Paul Dukas’s Sonata the climax of John Chen’s monumental Waikanae piano recital

Waikanae Music Society presents
John Chen (piano)

Music by Handel, Chopin and Dukas

HANDEL – Keyboard Suite No.8 in F minor HWV 433
CHOPIN – Piano Sonata No.2 in B-flat Minor Op.35
DUKAS – Piano Sonata in E-flat Minor (1900)

Memorial Hall, Waikanae.

Sunday 22nd April, 2018

April has been a bumper month for piano recitals in the Wellington region, this being the third I’ve attended and reviewed in as many weeks. What’s astonished me about each of them has been their utter distinctiveness, with not a single recurring piece between the three, and a sense of adventure very much to the fore in each instance, in terms of the repertoire and its presentation.

Firstly, Michael Houstoun’s Lower Hutt recital wrought a well-nigh flawless balance of sensibility between a group of contrasting pieces whose overall qualities enhanced the uniqueness of character demonstrated by each one in turn, to wondrous effect. The following day, Jason Bae’s lunchtime recital at Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music’s Adam Concert Room presented a demanding group of virtuoso works, which included a New Zealand premiere alongside three rarely-performed others, all played with finely-honed sensitivity and terrific panache.

And, just last Sunday, a Waikanae audience enjoyed the rich elegance and cumulative power of John Chen’s playing of three works representative of their different eras – baroque, romantic and fin de siècle – to overwhelming effect by the concert’s end. Honours were perhaps divided between the last two pianists regarding  enterprise in terms of rarity, with Bae playing an “off-the beaten track” programme, and Chen giving us a rather more substantial work from a composer, Paul Dukas, whose fame of course largely rests with a single work, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.

As well, like Houstoun’s, I thought Chen’s programme cleverly worked out, the pianist taking his audience on a kind of grand tour of innovatory keyboard music from three very different eras. Handel, of course, represents the Baroque sensibility at its most winning and attractive, with the choice of the eighth of the composer’s keyboard suites a particularly poignant one, due partly to the “dark” key of F Minor.

Solemn, yet still with a flow expressing both shape and energy, Chen contoured the music’s opening pages with all the colour and variety of tone available on a modern grand piano, a sense of expectation preparing us for the Fugue which followed the Prelude. I liked the pianist’s balancing a sense of fun amid the fugue’s forthright utterances, giving the music its composer’s characteristic “living” quality. The Allemande beguiled us in Chen’s hands firstly with its opening simplicity, and then with its embellishments at each section’s repeat, while the Courante delightfully set its canonic voices in teasing, playful, motion, though still allowing the final Gigue pride of place in conclusive momentum. Here was beautifully pin-pointed playing from Chen, both free-flowing and and angular by turns, the repeats with their inversions of the opening tickling our sensibilities with their delightful “on the other hand” insouciant wryness, the conclusion thrown off with a theatrical touch of elan.

With the Chopin Sonata’s opening, Chen then plunged us into a different world of romantic expression, giving the portentous opening plenty of dramatic weight, but then tempering the wildness of the following allegro, the playing allowing the agitations some shape and coherent utterance, propulsive without becoming hysterical. We got the first movement repeat to underline this balancing act between heart and mind, Chen actually going right back to the Sonata’s beginning, here, instead of merely re-immersing us directly in the turbulent waters of the Allegro, The development continued the pianist’s way of shaping the discourse, the climactic points treated as part of the music’s flow rather than ends of excitement and release in themselves.

Perhaps Chen was commenting in his own wry way on Chopin’s friend and contemporary Robert Schuman’s extraordinary verdict on the Sonata as a whole, calling the work’s movements “four of Chopin’s maddest children” (this from the composer of Kreisleriana!). Here, the music seemed to fit sonata-form like a glove, as justly as had Beethoven’s similar gestures and propulsions in his revolutionary “Pathetique” Sonata’s first movement over a generation earlier. The second movement’s vigorous opening, too, had more of a chunky, almost laconic quality with Chen, rather than seeming to express anything sinister or demonic-sounding in its intent. This seemed far more in keeping with the lyricism of the central section, its beauties resembling tender endearments more readily to my ears than prayer or invocation in times of trouble.

That feeling of relief from oppression belonged more here to the world-famous third movement’s trio sequence, its heavenly beauties realised by Chen with hypnotic focus and powerful simplicity, all the more effective when set against the dark menace of the opening “Funeral March”. The pianist conveyed impressive ceremonial splendour in his playing of the march’s noble melody, as well as grimmer realities with his tolling dotted rhythms and drum-roll trills, though again, everything was as musical as it was graphic, the “madness” not discounted by the playing but kept at bay.

