Junghwa Lee – pianistic brilliance and recreative ferment at the NZSM

Te Kōkī – New Zealand School of Music presents:
Junghwa Lee (piano)
French and contemporary American piano music recital

Emmanuel CHABRIER – Improvisation / Menuet pompeux (from Pièces pittoresques)
César FRANCK – Prélude, Choral et Fugue
Camille SAINT-SAËNS – Allegro Appassionato Op.70
Frank STEMPER – Piano Sonata No.2 (2013) – (world premiere)

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Kelburn Campus
Victoria University of Wellington

Wednesday 26th March

This was one of those concerts whose first item (quite apart from other, later revelations) I didn’t really see coming – true, I was intrigued at the thought of hearing how the composer of orchestral classics such as Espana and Marche Joyeuse would acquit himself in the realm of keyboard music, though I wasn’t expecting much beyond what the title suggested – “picturesque pieces” was my schoolboy French translation, which didn’t seem to suggest much more than salon music.

Thanks to an obviously alchemic combination of music and interpreter I was immediately entranced by the first of these Pièces pittoresques, appropriately titled Improvisation, by Emmanuel Chabrier. The pianist was Korean Junghwa Lee, who currently lives and works in the United States at Southern Illinois University, where she is Associate Professor of Piano, though she’s also developing a profile as an international performer.

The “Improvisation” title of the first piece sounded exactly like that in Junghwa Lee’s hands –  in fact I found it difficult to tell whether the pianist was playing the music or vice versa, so integrated was sound with gesture, rapt concentration with liquid flow. Throughout, her performance caught the piece’s play of light and colour in and around spontaneous irruptions of energy and beautifully floated stillnesses.

I thought her pianistic control superbly judged in its complete lack of self-consciousness, with everything instead put at the service of the music in a continuous flow of “interest”, the sounds quite beautifully liberated. By contrast, the other piece from the same set, the Menuet pompeux, bristled with volatile energies, whimsy set against willfulness, except for a trio section which, just as unexpectedly, sought to soothe and charm. A work to investigate further!

For much of Cesar Franck’s meditative Prelude, Chorale and Fugue I felt the same “connection” with Junghwa Lee’s playing as I did with the Chabrier items – the pianist quickly caught the opening Prelude’s distinctive flavour, its barely-contained passion alternated with tender circuspection, the whole suffused with those characteristic chromatically flavoured harmonies which can sound vaguely “spiritual”, and for some people have a kind of “sanctimonious” feeling which they then attribute to the composer! (These same people can’t have ever heard Franck’s Piano Quintet!)

The Choral which followed was underpinned by a lovely, deeply-wrought bass, the theme deftly and lightly arpeggiated, its figurations ear-catchingly varied in places, thanks to Junghwa Lee’s  ever-varied voicing of the lines and beautiful control of the music’s harmonic colourings. A questioning, then more vigorous passage ushered in the fugue, in a manner not unlike, if less angular in expression than Beethoven in his “Hammerklavier” Sonata’s finale.

Splendid though much of the playing was at this point, I did think the music needed a more “larger-than-life” aspect than the pianist was prepared to give it – towards the end I wanted an even fuller-blooded sense of eventual triumph over darkness, a more unashamedly rhetorical enjoyment of things like the return of the Choral theme as a joyous pealing of bells. But then I’m an unashamed sensationalist in these matters, and undoubtedly lack Junghwa Lee’s innate sensitivity!

Franck and Saint-Saëns were chalk-and-cheese composers and personalities, and the latter’s Allegro Appassionato Op.70 (not to be confused with the same composer’s Op.43 work for ‘cello and orchestra) has none of Franck’s other-worldliness, or sense of personal suffering – the “appassionato” of Saint-Saëns’s title is expressed simply and directly in the music, with occasional respites from the agitations having the aspect of interludes more than a different side of the same coin. As a consequence, the music in quieter places reminded me of Ravel, like Saint-Saens, renowned for his outward detachment and his concealment of deeper feelings.

Junghwa Lee brought all of her quicksilver elegance to this music’s gossamer opening, following the somewhat portentous three-note beginning. She allowed the more lyrical passages plenty of space and considerable fluidity, so that the sequences shared with the more agitated moments a certain spontaneous flow – and I liked the almost Lisztian pensiveness which settled over the music just before the allegro jumped out at us once again and whirled the piece to its brilliant conclusion.

