Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Tribulation and triumph for young pianist at Lower Hutt

By , 09/05/2013

Chamber Music Hutt Valley presents

JASON BAE – Piano Recital

BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata No.6 in F Major Op.10 No.2

RAVEL – Gaspard de la Nuit

CHOPIN – Mazurkas Op.59

RACHMANINOV – Piano Sonata No.2 in B-flat Minor Op.36

Lower Hutt Little Theatre,

Thursday 9th May 2013

Chamber Music Hutt Valley organizers must have wondered about what else was going to go wrong, regarding the chain of events associated with the Society’s much-awaited piano recital by Serbian Sonja Radojkovich. Firstly, Radojkovich had to withdraw due to ill health, and then replacement pianist Jason Bae, of Auckland, had his bag containing practically all of his personal effects stolen from the Lower Hutt Theatre while he was rehearsing for the concert.

The wonder of all this was that, despite the setbacks, the concert still went ahead and the music triumphed, thanks to the outstanding abilities of and remarkable professionalism displayed by the young Korean-born pianist, playing without his normal contact lenses, and having to rely entirely on memory throughout much of his final day’s preparations for the recital.

Jason Bae had, a week before, graduated with performance honours from the University of Auckland’s School of Music while under the tutelage of Rae de Lisle. After concluding this present tour, and fulfilling a couple of concerto engagements in Auckland with the Philharmonic, he will be heading for London, where he has been accepted into the Royal Academy of Music for a Masters of Arts in piano performance, studying with Christopher Elton and Joanna MacGregor. High-flying stuff!

On the strength of his performances in this present recital, I would say that he has all the requisite talent and all the “young-pianist” characteristics to be able to develop into a truly remarkable musician. In terms of technique alone, he was able to square up to all the contact-points of the most demanding items, while his musical sensibilities enabled him to sensitively and tellingly shape and control the ebb and flow of many different aspects of the music’s expression.

Probably the most successful performance overall during the evening was that of the Rachmaninov Sonata, a work that requires a kind of “grand virtuoso manner” with a fastidious ear for voicing individual parts and a feeling for facilitating a kind of play between impulse and poise. To my ears, Jason Bae showed that he possessed all of those qualities, giving us a proper “epic” quality in the playing, right from the opening of the work. Here were grand orchestral sonorities set against gentler melancholic strains that followed (shades of the composer’s famous Op.32 B Minor Prelude at one point), and an impressive array of keyboard textures, the music cascading from bright, Rimsky-Korsakov-like glisterings on the heights to deep-throated bells down in the valleys. Perhaps the melancholy lyricism was a bit dry-eyed in places, but so much else was achieved in impressive style, one couldn’t really complain.

The second movement’s lyrical opening seemed to form of itself out of the very air in the pianist’s hands, the composer then seeming to play with salon-like melodic sequences, but then subject them to all kinds of adventures, ritualistic, agitated and breath-catchingly melodic – the playing here amply demonstrated why it was that pianists love to tackle Rachmaninov’s music! After a brief introductory moment of reflection the finale irrupted with energy and forward drive, a kind of “boyars’ march”, delivered by the young pianist with brilliance and swagger, and maintaining a sense of excitement right through to the concluding flourishes, doing rich justice to a self-assured display of confidence by no means characteristic of a sometimes cripplingly self-critical composer.

Ravel’s formidable Gaspard de la Nuit was also impressively recreated, especially throughout the two outer movements, each of which brought out Jason Bae’s wonderful variety of touch and surety of emphasis at any given point in the music. Thus the opening Ondine shimmered and swirled most delicately, while conjuring up a growing sense of volatility born of the water-sprite’s hopeless love for a mortal man, culminating in a frisson of movement and bitter laughter which at once mocked and stung as well as filled the heart of the enraptured listener with both pity and relief.

Its shadow-side here was Scarbo , the work’s third movement, reckoned by many commentators as an exemplar of musical malevolence. The pianist’s prominent repeated notes shortly after the music’s creepily disturbing beginning did seem to me to lack true visceral bite, but Bae made amends by later conjuring up some truly awe-inspiring, necromantic figurations and textures, orchestrating the tensions and suggestively psychotic confrontation-points with dark brilliance.

Interestingly, I thought his Le Gibet  (a musical depiction of a corpse left on the gallows in the setting sun) not yet on the level of the two other realizations, macabre stillness and pity perhaps more elusive states to realize and maintain in music over long periods. Bae’s playing seemed to my ears concerned more with beauty than with desolation, his tone-gradations and texturings missing something of a “stricken” quality, a kind of underlying ghastliness that informs every chord progression, every melodic impulse, every single bell-tolling note. No tone-poem to nature’s beauties, this, but a study in gloom and hopelessness. Perhaps one ought to be heartened at the thought of a musician young in years whose mind is yet unclouded by such morbidities and their musical realization.

On a similar level of accomplishment was Jason Bae’s rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.6 in F Major, the work which opened the recital. The music’s opening measures were given plenty of poise and spring by the pianist, the juxtapositioning between legato and staccato passages helping to bring out the fun of the work, evident from the very first two chords. Though an early sonata, there’s already a distinctive creative spirit at work in its alternations of virtuoso display, poised, elegantly-worked figuration, and touches of humour. Jason Bae’s playing underlined the first two of these qualities with plenty of stylish gestures and technical aplomb, though the music’s humour was somewhat left to its own devices.

I thought the slow movement nicely done, if rather sectional, with the pauses between sequences of the movement feeling a bit dead instead of “thought-through”. But the pianist achieved a lovely contrast between the contrapuntal opening and the more chordal trio section, with an ear for gradations of tone in evidence. And the tongue-in-cheek nonchalance with which the finale’s presto was launched buoyed us along splendidly, even if the bumptiously ornamented key-change could have raised our eyebrows a bit more mischievously. But Bae missed, in my opinion, the biggest joke of them all (perhaps this WAS the joke!), the unexpected plunge back into the second-half repeat, as if Beethoven was saying, “AND another thing….!” It was, come to think of it, a twist of a different kind, a “That’s enough of that!” gesture, instead.

I’ve left the Chopin Mazurka group to the end, because I found it a bit of a puzzle – the individual pieces were played cleanly and smoothly, with all the pianistic dots and crosses filled in – but I didn’t feel the music’s character was sufficiently projected, via a dance-element that’s earthy and in places even spiky.  I certainly don’t think pianists should play the Mazurkas as though they’re another set of Waltzes – Schumann’s Countesses have no place in these largely rustic, strongly-accented pieces, whose rhythmic quirkiness and obsessive leading beats confounded some of Chopin’s contemporaries (there are accounts of Chopin “falling out” with people over reactions to his playing of these very individual works.

The composer’s enjoining other interpreters to “listen to Bellini” in order to play his music properly would have most likely been a directive to take notice as much of the singers’ rubato as part of the beauty of the vocal line. As with Mozart, who wanted his music to “flow like oil” Chopin’s advice to other pianists has been taken up by many as meaning to create a kind of unending prettiness, bringing to heel any more vigorous or darker aspects to the music. I’m certain Jason Bae will, as he continues to explore those Mazurkas, come to dig his fingers into them more deeply and uncover more of their “cultured earthiness”. Liszt has been practically castigated by more recent scholarship for comparing these pieces to Polish folk-music all those years ago,  but one can HEAR in the music’s characterful impulses what he meant.

All credit to Jason Bae on a number of counts, regarding an exciting and stimulating recital. We wish him all the very best for his oncoming period of study in England, and look forward to encountering his playing again, at some undisclosed but eagerly awaited time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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