St Andrews Lunchtime Concert Series presents:
MELANIE LINA – a piano recital
BEETHOVEN, CHOPIN, GERSHWIN, DEBUSSY
27th February 2013
I didn’t manage to get to hear the very beginning of Melanie Lina’s St.Andrews lunchtime concert recital, crashing in (metaphorically) at what seemed the stormiest point of the Waldstein Sonata’s first movement development section, ostensibly a good place in which to make a late entrance as an audience member! In truth, I had foreseen that things would keep me from making the starter’s call, so had arranged for my Middle C colleague, Rosemary Collier, to record her impressions of the first movement, to “tide the review over” so to speak! It turned into what I thought was a fascinating comparative exercise – had a well-known Biblical figure been present, he would have washed his hands for a second time, and reiterated his well-known definitive mantra, “What is truth?”.
Rosemary traced the music’s course in Melanie Lina’s hands from “dark opening sonorities” to “more ecstatic sounds”. Commenting on the pianist’s technique, she said that the skills and musicianship on display were of a high order, though she felt some blurring of figuration in the early part of the sonata, due, perhaps to slight over-pedalling. This was underpinned by the tempo set by Melanie Lina, an “Allegro con brio” with plenty of the latter, and perhaps a faster allegro than is usually the case in performances of this sonata.
Nevertheless, Rosemary found herself admiring “a good variety of tonal colours”, bringing out the music’s drama. Occasionally it was felt that the piano made a clattery sound, specifically the notes in the second octave of the treble – was some restoration of the felts on the hammers needed in that much-used part of the keyboard? She made the point that Melanie Lina’s sound was rather less “clattery” than some she had previously heard. I must confess that, when I arrived my first thought was how INVOLVING the pianist’s sonorities were, the tones bright and focused but commanding a range of emphases which nicely coloured the lines and their range of intensities.
Had I not known the pianist’s identity (rather like tuning into a radio broadcast of a performance mid-movement) I would have forwarded the opinion that she/he was Russian – I could feel a pronounced degree of what commentators have called in the past “imaging”, a quality which characterizes the playing among members of the Russian piano school. This allies the music’s sound with a poetic or narrative idea, however abstracted or disguised, awakening potentialities in listeners for equating the music with their own experiences of similar ideas and/or emotions.
So, mid-development, the music’s drama was palpably and full-bloodedly engaged. Melanie Lina then contrasted this with a “Tempest Sonata-like” sequence of charged expectancy, the left-handed pulsating of the music supporting the right hand’s playfulness, and the crescendo bringing us to a swirling pitch of excitement before setting the reprise upon its wonderfully clear-headed course once more – such characterful, involving playing! The lyricism of contrasting episodes was given its due, but not allowed to languish, impelled forwards by the playing’s drive, and giving the dynamic contrasts all that they were worth – this was Beethoven after all!
Occasional finger-slips merely added to the excitement and sense of risk-taking in this dynamic performance, the “swirling” effect just before the last, breath-catching lyrical statement of the second theme again quite Russian in its utterance (shades of Richter and Gilels), a lovely meditative moment before the concluding pay-off.
My colleague drew attention to the slow movement’s beautiful legato, creating a mood at once delightful and soulful, a judgement I agreed with – here was music which seemed to me both abstractedly poetic and unashamedly operatic, the lines a veritable love-duet, as much demure as ardent, with tones matching the music’s different characters. I particularly loved Melanie Lina’s delineation of those three obelisks of sound at the movement’s beginning, a framework around which the music then wove its poetic interactions. I thought the pianist seemed momentarily to lose a little of her poise when approaching the finale (outside, perhaps some workmen’s occasional and annoying noises off were partly to blame at this point) – the character of the sounds seemed to recede and lose its focused edge and “charged” quality.
Happily, equanimity was restored with the finale’s beautifully ambient trilled tones which opened up the vistas and gave the bell-like melody space to ring resoundingly – a great moment! Lina didn’t need to hurry the reprise of the opening, though, as the slight tempo-nudge at the reprise impaired a sense for me of heavenly bodies going about their cosmic business – there was ample opportunity within a few measures to intensify the trajectories with the recapitulation of the trills and the powerful left hand – but the broken octaves that followed were very excitingly delivered, the composer at once setting a more earthy set of impulses alongside sublime order, a dynamic of contrasts well-realised by the pianist.
