New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University presents:
Piano Students 2017
Nick Kovacek (Brahms: Rhapsody in B Minor Op.79 No.1)
Jungyeon Lee (Mozart: Sonata in F Major K.332)
William Swan (Debussy: Preludes Bk II – No.12 Feux d’artifice)
Matthew Oliver (Chopin: Etudes Op.10 – No 9 in F Minor)
Mitchell Henderson (Medtner: Sonata Reminiscenza Op.38 No.1)
Wednesday, 31st May 2017
A pity that the printed programme gave no information about any of the piano students, which would have “fleshed out” each of them a bit more, a smidgeon of biographical information and a comment regarding repertoire preferences in each case, for instance – nothing more than a couple of sentences akin to what each might write on his or her CV. While I thought the Acting Director of the School of Music, Dr. Dougal McKinnon’s written summary of the Music School’s activities interesting, if understandably promotional, I would have welcomed some additional focus on these particular students and their presentations, who and which, after all, were who and what we were actually there for.
I’m presuming these people were graduate students, judging from the interpretative depth I felt each brought to his or her performance, allied to the level of technical skill displayed in each case. What truly impressed me was that each of the five pianists brought with them a strongly-defined sense of how they thought and felt their pieces should go, so that there was no vapid note-spinning or empty display for its own sake, but concentrated and involved musical impulses behind each note, phrase or sequence. Even when fingers in a couple of instances ran ahead of the music and momentarily lost their poise and articulatedness, there was evidence of feeling at the mishap’s root and was quickly picked up and the notes propelled forwards once again.
I don’t wish to imply that each performance we heard had a sameness of either interpretative manner or technical finish – the pieces were too broad in their range of requirements for such an assertion to be made, for one. and the musical personalities of each pianist too individual, for another. I’m merely reporting that each player gave pleasure on his or her own terms with how his or her chosen piece was articulated. First to perform was Nick Kovacek, who chose to play the slightly lesser-known of Brahms’ two Op.79 Rhapsodies, No.1 in B Minor. The playing caught the music’s latter-day “sturm und drang” feeling right from the opening, and nicely integrated the mood-change of the subsequent lyrical musings into the overall flow, before plunging back into the fray with great urgency. Occasionally, the four-note “motif” sounded splashy, with the player attempting too much velocity, though the effect still caught the excitement of sparks flying as the hammer hit the rock. The central lyrical section was voiced beautifully and tenderly, and the pianist made a good deal of the upward-rushing flourishes, especially the second of each pair. After a properly frenetic climax, the pianist pulled us by the heartstrings into the grey vortex of the coda with real feeling and a nice sense of atmosphere.
After a (possibly unscheduled) luftpause, the diminutive figure of Jungyeon Lee appeared, ready at last to play, without the music, Mozart’s F Major Sonata K.332. Whatever doubts the reluctance of her appearance might have engendered among us in regard to the music-making proved completely unfounded. From the very first note I was drawn in by her characterisations of each episode of the music, everything lyrically voiced and beautifully weighted, the opening strikingly contrasted with the energy and anxiety of the following sequence in a well-rounded, never over-emphatic manner. I would have liked to have heard the repeat in which to enjoy it all again, especially as Mozart’s development section in this movement is so compact, to the point of terseness. I liked her dynamic control of the contrasts, again making them tell without undue force, and her nicely po-faced lead-back to the opening, with, apart from a little choppiness with the sforzandi chords, her music-making obeying the composer’s dictum that it should all ‘flow like oil”.
In the slow movement she brought out the music’s operatic lines with real character, such as her lovely, yielding treatment of the melody. She will, in time, find even more varied emotion in the descending right-hand thirds which followed, and increasingly let the figurations just before the reprise of the opening relax and “play themselves” – the music has more tenderness than she was wanting to show, in those places – but everything else had a naturalness of expression which I found fresh and engaging.
The finale was begun with a fine opening flourish, exhibiting the pianist’s sensitive dynamic control, with each phrase given something special. Occasionally the rapid figurations got the better of her fingers – I felt this movement hadn’t “settled” in performance to the extent the first two had, but as a “work in progress” the playing showed great promise, with my interest held over every bar. Many young pianists find Mozart a puzzle, and skate over his music’s surfaces with brilliance and very little else, so it was good to encounter one who articulated the music with such feeling.
