” was his description of one of the latter’s “Elegiec Melodies”) hasn’t helped the latter’s cause – but less well-known is the remark made by Frederick Delius to Maurice Ravel, that “modern French music is simply Grieg, plus the third act of Tristan”, to which Ravel replied, “That is true – we are always unjust to Grieg.”

Justice was certainly done to Grieg by Jason Bae, here a rather more turbo-charged reading in places than that of Richard Farrell’s poetic soundscapings, one underlining the music’s virtuoso aspect, while giving the more ruminative passages enough space in which to breathe Grieg’s bracing air. The work is basically a theme-and-variations treatment of a Norwegian folk-song melody,  “Den Nordlanske Bondestand” (The Northland Peasantry), and ranges from extremely simple elaborations of the theme to full-scale, almost orchestral outbursts of expression, including some forward-looking, even daring excursions into harmonic conflict, particularly during the work’s final cataclysmic section, before the music suddenly dissolves all such conflicts and returns to the melancholy of the original theme. In general, I thought Bae most successfully brought out the music’s brilliance and sharply-etched contrasts, underlining in places the music’s debt towards and kinship with that of Liszt (Variations 11 and 12 are here particularly overwhelming in an orchestral sense!) but also paying ample tribute to Grieg’s own originality. The pianist’s playing of No.9 allowed the composer’s singular gift for melodic piquancy its full effect, while No.10 here vividly captured the music’s characteristic rustic charm and feeling for grass-roots expressions of energy. In the wake of this performance I’m sure Bae would have garnered in many listeners’ minds fresh respect for Grieg as a composer.

The recital concluded with a work from a figure whose music has only recently received the kind of mainstream espousal needed for it to flourish. Russian-born Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951), a younger contemporary of Rachmaninov and Scriabin, received much the same acclaim as a result of his musical studies in Moscow, but then elected to devote himself entirely to composition rather than pursue a career as a pianist. However (and perhaps not surprisingly) the piano figured in practically all of his major compositions, both prior to and after leaving Russia in 1921. Altogether, Medtner completed fourteen piano sonatas, Jason Bae performing for us the eleventh (which the composer subtitled Sonata Tragica, possibly as a reaction to the aftermath of the Russian Revolution) The sonata, incidentally, was one of a set of pieces separately entitled “Forgotten Melodies” (Second Cycle) by the composer. Those who have a taste for idiosyncratic numbering methods of musical compositions will find much to enjoy in Medtner’s own various enumerations of these works.

None of which is relevant to Jason Bae’s performance of the music, which seemed to me to front up squarely to the piece’s overall character, with its big-boned, declamatory  aspect at the beginning and the war-like march that follows proclaiming a Slavic temperament, with the swirling textures obviously breathing the same air as did Rachmaninov’s music. Bae gave the flowing lyricism which followed plenty of “soul”, allowing the deeper textures to make their mark amid the frequent exchanges between the hands, then gradually building the excitement to almost fever pitch, before strongly arresting the flow of the music with a portentous left-hand, almost fugue-like version of the opening declamation – all very exciting! The pianist’s beautifully wrought filigree finger-work introduced further agitations, the music building inexorably towards a kind of breaking-point (Bae’s left hand performing miracles of transcendent articulation) at the apex of which the sonata’s main theme thundered out at us most resplendently and defiantly! It was music that, in this player’s expert hands, punched well above its own weight, with a bigness of utterance which belied its brief duration!

Very great acclaim greeted the young pianist, at the conclusion of this challenging, and in the event splendidly-achieved presentation of some monumental music.

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