Pianistic plethora at NZSM’s Hunter

Keyboard Inspirations

– presented by Dr.Jack C.Richards and the NZ School of Music


Pianists: Jian Liu, Tony Lee and Buz Bryant Greene

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington

Sunday, 7th August, 2011

The pianistic feast provided by this concert was jointly presented under the auspices of the New Zealand School of Music and Dr.Jack C.Richards, an indefatigable patron of music performance and composition in this country. Compared with having the usual single performer at piano recitals, this triple presentation of keyboard talent had much to offer the listener, albeit at a somewhat disconcerting pace of change. Speaking for myself,  while I wouldn’t want every piano recital I attended to “mix-and-match” in such a manner, the variety of performance style and repertoire here made for a fascinating afternoon’s listening.

Three pianists were involved, two of them linked by dint of association with the School of Music. Jian Liu is the recently-appointed Head of Piano Studies at the school (succeeding Diedre Irons, who retired last year). One of Jian Liu’s post-graduate pupils is Buz Bryant-Green, currently studying for a Master’s Degree in Piano Performance. The third pianist, Tony Lee, provided some trans-Tasman input into the proceedings, currently a student at the Sydney Conservatorium, but already an international performer and prize-winner in both European and Australian competitions.

After a welcome to the audience by the Music’ School’s Director, Professor Elizabeth Hudson, one which acknowledged the generosity of Dr. Jack Richards in providing a Music Scholarship for Overseas Postgraduate Study available to the School’s students, the musical program got under way with Buz Bryant-Green’s skilfully-wrought opening to JS Bach’s Fantasia in A-Minor BWV 922, the player’s impulsive and freely-applied sense of spontaneity surely expressing what the Master had in mind with this piece. Bryant-Green colored each episode freely in pianistic hues, as confidently pursuing his characterizations as any baroque keyboard virtuoso would have done. The pianist generally avoided too “monumental” a quality throughout, preferring to emphasize the element of spontaneous suggestion, which brought out the fantastic and volatile characteristics of the music even more. I thought it a bold, and confident performance.

This was followed by a pair of works whose composer’s intent, almost two hundred years later, was just as fantastical, Alexander Scriabin’s 2 Poemes Op.32, played here by Tony Lee. Straightaway one was drawn into a world where impressions flickered like candle-flame, the deceptive salon-type opening of the music leaning into and out of a Rachmaninov-like lyricism, with a “dying fall” reminiscent of the latter composer.Not so the demonic Second Poeme, biting and dramatic, almost feverish in its claustrophobic intensity – both pieces delivered with a mixture of rhapsodically free and tightly-wrought playing, impressing throughout by dint of the player’s unswerving focus.

It was Jian Liu’s turn to impress, with a beautifully-delivered, exquisitely-detailed “Reflets dans l’eau”, from Book One of Debussy’s Images. The pianist’s fine touch was evident throughout, as was a finely-judged ebb-and-flow of tone, playing which unerringly drew its audience into the composer’s unique sound-world. Interesting that, though his fine sensibility and acute touch was again evident throughout the Liszt Mephisto Waltz No.1 performance later in the program, Jian Liu’s  exposition of the tale of Faust’s rustic amour for me needed more storytelling “juice” in places, more interactive energy, both earthly and supernatural, to bring about a proper fusion of the details he laid out so beautifully with the growing drama and tension of the story. The rude vigour and abandonment of the dancing couples need to melt osmotically into Faust’s suggestive importuning of a village maiden, everything mocked by flickering scherzandi figures darting and sparkling like fireflies around and about the dance-ritual. I thought the most telling part of Jian’s performance was the song of the nightingale and the delicate arpeggiations suggesting Faust’s success with his seduction almost at the end – though Mephistopheles’ laughter could have been, I thought, subtler and more insinuating, leading into the brief coda.

