Keyboard magic from Jun Bouterey-Ishido

Jun Bouterey-Ishido (piano)

Chamber Music Hutt Valley

JS BACH – English Suite No.1 in A BWV 806 / RAVEL – Le Tombeau de Couperin

BARTOK – Out Of Doors Suite (1926) / BRAHMS – Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel Op.24

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Sunday 24th July 2011

If you haven’t already done so, find a space on which to write down the name Jun Bouterey-Ishido, a space you’ll remember and can refer back to when the rest of the world catches up with this young pianist’s remarkable talent. Evidence was amply provided by this recital, filled with good things, and even more praiseworthy in that the pianist was able to make a fairly inertly-voiced instrument “sound” with plenty of the different music’s varied characters.

Jun Bouterey-Ishido sprang to pianistic prominence in 2008 when he won the Kerikeri National Piano Competition, impressing the judge, Australian virtuoso pianist and composer Ian Munro, with artistic maturity and potential far beyond his years. Born in Christchurch, Jun had studied previously with Diedre Irons, and then Peter Nagy, Gao Ping and Judith Clark, before being admitted to the Masters Programme at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, where he’s presently continuing his studies with Peter Nagy.

I was fortunate enough to have heard him play in the final round at Kerikeri, remembering in particular an exciting rendition of Ravel’s Alborado del Gracioso, and a powerfully taut reading of Schubert’s A minor Sonata D.784. Experiencing his playing again almost three years later, what freshly struck me was his engaging physical fluidity at the keyboard – if anything, even freer than before, the gestural choreography more expressive, but still in a way that focused entirely on what the music was doing. And although his aspect and mien remained remarkably boyish (most evident when acknowledging applause, his slight diffidence with that process at odds with his ease and command at the keyboard), there was a deeper, more profound effect about his playing that immediately linked his listeners’ sensibilities with the world of the music, transcending time and place, youth and experience.

It was this immediate connection which I found particularly memorable, especially throughout the recital’s first half – the pianist had evidently been thinking over his program, because he announced a change of order before he began, reversing the positions of Bartok’s Suite Out of Doors, and Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, more a case of relating these works to their other companions, I think, than to each other, and with better results. So, after a richly-hued Bach English Suite we were able to enjoy a twentieth-century refraction of further classical elegance in the form of Ravel’s parallel tributes to friends killed in the Great War, as well as to his illustrious countryman, Couperin. I couldn’t imagine a more winning amalgam of freedom and elegance, clarity and colour as we got from Bouterey-Ishido in the  Bach work. Right from the beginning the playing had that timeless quality of sculptured marble, but with the life within awakened and activated. Perhaps for some tastes his playing might have been thought too plastic, too freely-conceived (but I would urge the doubters to consider the word “Baroque” with all of its connotations!) – for me he had the gift of being able to express the “inner life” of his phrasing with, in places, the liquidity of something by Debussy, yet convert the whole into a solid, enduring structure.

Playing like Bouterey-Ishido’s I find hard to “explain”, except to use generic phrases like “infectious” and “spontaneous” – his command of rhythmic gait seemed to have an entirely natural kind of impulsive motivation, a symbiotic process of music and performer creatively interacting. In fact this Bach-playing  gave me so much pleasure, i now find it hard to tear myself away from thinking and writing about it. Fortunately, Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin inhabits a world of similar poise and elegance, partly through its ostensible connections with earlier times, and partly due to the fastidiousness of the work’s creator. Here I noticed from the outset how, more than with his Bach-playing, the pianist’s decorative impulses were somehow tighter, their “filigree whiplashings” reminding me of the playing of Rachmaninov’s in his recordings – the notes are all there, but they’re delivered with the swiftest and deftest of touches! Bouterey-Ishido has the technique to generate larger-scaled vortices of impulse, whirlpools of sound that can clear like torrents of water cascading over rocks and turning to spray, an exhilarating effect at the conclusion of the Prelude to the Suite. A beautifully-modulated Fugue was followed by the perennially bitter-sweet Forlane, the rhythms kept beautifully steady, allowing the sounds to “flesh out” the available spaces and suggest plenty of orchestral colour in places.  And the Rigadoun was, here, a joyous irruption of energies set against moments of introspection, different states of being rubbing shoulders with one another.