Though Debussy was reputed to have admired Mozart’s music, it still seemed like some kind of quantum leap for a listener to make the transition from the above to the world of the French composer’s music, particularly that of Feux d’artifice (Fireworks), the last of the second set of Preludes, here played with considerable brilliance and evocation by William Swan. Indebted to Liszt, whose playing (particularly his pedalling) Debussy thought a great deal of, the music’s opening encompassed mystery, and growing anticipation, before looming excitingly into brilliance and dazzling momentum. William Swan seemed to have both technique and sensibility aplenty in bringing out these qualities, his traversal of the piece evoking in places something of the sensation of riding a particularly lively rodeo horse, though the piece’s quieter and deeper resonances were also well-served by the playing. We heard some beguiling sotto-voce harmonies murmuring their mysteries, but then were galvanised by sudden irruptions of energy and bright iridescence, with a dying drift of drollery at the piece’s end, the echo of a melody amid the burnt-out ambiences of past glories. I thought it an assured and masterful performance.
If Chopin’s Etude No.9 in F minor Op.10 made a less overtly spectacular effect, the music’s strong, purposeful flow at the outset soon established a world whose darkness was largely unrelieved by any extraneous effects. Pianist Matthew Oliver generated plenty of focused energy in maintaining something of the piece’s grim, obsessive character, tempering the gloom with piquant calls which he nicely differentiated, as if voices were calling to a passing traveller from various places high and low, near and distant, and in doing so creating a sense of spaciousness and isolation. The player brought out the wistful delicacy of the ending, a brief chorus of distantly tinkling voices left behind in the darkness. I thought the young man did well to establish the piece’s character, considering its brevity and elusiveness.
The concert’s final work was the most substantial length-wise of the students’ offerings, and probably the least generally-known, though I think pianist Mitchell Henderson was surely overemphasising the composer’s relative obscurity in stating that nobody in the audience would have heard of him! Nikolai Medtner, like his friend and slightly older colleague, Sergei Rachmaninov, was something of a throwback as a composer, one who determinedly clung to traditional modes of composing and professed an anathema to “modern schools”, in his writings repudiating the beginnings and early developments of twentieth-century music.
Born in Moscow, Medtner didn’t leave Russia until during the 1920s, eventually moving to Britain in the 1930s. Unlike Rachmaninov, who as a pianist developed a varied recital repertoire, Medtner didn’t help his own career as a performer by refusing to perform the music of other composers – he found support for his music only in England, but was famously supported by the Maharajah of Mysore, who was a music enthusiast and a gifted amateur pianist, and who, fortuitously for the composer, had developed a great liking for his music. Thanks to the Maharajah’s sponsorship, recordings of Medtner’s works were made, with the composer at the keyboard (concertos, chamber music and piano sonatas, as well as a collection of his songs recorded with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf!), which resulted in a grateful composer dedicating his Third Piano Concerto to the Maharajah himself.
The work we heard was the single-movement Sonata Reminiscenza Op.38 No.1, part of a larger “suite” of pieces which made up Op. 38, also including 3 dances, 3 canzonas, and a “coda alla Reminiscenza.” – the latter uses the work’s opening theme, hence the title. The piece was written during the first years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, and published in 1922. It’s “strolling” opening had a kind of wistful, “nostalgic journey” feeling, taking the listener to a more purposeful sequence of thematic exposition and development, perhaps less Russian and more cosmopolitean in flavour than Medtner’s friend Rachmaninov’s music. Mitchell Henderson delivered this opening sequence with an admirable sense of ebb and flow, characterising with focused intent the different moods evoked by the opening theme and its occasional motivic reappearance, in between highly chromatic sections of, by turns, restrained lyricism and agitated feeling. His playing took us right into the heart of the music’s varied textures, stressing the music’s essential independence of spirit in its wonderful “structured discursiveness”, while never shirking even the most dissonant of the composer’s’s harmonies – in all, here was a wonderful and absorbing quarter-hour’s music-making!
Something of a feast of both repertoire and piano-playing, then, from Mozart to Medtner – spadefuls of gratitude, therefore, to the musicians and their teachers and to the NZSM for enabling such a presentation for our pleasure!