“Poetic and dramatic as required….a magnificent rendition” was Rosemary Collier’s overall comment regarding the finale, commenting further that the pianist’s tempo was a little speedy for an Allegretto, resulting in a lack of weight as a whole. I felt that the pianist successfully realized Beethoven’s characteristic fusion of serenity and volatility, encompassing things like the breathtaking plunge into a new world-view with those massive chords changing the whole colour of the music, then gliding the music along a more winsome, syncopated pathway. The reprise was joyous and celebratory, though the pianist’s tempo did make for a relative “labouring” of the triplet figurations, and a touch of hectoring tone in places, perhaps due to that problematic piano register. There came that prophetic, Schumannesque moment of recall almost at the end (a lovely “reminiscing” effect), and the post-horn-like chords to finish.
In the wake of this performance the other item which really grabbed my attention was Melanie Lina’s astonishing playing of Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse. Here, as with the Beethoven, was, I thought, something of a grand tradition revisited, the pianist’s scintillating tones at the outset instantly at one with both idea and image of something shimmering and impulsive, all contours somehow both delineated and merged into one another, with everything made beautifully liquid. The pianist’s thematic shaping of the work’s “big melodic idea” grew beautifully from out of the textures, and, like Saint Francis de Paule of medieval times, who was said to have walked upon the water, rode the swirls and agitations triumphantly. I thought Lina’s command of detail, rhythm and colour realized the piece brilliantly, with a ringing flourish at the end whose sheer élan took away one’s breath with astonishment.
These items framed the remainder of the recital, works by Chopin and Gershwin. Again, the playing was brilliant, though in places, almost too much so – I felt the effect was sometimes too unyielding, too frenetic. The Chopin Waltz (the Op.42 A-flat Major “Grand Waltz”) needed more elegance and liquid flow for Schumann’s imagined countesses, Lina’s cascades of notes delivering too agitated and insistent an effect (the piano could possibly have been part of the problem). Her playing of the first (in C Minor) of the Op.48 Nocturnes was more successful, bringing out the orchestral contrasts of the opening with the hymn-like central section, though I felt some “straining on the leash” as the pianist moved towards the agitated chordal triplets, building the mood inexorably into something of a storm – it was evidently quite a night! Perhaps for some tastes the turbulence was over-wrought, though one could just as easily regarded the intensities as part of the pianist’s refusal to take a single note for granted.
Still, I thought the Three Preludes of Gershwin’s responded better to the pianist’s unflagging energy and intensity than did the Chopin items (Lina is, after all, American-born and trained, and would have doubtless been steeped in a kind of home-grown context for this music). Her playing of the dreamy middle Prelude was particularly atmospheric and evocative, and provided some relief from her brusque, hard-edged, totally unsentimental rendition of the opening piece (Gershwin himself played his music this way, judging from existing recordings). A busy, athletic evocation of the Third Prelude’s New-World glitter and bustle completed the set on a high note.
A word about the program notes, which contained a brief “recent undertakings” bio of Melanie Lina, and notes on the music, written by the pianist – the latter were a delight, in the form of a letter to us, the recital audience, putting each of her program choices into a context explaining its appearance, and telling us a great deal about her as an interpreter in the process. She told us of her youthful experiences with the “Waldstein” Sonata, and how she recently came back to it as the result of hearing a broadcast (to our great good fortune), delighting in its orchestral range and scope. With Chopin she talked of the quality of “singing with the fingers” when playing his music in general, and of the festive delight of some of his Waltzes, including the A-flat Major one played in the recital. She called the C Minor Nocturne “deeply dramatic”, a description borne out by her own performance.
Most interestingly, in tandem with talking about Gershwin’s music as being from her homeland, Melanie Lina expressed the intention to play more New Zealand music as well (one wonders if things like Douglas Lilburn’s Chaconne, John Psathas’s Waiting for the Aeroplane, and Philip Dadson’s Sisters Dance are already in her sights).
Having an interpreter of her abilities willing to play such repertoire would be cause for great joy – which leads me to the exuberance with which she wrote about the recital’s concluding item, Debussy’s L’isle Joyeuse, telling us about her midwest childhood spent far from any ocean, and her miraculous grown-up relocation to “an island in the Pacific” which she now calls home, indeed, a “joyous isle” that for her invests Debussy’s music with a special significance.
One hopes Wellington has not seen and heard the last of Melanie Lina, after such an exciting and stimulating solo concert.