But the emotional heart of this suite is the Menuet, delicately begun by Bouterey-Ishido with finely-poised tones, inexorably moved along in processional mode and expanded into a grand archway of feeling – from these big, rolling sounds the emotion was nicely gathered in, the mask of feeling re-adjusted and the delicacy of the opening re-established, concluding with a wistful, almost other-worldly tremolando figure. By contrast the brilliant Toccata carried both rhythmic drive and rhapsodic asymmetry along its exuberant course, well captured by the pianist, revelling in the opportunities for orchestral weight and brilliance.

After this, the “earthiness” of Bartok’s Out of Doors Suite came as a bit of an aural shock, albeit an exhilarating one. No aural quarter was given by Bouterey-Ishido throughout the opening “With Drums and Pipes”, the succeeding “Barcarolla” seeming almost to creep out from behind the shelters after the opening onslaught, establishing uneasy undulations and dark-browed, short-breathed melodies. The pianist resolutely took to the insistent patterning of the “Musettes” – a strangely claustrophobic evocation for an out-of-doors piece. By contrast the dark of night’s spaces was all-enveloping in Bouterey-Ishido’s hands throughout “Musiques nocturnes”, the loneliness exacerbated by snatches of folk-melody wandering throughout the dark. All the stops were pulled out for the concluding “Chase”, the pianist’s reserves of strength and energy put to overwhelming, almost cataclysmic use.

The interval gave us all a chance to properly digest the already meaty substance of the first half’s fare, before tackling what had seemed on paper like the recital’s main course, Brahms’ magnificent Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. If not the Everest of the romantic piano literature, the work belongs among the highest of the pianistic Alps; and it requires a robust amalgam of virtuoso bravura, visionary zeal and poetic sensibility to bring off. One of the work’s difficulties for the performer is judging the extent to which each variation ought to be characterized according to its own intrinsic nature while making certain of the overall continuity, the inexorable progress towards the imposing fugue that snow-caps the structure’s magnificence. How much virtuoso bravura, classical clarity, or poetic feeling is needed at any given point, and with watt effect upon the overall structure? Happily for the performer, the “greater than ever can be played” rule applies to this work with a vengeance – its possibilities and potentialities for different expression are immense.

Had I been blindfolded and taken to this recital I might not have guessed the pianist’s age throughout the first half of the concert; but throughout the Brahms piece I found myself thinking, “A young man’s performance….” Everything was very direct, presented surely and unequivocally, an approach which brought out a certain purposeful unity to the variations, even if it sacrificed some of the subtleties and depth of expression of some of the pieces. The very opening, played with bright, forthright insouciance, had an extrovert quality that reflects a youthful view of the world, and the variations were entered upon with that same spirit of joie de vivre, knitting the theme and variation together, and completely eschewing the “motorcycle kick-start” launching of that first variation (a flash of virtuoso delight in rhetorical gesture which bubbles to the surface now and then in some performances). Bouterey-Ishido commanded the big guns necessary to deal commandingly with the octaves of Variation 4, though I thought he rushed No.7, smudging and losing a bit of detail. Here, and in the delicious Variation 10 a touch of impatience indicated that perhaps not every note of this work has quite gotten under his “skin”. The second of two deep bell-tolling variations was splendid, however, with the pianist again “snapping” his decorative figurations excitedly and urgently.

Against the occasional moments where I felt the music propelled a shade over-impetuously (the “hunting horn” Variation (No.14) had an almost manic, rather than an heroic, aspect) were the episodes, such as the Sicilienne-like No.18, Mediterranean in impulse, but with a lovely warm Germanic feeling brought to the playing; and the beautifully elusive, rather Schumannesque No.21, whose performances inhabited the music’s spaces with the conviction of complete ownership. Bouterey-Ishido fearlessly plunged into the waters of the final three variations, taking them in a single breath, perhaps sacrificing some of the music’s cumulative power to momentary excitement, but certainly with exhilarating results, the occasional splashiness part of the process. And his playing of the fugue was splendid, nicely arched towards the moment when the cascading bells break forth and flood the sound-vistas with a wonderful sense of arrival and fulfillment.

There’ll come a time when Jun Bouterey-Ishido’s playing of this work will fuse even more deeply with the music – but equally to be cherished is the here-and-now of his youthful whole-heartedness and remarkable physical and technical ease at the keyboard – I know of no other pianist who looks more “at home” with himself and his world when playing. The recital was rounded, in Shakespeare-like fashion, by “a little sleep” – a short but beautiful and dreamy piece by Kodaly whose title I missed hearing, thanks to rain which had begun to fall heavily onto the church’s roof.

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