Talented piano duettists combine wit and virtuosity for St Andrew’s audience

Nicole Chao and Beth Chen (piano duettists)

Souvenirs de Bayreuth (Massenet and Fauré)
Preludes Op 23, Nos 4, 5 and 6 (Rachmaninov) – played by Beth Chen
Mephisto Waltz No 1 (Liszt) – played by Nicole Chao
La belle excentrique (Satie)

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 5 December, 12.15pm

These two pianists, born in Taiwan, gained their master’s degrees at Victoria University, and have studied elsewhere. They have returned to Wellington with a host of awards and prizes in their brief-cases.  They have both become highly polished players who have recently joined forces to play piano duets, and duos, no doubt, which they do with a unanimity of feeling and technical mastery that is not usually acquired in so short a time.

Their programme combined a couple of satirical duets with solo pieces from the normal, yet highly demanding, repertoire.

Messager and Fauré put together as set of five pieces drawn from Wagner: ‘Fantasy in the form of a quadrille on themes from Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen’. Unlike certain French (and other) composers, the two friends – teacher and pupil – were enraptured by Wagner’s operas and had seen them in Munich, Cologne, Bayreuth and London.

We were offered no hint as to the respective contributions by the two composers (Messager wrote many operas and operettas, the still popular ballet Les deux pigeons, and conducted the first performance of Pelléas et Mélisande).

The first piece opened with loud chords and continued its brief course in dramatic fashion. The character of the quadrille varied from piece to piece, all danceable no doubt, but more likely to raise smiles; but more likely to raise smiles for the intention was to send up a few of the Leitmotive in a genial, light-hearted way.

Beth Chen played three of the preludes from Rachmaninov’s Op 23 set; hints of sentimentality were to be heard in No 4, but what kept the piece alive especially was the way the sounds produced by the two hands were kept so distinct in their colour and mood, yet created such  a perfect vocal blend.

No 5, in G minor, is the second best-known of the preludes; she played its slightly non-bellicose march carefully, which lent a greater force to the climactic phases. No 6 is rhapsodic in character and Chen gave it a relaxed though scrupulous performance, with sensitively placed rubato; again the two hands took up sharply contrasting roles – bright chords in the right hard, the left playing legato arpeggios. These were highly accomplished and authoritative performances.

Then it was Nicole Chao’s turn, with the first Mephisto Waltz, and it was brilliant: the sinister excitement of the first heavy chords, the dangerous, galloping rhythms; the scarlet and black colours of a medieval Satan in the hair-raising rushes of chromatic scales, and then the sudden beguiling calm.  Her playing was a dazzling display of speed, agility and clarity, getting to the heart of Liszt.

The pair returned then to offer another facet of late 19th century French wit, whose musical model was Satie. La belle excentrique [oui, il s’écrite comme ça] describes four characteristics or behaviours of a type of woman only to be found among the French. The Moon March, for example, suggested someone coping with the low gravity that exists on the moon or possibly with three too many drinks. The High Society Cancan with its scraps of tunes that interrupt each other, toy playfully with the spirit of Offenbach. The performances were a splendid substitute for a liquid lunch.

These two pianists await, though I doubt whether they do consciously, an invitation to join Chamber Music New Zealand’s nationwide concert series or even as duet or duo pianists, in the tradition of the Labèque sisters, in Bach, Mozart, Dussek or Poulenc, with the Wellington Orchestra or the NZSO.


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