Liszt’s hand was in the previous item as well, a transcription of Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, but further edited for super-virtuoso effect by Vladimir Horowitz, and played with plenty of wizardry by Tony Lee. Those evocative midnight strokes gave rise to diabolical fiddle-tuning, the pianist surviving a slight mis-hit while tuning his strings (an interesting parallel with the beginning of the Mephisto Waltz that Liszt would have appreciated), then proceeding to deliver a powerfully muscular dance, with lots of diabolical scamperings sprinkling the sulphur in appropriate places. As I didn’t know the Liszt transcription, I couldn’t tell how much Horowitz had turbo-charged the virtuoso fireworks (most of Liszt’s transcriptions are remarkably faithful to the original), but whatever the composer, the transcriber and the super-virtuoso had done between them to the hapless “Danse Macabre” it emerged as a remarkably brilliant and atmospheric pianistic essay under Tony Lee’s expert fingers.

There was plenty of virtuoso “roar” at the outset of Buz Bryant-Green’s delivery of another Liszt work, the wonderful Ballade No. 2, a depiction of the “Hero and Leander” story from Greek mythology. I liked the way Bryant-Green balanced the outer and inner conflicts of the music, the pictorial aspects of the storm at sea, and the stern inward resolution of the lovers to be united come what may. A pity he then, playing from memory, lost his way mid-stream and had to dash out to get his music! – even so, I admired the way he was able to pick up the threads for us and continue. Away from the storms and stresses I felt the more “Italienate” aspects of the piece needed more focus and fullness, the beautifully “sung” lyrical theme delineating the lovers’ ecstasy here sounding a touch perfunctory, instead of being “owned” and deeply sounded and romantically celebrated (there was nothing half-hearted about Liszt, nor about the music he wrote). Something of the same dissociation of energy and lyricism marked Bryant-Green’s performance of Rachmaninov’s mighty B Minor Prelude, christened “The Return” by the composer’s contemporary Benno Moiseiwitsch. At first I thought the pianist was merely letting the agonized theme which dominates the piece simply “grow” at the start, and the impassioned central section was splendidly realized – but both the theme’s stricken return, and the cry of pain which concludes the piece didn’t, for me, pierce the heart as I wanted – instead, the voice was numbed and inward-sounding (admittedly, the interpretation made me re-think the music, though I wasn’t entirely convinced that Bryant-Green’s heart was completely at one with what was happening at those points). But still, here’s a musician to be watched and given all encouragement to further develop as a performer, in my opinion.

Jian Liu’s pianistic credentials were enhanced  further by a lovely performance of the first movement of Haydn’s well-known C Major Sonata Hob.XVI:50, the pianist still managing a sense of fun amid the athletic, no-nonsense approach. A pity we weren’t given the repeat, because there was so much to enjoy and so little of the sonata presented to allow the same! I liked the beautifully-pedalled touches of colour in the development, echoed in the recapitulation, and also the contrasting tenderness of the lyrical second subject (what a shame we could’t have had the whole sonata!). Jian also gave us an arrangement of a Chinese folk-song, Liu-Yang River, charming and suitably exotic. And to add to this panoply of pianistic riches, Tony Lee performed firstly the short but extremely volatile Sonata No.4 by Scriabin, setting the dreaminess of the opening movement against the positively volcanic irruptions of its companion (a wonderfully elemental experience) – and then the two very last of Rachmaninov’s Op.32 Preludes, firstly the chilling, Slavic water-crossing of the G-sharp Minor No.12, and then the grandly chordal D-flat Major homecoming of No.13, almost Musorgsky-like in its expressive power and suggestions of Russian soul. Both performances took us unerringly to these “other realms” of creative imagination, from a composer who’s still, I think to receive his full dues.

And, unexpectedly, there was more Rachmaninov right at the end, a work I didn’t know existed, written for no less than three pianists! – a Waltz and Romance, dated (so Jian Liu told me afterwards) from 1891, and with what sounded uncannily like a direct “crib”, in the second movement, from the composer’s yet-to-be-composed Second Piano Concerto! A lot of fun, for both musicians and listeners, not the least for that ghostly pre-echo of a famous and much-loved work.

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