Surely one of the boldest strokes of genius with which to round off a classical work was Chopin’s finale, the part of the work which gave Schumann the most difficulty, in that he couldn’t accept the whirlwind of notes that the former gave us as “music”- vis-a-vis his actual words – “….what we get in the final movement under the title “Finale” seems more like a mockery than any music……and yet, one has to admit, even from this unmelodic and joyless movement a peculiar, frightful spirit touches us, which holds down with an iron fist those who would like to revolt against it, so that we listen as if spellbound  and without complaint to the very end, yet also without praise, for music it is not………” Yet Schumann also had the grace to admit, in the same article, that “perhaps years later, a romantic  grandson will be born and raised, will dust off and play the sonata, and will think to himself, “The man was not so wrong after all.”

John Chen took the music at face-value, perhaps underplaying the romantically-charged impulses generated by the hands in unison by bringing out the delineations of notes with more clarity than usual, but still creating for the poetically-minded a picture of “the wind blowing the leaves across the freshly-dug mound of the hero’s grave”. Had Schumann heard a performance such as this he might well have upped and exclaimed that the music’s time had indeed arrived, and that the “romantic grandson” had already been born and raised, and was here showing us how “right” the composer’s work was already sounding in his hands…….

Having reimagined the relatively familiar, Chen then turned his attentions to a work more heard about than actually played, up until recently the preserve of pianistic legends such as John Ogdon and Marc-Andre Hamelin. This was Paul Dukas’s epic Piano Sonata, grandly-conceived and densely-worked in typically rich, late-Romantic language, a work whose four-movement design and monumental scale actually exceeds half the total duration of the composer’s entire published output (Dukas was notoriously self-critical as a composer).

Though Dukas, unlike some of his contemporaries, was no great pianistic talent, his Sonata remains one of the most significant of French Romantic Piano works. Dedicated to Saint-Saens, and first performed by the renowned French pianist Edouard Reisler in 1901, the work was at once acclaimed by Debussy who wrote a review, stating at the outset that “Monsieur Paul Dukas knows what music is made of : it is not just brilliant sound designed to beguile the ear until it can stand no more… For him it is an endless treasure trove of possible forms and souvenirs with which he can cut his ideas to the measure of his imagination.” Though the music brings to mind something of the profundity of Beethoven, the brilliance of Liszt and the harmonic richness of Franck, it directly reflects Dukas’s own creative ethic, both structure and emotion realised in discursive, though beautifully-sculpted ways, the outcome at once refined and concentrated, leaving the impression of not a single note being wasted.

John Chen began the work steadily and patiently, letting the detailings “unfold”, and giving the impression of the music and musician allowing each to “play” the other, such was his apparent absorption in the sounds and their interaction. Here, the first group of themes gave a dark-browed and troubled impression, while the second calmed the agitations with melting lyricism, here shared in canonic manner between the hands, and there sounded in the bass with deep, rich tones, the contrasting sequences playing out their characters with both volatility and deep reflectiveness, the latter beautifully sustained here by the pianist throughout the movement’s coda.

A chordal melody, reminiscent of Edward MacDowell’s contemporaneous “To a Wild Rose” in feeling, began the slow movement, albeit with a series of delicate chromatic explorations that soon took the music’s textures and tones far above “Woodland Scenes” to what seemed like the firmament overhead…….here, Chen’s fastidious ear for detail brought out a kaleidoscopic world of sensation and impulse, his beautifully-resonant bass-notes opening up the vistas, and his gentle but insistent cross-rhythmed traversals of the terrain having an almost epic Brucknerian quality in places. And, finally, the pianist’s reproducing of the composer’s remotely twinkling “stars in the sky”- like impulse-notes which brought the movement to a close I found simply enthralling.

What an explosion of energy and frenzy accompanied the opening of the Scherzo! – rapid-fire impulses punctuated by whiplash chords! Tumultuous sounds, here brought about by the pianist’s fantastic control of both declamatory utterance and eerily-voiced mutterings. Even greater surprise it was, then, to be confronted with a sudden hiatus in the form of a slow-paced, angular fugue, a trio-like section whose quiet, almost disembodied tones had a disturbing quality of their own akin to that of the eye of a storm, remote, almost alien in relation to their context.

Debussy thought the Sonata’s finale “evokes the kind of beauty comparable to the perfect lines of a mighty architecture, lines that melt and blend with the colours of air and open sky, harmonizing with them completely and forever”. Certainly the grand chords with which the movement began suggested imposing structures, around which were woven meditative-like musings, which eventually gave way to the muscular thrusts that began the anime section. From these swirlings a grand theme emerged, not unlike Franck in heroic mode. John Chen’s energies were remarkable in conjuring up the necessary weight and stamina to realise these epic outpourings. The return of the opening of the theme was a heart-warming moment, which became more energised, with exciting motoric accompaniments, and with various inventive  treatments of it thrown at us to make of what we could – a ferment of excitement! The gradual amplification of these elements generated an echt-romantic glow in Chen’s hands, almost pre-Hollywood in its scale (Debussy’s “lines that melt and blend with the colours of air and open sky”….), before the apotheosis-like climax brought forth the coda, by turns brilliant and monumental in effect. With playing that engaged the the music fully ,the pianist carried his audience with him right to the end, earning, and richly deserving, rapturous acclaim from all sides. Bravo!



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