Pianist Nicole Chao in adventurous lunchtime concert

Bach: Toccata in C minor, BWV 911; Scriabin: Piano Sonata No 2 in G sharp minor, Op 19 – first movement; Chopin: Barcarolle, Op 60; Dutilleux: Sonata, Op 1 – third movement: ‘Choral and variations’

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 10 November, 12.15pm

This was one of the more arresting of recent lunchtime concerts at St Andrew’s, both on account of the interesting programme that Ms Chao offered, and the accomplishment of her playing.

One of the concert’s characteristics, whether consciously planned or not, was that all but the Chopin were very early works; yet all showed impressive evidence of their composers’ later greatness.

The Bach toccata is one of seven harpsichord toccatas that Bach wrote in his youth, though this one was probably from his twenties. A Bach scholar would probably find things that demonstrate the composer’s immaturity, but to one who does not lay claim to special perceptiveness in that field, the musical inventiveness and technical command of the keyboard and the music’s formal structure leave by far the greatest impression.

Elsewhere among Bach’s works, such a substantial piece would have been called a toccata and fugue – in fact two fugues, the second of which is a massive double fugue. Nicole Chao opened it powerfully, resolutely, making full use of the piano’s dynamic range, then dropping  suddenly to a quiet, delicate phase such as a harpsichord could not produce. The fugal sections presented an interesting range of keyboard colourings and articulations which Chao handled skilfully, never mind a slip in the second fugal secion. She turned it into a piece of some consequence, clearly the product of high musical intelligence.

Chao played the first movement – Andante – by far the largest of the two movements of Scriabin’s second sonata which he wrote aged about 20. In complete contrast to the Bach, this is high romanticism, wayward in spirit, its yearning melodic line ranging widely, employing already the intervals that are so typical of Scriabin. In playing of ever-changing colour and rhythmic variety, Chao evoked in its glittering hands-full of notes, the marvellous, moonlit seascape that Scriabin described in his notes about the piece.

Chopin’s Barcarolle, though the most familiar piece in the programme was the least successful in capturing the music’s complex, indefinable spirit, its sense of direction. With rather prolonged fortissimo passages, even with careful use of rubato,  it seemed not to capture the subtlety and tonal refinement that she brought to Scriabin and to the concluding Dutilleux sonata.

Dutilleux is now in his 90s, yet his oeuvre of major works is small. This sonata written when he was about 30 was the first to which he gave an opus number, so self-critical has he been throughout his life. Again, Chao chose to play the longest movement, the last; it stands on its own feet remarkably well, and Chao led an audience that was probably hearing it for the first time through a very able performance. Its opening rhetorical call to attention mirrored in a way the Bach Toccata (did that occur to her?), but there was no immediate fading to a pianissimo; instead the first and second variations drove forward with great speed demanding playing of impressive virtuosity. Only in the third variation does a meditative quality arise, and Chao demonstrated an appreciation of the structure, and the carefully thought-out evolution of the themes underlying the whole movement. A fine performance of the sonata was recorded by John Chen for Naxos about five years ago. It’s worth getting to know.

Nicole Chao however, gave an authoritative performance, persuading me that she might well reward us with further performances of music in the late Romantic and non-serial 20th century styles.

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