A piano recital at St Andrew’s deserving a full house: Beethoven’s Eroica Variations surrounded by circus variety

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts
Pianist Ya-Ting Liou

Couperin: Le rossignol en amour
Gareth Farr: The Horizon from Owhiro Bay
Beethoven: Variations and Fugue, Op 35 ‘Eroica’
Paderewski: Nocturne Op 16 No 4
Rachmaninov: andante from Cello sonata, Op 19 (transcribed by Arcadi Volodos)
Stravinsky: Circus Polka: for a young elephant

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Wednesday 17 July, 12:15 pm

Her name rang a bell, but I couldn’t recall actually seeing or hearing her play. The Middle C archive revealed that my colleague, Peter Mechen had reviewed an earlier lunchtime recital by her in August 2016 when, inter alia she had played Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänz, later Rameau’s Le rappel des oiseaux. Born in Taiwan and educated mainly in the United States, she now lives in Auckland.

That sort of programming clearly appeals to her: it would have been very interesting to have heard the Rameau and the Couperin that she played today, alongside each other. And centre spot in both concerts was occupied by a major German composer: this time Beethoven’s Eroica Variations.

She proved an exemplary baroque pianist, turning Couperin’s Le rossignol en amour, from harpsichord original into perfectly genuine piano music; slow and thoughtful, it was replete with tasteful ornaments that according to the programme note were detailed by the composer. Couperin’s evocation of elements of nature, here, a nightingale, was done very differently from the way a Debussy, let alone a Messiaen would have, yet a perfectly natural way of handling a non-human source. The challenges of Couperin’s keyboard writing were affectionately handled, with no apparent difficulty.

Gareth Farr’s impression of his view of Cook Strait from his south coast house, though three centuries later than Couperin’s evocation of a bird (Farr was born exactly 300 years after Couperin), were curiously related in creating a moment in nature, and in the employment of modest means. It was well chosen on a distinctly chilly day with a southerly breeze: a picture of the often wild coast in a mood of magical calm. Nor sure that I’d heard it before, and Liou’s beautiful performance reinforced for me the unpretentious yet extraordinarily evocative invention that Farr demonstrates. In the sort of music for which he is not so widely appreciated, but which speaks to me much more magically and inspiringly.

The Eroica Variations
I have known Beethoven’s Eroica Variations most of my life though I can’t remember my last live hearing. Dated in 1802, early in his middle period, they not to be approached with an expectation of kinship to the tremendous Diabelli Variations of his last years; nevertheless, these fifteen variations plus an imposing fugue at the end are already at some remove from those of Mozart and Haydn. Their sound and musical evolution quickly restrict composer possibilities to Beethoven alone. Unlike its classical period predecessors, its impact is impressive and I quickly realised I was in the company of a splendidly competent interpreter by nature avoiding any kind of major-work pretentiousness, yet able to bring to life the increasingly original and treatment unique to Beethoven.

The formidable fugal finale alone might have been a splendid lunchtime piece. So the entire work made this a memorable lunchtime experience.

Paderewski, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky 
Then three well-chosen shorter pieces. Apart from the famous Minuet once a standard piece in every young pianist’s album, Paderewski’s considerable output seems to have been off-limits: suffering as neither obviously great music in the tradition of Rachmaninov or Prokofiev, nor acceptably post-romantic, or atonal to compare with Stravinsky or Bartok. This Nocturne was far better than many a composition by a famous executant, mainly for his own use; it handled itself according to the dictates of the composer’s inspiration and developed melodically rather attractively. In any case it was in the hands of a pianist capable of investing anything with charm and musical conviction.

Great Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos’s hair-raising arrangement of the third movement, Andante, from Rachmaninov’s cello sonata for solo piano seems to have multiplied the numbers of notes ten-fold, and so it was a surprise that Liou began without the score on the piano (as she had safely enough till now), but within the first few bars there was a wee lapse calling for a repeat of a bar. Though probably shaken by that she soldiered on but a couple of minutes later stopped again and picked up the score to place in front of her. Volodos’s frenetic adornments might have seemed mere frenzied pyrotechnics for the sake of it – initially they did – but slowly one became accustomed to it as a sort of new ‘normal’ and especially as the main melody began to be audible through the dense undergrowth, it became rather engrossing, overwhelmingly so. Nevertheless, another part of me felt that Volodos’s journey might better have been abandoned, leaving the lovely slow movement to itself.

Stravinsky’s Circus Polka for a young elephant was not the least obscured by following the Rachmaninov (but Liou had the score in front of her again). It’s an eccentric piece and again not for any pianist short of the A-grade virtuoso class on account of rhythmic and tonal craziness, switching back and forth at the end between the polka, 2-in-a-bar, and triple time.

There was a reasonable audience, but here we had a recital of top professional quality that deserved a full house, at normal prices.

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