Melanie Lina – great playing reaching all too few ears at St.Andrew’s

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace presents PIANO +
A week of concerts in support of the proposed new Welcome Centre

Concert No.4 – Melanie Lina (piano)

SCARLATTI – Sonatas: E major K.380 / D Major K.29
BEETHOVEN – Sonata in E-flat Op.81a “Les Adieux”
PSATHAS – Waiting for the Aeroplane
BRITTEN – “Early Morning Bathe” / “Sailing” (from “Holiday Diary” Op.5)
ALBENIZ – El Puerto / Cordoba
RAVEL – Alborado del gracioso (from “Miroirs”)
CHOPIN – Waltzes: E Major (Op.Posth.) / A-flat Major Op.42 / Piano Sonata in B Minor Op.58

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Friday, 15th November 2013

How unfortunate that, in the wake of Michael Houstoun’s extended weekend of Beethoven Sonata performances at the MFC, which was followed immediately by this present Piano+ series at St.Andrew’s in Wellington, the capital’s music-going public seemed to have “run out of steam” after three of the five nights of concerts.

It was probably a case of event overload, but each of the two remaining occasions, both of them notable piano recitals, were so poorly attended as to induce a degree of actual embarrassment on the part of those who were there. It left me with the not wholly comfortable feeling that the city’s reputation as an arts and cultural centre (which we Wellingtonians all keenly look to espouse) might not be such a “given” as presumed.

Whatever the case, Shakespeare’s immortal lines from Henry V “And gentlemen of England now abed…….”  applied in spadesful to both of these concerts, as the few who attended heartily agreed (we all readily bonded as a group on each of the evenings under these conditions!). There were chalk-and-cheese differences as regards repertoire, though each had a definite link with the aforementioned Houstoun/Beethoven series concluded a few days previously – Melanie Lina’s recital featured the composer’s “Les Adieux” Sonata, while Taiwanese-born pianist Ya-Ting Liou gave us the Op.126 set of Bagatelles the following evening.

The “Les Adieux” Sonata was given by Melanie Lina as part of a first half whose general theme expressed aspects of human dislocation/relocation in places away from homelands, both temporary and lifelong. So, along with Beethoven we had music by (Italian-born but Spanish-domiciled) Domenico Scarlatti, the much-travelled Catalan-born Isaac Albeniz, and the Basque-born Maurice Ravel, whose lifelong affair with Spain is well documented in his works.

Bringing the idea “closer to home” for listeners was John Psathas’s evocative Waiting for the Aeroplane, along with excerpts from Benjamin Britten’s rarely-played but highly entertaining Holiday Diary.  An all-Chopin second half seemed in accord with the dislocation/relocation theme, though the works presented here were more cosmopolitan than nationalistic in outlook.

I felt, perhaps, that the program was over-generous – a pianist friend with whom I attended the concert also thought the recital too long by a couple of items, though remarking that she herself had been “guilty” of a similar largesse of performing spirit in her younger concertizing days. Just one of the Albeniz/Ravel “Spanish” works would, I think, have sufficed, providing sufficient contrast with the rest, and leaving us pleasantly hungry for more…..

Beginning the recital, Melanie Lina gave us Scarlatti – two beautifully-crafted Baroque sonatas here exquisitely rendered by the pianist on a modern concert grand. Throughout the opening E Major (K.380) I loved Lina’s “imaging” – that sense of fantasy with which she so readily infused the music, her tempi and phrasing allowing the music to blossom and live within each bar. I could hear throughout the “twang” of the guitar resonating within a vividly-wrought ambience, one infused with her rich command of keyboard colour.  She revelled also in the more extrovert D Major (K.29), the great toccata-like whirls of sound at the opening conjuring up something very pictorial and dramatic, followed by fingerwork which propelled the music’s thrust with Horowitz-like crystalline clarity.

The pianist very properly alerted us to the correlation between the German word “Lebe-wohl” and the opening of Beethoven’s popularly-styled “Les Adieux” Sonata – the heartfelt three-note motif led to a full-blooded exposition of grief at a friend’s departure, both vigorous and reflective (both elements superbly delivered by Lina – some brilliant toccata-like chording in places, as well as a brief development hiatus which she quickly recovered from), while at the movement’s conclusion the farewell motif (also evoking a posthorn-like ambience) reinforced the sense of loss most vividly.

After this I wanted a shade more stillness from the second movement, a more “stricken” feeling – though Beethoven writes “andante”, he intensifies the feeling with “expressivo” – but Lina’s playing I thought a shade dry-eyed, perhaps registering the impatience of one who awaits the return of a friend more than the sorrow of that person’s absence. Theoretically, a classicist would approve of her structural organization of the whole, whereas a romantic might bemoan the lessening of feeling and atmosphere.