After a short interval came my second surprise of the evening – a piano sonata (the composer’s second, in fact) written specifically for the pianist by American Frank Stemper, a colleague of Junghwa Lee at Southern Illinois University, where he is currently Composer in Residence, and a Professor of Music.

The programme notes concerning the sonata were written, not altogether surprisingly, by the composer – as befitted the occasion of this performance being the actual world premiere of the work. So, we did feel somewhat privileged at having such an event presented to us here in a part of the world somewhat removed, it seemed, from the piece’s geographical origins, even given that the dedicatee was tonight’s pianist!

I didn’t really know what to expect regarding the work. Having said this I confess that my first reading of the composer’s notes, explaining the music’s links with the concept of death, gave rise to the reaction, “Hmm, well, very American!” But when I thought about this a bit more, I thought this was a little unfair of me, because many composers throughout the ages have composed unequivocal “death-pieces” – and in some instances similarly expounded their ideas about either the music in question or the associated state of being – or non-being!

So, in a somewhat ambivalent state of part-delicious, part-anxious expectation I awaited the return of the pianist buoyed by the composer’s assertion in his notes that “Ms. Lee would go to any lengths to absorb and understand the music and then clearly interpret its web of sonic activity” – so,, you see, this was, in other words, a kind of recreative imprimatur, a word about to be made flesh……perhaps I should now begin talking about the music and its performance…….

The first of four movements was called Sonata Allegro, and sub-titled L’inizio della fine (The beginning of the end) – describing the opening as depicting the moment of death, that process of life winding down and concluding, the composer crafted suitably dark, meditative bell-tolling textures, the deepest notes building towards a brief moment of agitation in the treble, before exploring some Messiaen-like ambient spaces, the music (like Elgar’s in the second part of “Gerontius” freed from “the busy beat of time”) revelling in its liberation from pulse and rhythm.The second movement’s musica da ballo (dance music) had a mischievous, almost diabolical air, an insinuating melody singing over driving, angular figures suggesting Musorgsky-like characters whose faces kept changing. It’s the sort of music Liszt might have written had he been a twentieth-century composer.

Throughout, but especially in the latter stages, the composer kept his promise to use the entire range of the keyboard – throughout what I imagined might be the Andante e improvisatione third movement the pianist’s hands created some remarkably spaced-out sonorities between treble and bass, with repeated right hand chords set against vigorous left-handed leaps, the effect positively orchestral in places, and growing in frenetic energy and incisiveness, encouraging the right hand’s repeated notes to grow in power and insistence, resulting in some exciting toccata-like sequences.

What was remarkable about the playing at certain points was the contrast between Junghwa Lee’s sheer keyboard physicality and, within moments, her ability to hold silences unflinchingly and resonantly. It was as if her whole body continued to emanate the ambiences of the previous tumult, creating, as it were, from these tonal echoes the murmurings of voices being wrought anew – one had a sense of the music setting its own house in order before what one presumed might be something of an onslaught. And so it proved, the Sonata Rondo being the drama’s final act – the onset of alarm, which, in the words of the composer “signals the end”.

If Junghwa Lee’s playing had impressed up to this point, her full-blooded engagement with the music’s demands at this point astonished us further still – again that “playing or being played” sense of oneness with it all was overwhelming, with energies literally flying in all directions! Then, at the tumult’s height the music suddenly returned to the world of the work’s opening pages – a most eerie and engaging effect, even if, possibly, a little too much of a good thing. A final irruption from the depths – a kind of “triumph of death” – and the piece came to its end. A remarkable journey, to say the least…….

Had the pianist brought something of that concluding physicality and abandonment in the Stemper Sonata to the last couple of pages of the Cesar Franck work, I would have been at a loss for words regarding the achievement of the whole recital! As it was, I thought Junghwa Lee had treated us to performances not merely of brilliance, but of great distinctiveness and individuality, utterly compelling in their realization.

Of late we’ve been able to enjoy some pretty stunning performances of all kinds from both visiting and resident artists through the NZSM’s auspices, a happy situation that deserves the heartfelt thanks of we music-lovers to the Music School. It’s one that I sincerely hope will continue.

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