Remarkable lunchtime recital by young pianist

Hannah-Elizabeth Teoh – piano

Bach: Partita No 6 in E minor; Beethoven: Sonata in E, Op 109; Fauré: Theme and Variations in C sharp minor, Op 73

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 6 July 12.15pm

The young pianist Hannah-Elizabeth Teoh comes from Wanganui and has been a student of Judith Clark in Wellington for five years. I had not heard her play before: her performances were insightful and remarkable.

She gave the sort of performance of Bach that utterly vindicates the playing of Bach on the piano, for every movement had a character and a spirituality that she had the sensibility to enrich by her command of dynamics and timbre, through an ability to sustain or cut short each note that the harpsichord cannot achieve.

The sixth partita is the longest of them and perhaps the most serious and inward. The opening Toccata is the longest of the movements, and it was here, at once, that her mature view of the music became clear: its series of broken chords that called the listener to attention, the steady, deliberate pace, and the surprise presented by the arrival of a fugue after a couple of minutes, which she played with a certain magisterial ceremony. There was nice weight in her left hand that gave the fugue clarity as the theme moved into the bass, and touches of rhetoric towards its end were spacious and beguilingly decorated.

The Allemande had an easy fluidity and the Corrente offered evidence of thorough assimilation, with delicious touches of light staccato with fluent scales and ornaments, each phase ending on the major triad. It runs into the Air, no simple, pensive melody but seemingly a series of hesitant questions that are not answered.

Then there was the elaborate, discursive Sarabande, which can challenge a young player whose worldly experience is limited. Here, it was her address at the piano that caught my attention, something in her posture that spoke of a real inwardness in which all sense of a disciplined tempo or rhythm became irrelevant in a large-scale fantasia-like movement. The following Gavotte was a total contrast, where its spirited rhythm was the immediate heart of the music.

It was the Gigue that struck me as unusual, so strong was the pulse of the double-dotted rhythm, perhaps a shade too slow, that it scarcely maintained the feel of the dance. Elegant, lively musical intelligence replaced jollity, and her reading was perfectly persuasive.

To be presented next with Beethoven’s Op 109 in a mere lunchtime concert might have seemed an excess of riches. But it’s a nice contrast, in a sanguine, major key that seems to portray in the first two movements at least, a restlessness that prevents any idea from holding the stage more than a few moments. An optimism seems constantly striving to emerge, though remarkably at odds with the deafness, financial, medical and other problems that afflicted Beethoven in his last years.

Teoh’s playing, always insightful, did not allow the sudden changes of mood, from the Vivace to the Adagio, to weigh too heavily. The airy flourishes in the first movement sounded as if the hammers scarcely touched the strings; and the way she varied the weight of notes in each new and modified version of the tunes was hardly the playing of a student. There were feathery, fairy-like phrases that rose and fell, then sensitively varied weight on particular notes and phrases, all reflecting a combination of careful study, technical fluency and simple intuition about the emotional and spiritual sense of the piece.

The second movement, Prestissimo, is very fast, volatile, echoing much of the disrupted spirit of the first, though it too avoided suggesting the sort of disorder that some performances seem to produce. Her dynamics again often depended on judicious emphases on bass notes and phrases. If there were slips my ears neglected them.

The Theme and variations of the peaceful Andante demonstrated Teoh’s precise sense of the right pace, a buoyant walking pace, and the right degree of change from one variation to another. She achieved a spirituality that never approached sentimentality or melancholy. The whole was somewhat astonishing in a student of her experience.

The third piece in the admirable programme was an impressive Theme and Variations by Fauré, unknown to me, written in 1895 (he was 50) as a Conservatoire examination piece. Schumann seemed the closest in style and spirit, but I suspect I may not have done well in a blind test to identify the composer. There are eleven variations in all, grouped so as to create something in the nature of a three or four movement suite or sonata. Such a plan ensured that the work had a shape that listeners could fasten on to, and the rest was the job of the pianist who dramatized the moods, the light and shade, holding the attention, thus ensuring that many would be inspired to drop into Parsons before going back to work, to explore more of the Fauré that might be unfamiliar.

She waited a long time for applause to subside and then said she’d play three short pieces by Scriabin. Here was yet another field in which she seems to be instinctively at home, with a composer who doesn’t get the attention he deserves.

She played the Mazurka Op 3 No 6 and two preludes, Op 22 No 2 and Op 11 No 23.

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