To err is human, to forgive (the job of the critic): four student pianists with seriously worthwhile music

NZSM piano students
Helen Chiu, Jungyeon Lee, Gabriel Khor, William Swan

Music by Debussy, Mozart, Ravel, Chopin

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 27 September, 12:15 pm

The lunchtime concert market has been somewhat crowded over recent weeks and both St Andrew’s and Old Saint Paul’s have provided nice venues and good audiences for end-of-year recitals. While we’ve covered most of the recent lunchtime concerts in Wellington we have been unable this year to get to the series running at St Mark’s Lower Hutt, which have been equally worthwhile.

Four pianists played today at St Andrew’s. They were first to third year students, a fact which is sometimes hard to believe, and one is almost relieved to discover evidence of the real world when an occasional finger-fault happens. Helen Chiu played two pieces from Debussy’s first book of Images for piano (there are two books containing three pieces each, apart from the Images for OrchestraGigues, Ibéria and Rondes de printemps – that had in fact begun life as a second book for the piano). Reflets dans l’eau is the quintessentially impressionistic piano piece inspired by the play of light on water, and this was a singularly sensitive and evocative performance, that was fluent, limpid, becoming more and more disturbed as, one imagines, wind ruffles the surface.

The second piece is Hommage à Rameau , a composer who, along with Couperin, for ardent Frenchman Debussy, was the equivalent of Bach. Rameau was born just a couple of years before Bach, and left a great deal of keyboard music, though opera came to dominate his career from 1733 when he was 50! But one could be forgiven for not finding immediate baroque sounds and shapes in this sophisticated music; its sounds are, naturally, closer to Debussy’s other piano music than to Rameau’s Pièces de clavecin. Yet there’s more formality hovering around it than in the first piece, and Helen gave it a very illuminating and idiomatic performance.

Jungyeong Lee played Mozart’s sonata in F, K 332, one of three that he wrote about 1783, shortly after moving to Vienna; it is ranked among the favourites. The first movement with sharp contrasts between serenity and an almost contrasting middle, with tempi splendidly judged; the slow movement discreetly lovely with carefully handle ornaments and a last movement encompassing a wide expressive range, now energetic, now slightly humorous, demanding elaborate episodes and constant technical challenges that put it among Mozart’s most difficult. One doesn’t often hear live performances of Mozart’s sonatas and this was a valued opportunity.

Gabriel Khor played the first two movements of Ravel’s Sonatine, a word that conveys none of its meaning around 1800 when it suggested a sorter and probably easier piece that a proper sonata. It’s not another Gaspard de la nuit, but it’s no nursery piece either; one can understand his not playing the last movement as Ravel himself refrained from playing it because of its difficulty. Khor played it carefully, sensitively, the odd slip was inevitable, but he managed to maintain its momentum and a degree of melodic warmth. The Mouvement de menuet is quieter and sounds superficially easier, and it began with a feeling of caution or timidity, but a sense of calm confidence grew.

Chopin brought the recital to an end, as Williams Swan played first the Waltz in D flat, Op 64/1 and then the Polonaise in A flat, Op 53. The waltz performance was a study in caution, laced with bursts of flashing speed, with the contrasting slower episode well related to the outer phases. The Polonaise set off very dynamically, with first notes in the bar given particularly marked emphasis; and he paid good attention to the sharp dynamic contrasts, with handfuls of fast dense chords, and I don’t just mean the hammering left hand in the central section, interspersed with those reckless scales, where occasional stray notes appeared and splendid, reckless arpeggios.


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