The finale very properly burst upon us with a mighty flourish, and though the pianist didn’t always carry a kind of underlying momentum across some of the sequences there were some thrilling moments. I particularly relished Lina’s repeated right-hand upward triple-flourishes (again, crystalline fingerwork) and, following the reprise of the opening, the hair-raising juxtaposition of left-hand octaves and right-hand dancings which when done, as here, with confidence and élan, produced an exhilaration of physical excitement! And though it was a case of thrills and spills at another point, the pianist prevailed in the face of some Haydnesque “dead-ends” and wrestled back the musical argument, to the great relief of all concerned.

A different kind of ambience informed John Psathas’ bitter-sweet Waiting for the Aeroplane, by turns nostalgic, visionary and jazzy, and here evoked with great surety. It made the perfect foil for two movements from a work I didn’t know, Britten’s piano suite Holiday Diary, written in 1934 and dedicated to his piano teacher, Arthur Benjamin. The first piece, entitled “Early Morning Bathe” nicely delineated the energies required to set the process in motion, the angularities of the opening giving way to the swimmer’s strokes and the water’s undulations.Had I not known the music’s title I would have plumped for a horse-ride of some description, complete with the feel of the wind on the rider’s face!

In the second piece, “Sailing” the playing caught a warmly sostenuto singing mood over gently shifting chords, the line’s water-mark shifting the sonorities to brighter realms in places, when suddenly the music energized and danced in a quasi-Musorgsky mood, the phrases spiky and fragmentary. Then, as quickly, the opening mood returned, this time with a deep tolling bass line underpinning the lyricism – a gorgeous performance of some lovely music.

As for the three “Spanish” pieces, I enjoyed most of all Melanie Lina’s astounding playing of Ravel’s Alborado del gracioso – when she began, I thought her tempo was too fast and that everything would degenerate into a garble of smudged notes – but she made it work with such tremendous zest, buoyancy and clarity, the repeated notes both clear and resonant, and the flourishes full-bodied and properly theatrical. Then, the recitative took us into the ambience’s heart, with pliant yet focused rhythmic impulses, the storyteller’s art coming to the fore, here – Lina was able to throw off the flourishes with such amazing “glint” while still making the melodies sing, spreading the chords as if she was strumming a giant guitar, and launching into the dance-rhythm of the opening once again with exquisite timing – those glissandi completed their mesmeric spell and helped whirl our sensibilities into paroxysms of delight at the end.

Neither of the Albeniz pieces was quite on this exalted level – El Puerto was given plenty of zest and physicality, and Lina did as well as any I’ve heard to keep the piece coherent and varied amid the composer’s veritable torrent of notes. And Cordoba started well, the pianist capturing during the introductory bars the ambivalence of the Spanish night, with its luminosity and fragrance set against darker rituals of purpose, but later, I thought relinquishing too much of the depth and mystery in rhythms which never really dug in – for me, a bit too picture-postcard a response to this soulful music.

The remained of the program was given over to Chopin – firstly, two waltzes stylishly and charmingly performed, the first the Op.Posth. E Major beautifully gauged as regards an appropriate mix of strength and poetry, and the second, the Op. 42 A-flat “Grand Waltz” variously whirling us around the ballroom and encouraging us to snap our heels to attention with the music’s engaging “strut” – all delightful and invigorating stuff.

Then came the “grand finale” – the Op.58 B Minor Sonata – a difficult assignment for any pianist, but especially at the conclusion of a demanding program. Despite some “crowding in” of detail in places, making for a slightly rushed and breathless intermittent effect, I thought Lina’s delivery of the first movement of the work very fine, wanting only in some light and shade here and there, which would have given Chopin’s classically-oriented piano writing a touch more air and space. And I admired her gossamer delivery of the Scherzo’s fleet-fingered opening, and the on-going “tingling” effect of the intermezzo-like passages which followed, more agitato in places than I expected, but nevertheless effective.

But it was the slow movement which truly captured my imagination, here – after emphatically delivering the opening’s dramatic and rhetorical gesture, Lina brought both of the movement’s contrasting lyrical episodes to warm-hearted fruition, with whole vistas of contrasting feeling and colour deftly applied to a poised, easeful change from B major to E Major. I thought the pianist’s tone was”centered” in a way that focused sensibilities on the here-and-now qualities of the music’s emotion – a treasurable sense of something unique to the moment that would never be recaptured.

Impressive, too, in some ways was Lina’s playing of the turbulent finale – except that I thought in places she pushed the “presto” so fiercely that the “ma non tanto” dropped off!  I couldn’t help feeling in her phrasing and articulation a degree of anxiety driving the music ever onwards – as though she didn’t trust the music’s own in-built momentum – which gave the performance as much a sense of breathlessness as of motivation and purpose. I found it all a bit unsettling – perhaps in accord with its composer’s state of mind at the time.

However, these few points aside, this was a splendid and enjoyable recital by a pianist whose musical and communicative skills deserved oceans more than our few hands and voices could give her. I do hope she gives Wellington another chance, before too long.


































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