Impressive piano recital of Brahms, Gershwin and Chopin from talented NZSM post-graduate students

St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert

New Zealand School of Music postgraduate piano students

Tasman Richards: Brahms: Three Intermezzi, Op.117 and Gershwin: Three Preludes
Lixin Zhang: Chopin: Etudes Op 10 no 4 and Op 10 no 5; Four Mazurkas, Op 33 and Piano Sonata No 2, Op.35

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Thursday 3 October at 12:15 pm

Here was a particularly rewarding recital from two of the graduate students of the university school of music’s Jian Liu.

Tasman Richards
First, the three intermezzi of Brahms’s Op 117. Most of the 20 piano pieces of the four opuses from Brahms last years are intermezzi: all three of Op 117 are. They were described by the famous critic, Eduard Hanslick as ‘monologues’… pieces of a ‘thoroughly personal and subjective character’ striking a ‘pensive, graceful, dreamy, resigned, and elegiac note’ (a quote from Wikipedia. Hanslick’s admiration of Brahms was counter-balanced by his cruel contempt for Bruckner and Wagner).

All are marked Andante. Tas Richards played them with careful attention to their character: the first calm and unhurried with a middle section that was darker, more sombre. The second one, marked ‘Andante non troppo e con molto espressione’, he played gently, with a degree of emotional uncertainty as if looking into a dimly lit gothic cathedral. In the latter part of the third intermezzo, in sharp contrast, the mood becomes more complex and ambiguous and so did Richard’s playing.

Richards with Gershwin
Without suggesting that Richards showed greater affinity with Gershwin, his playing of the three Preludes was both confident and idiomatic. The first, which Gershwin instructed to be played Allegro ben ritmato e deciso, was all of that, starting with powerful chords in the bass and great rushes of notes; it’s quickly over. The second is quiet and thoughtful, and longer, and Richards’ left hand moved hypnotically to control the steady beat, leaving the syncopated rhythm to the right hand. The third, Agitato, again driven by fast, virtuosic playing, extravert, and again, fairly quickly disposed of.

Linxin Zhang in Chopin 
The notes in the programme leaflet on both pianists left information gaps that I always like to read. No dates of birth or of beginning and ending of studies. In the case of Lixin Zhang: where born, and brought up? His achievements from the Royal Schools and Trinity College in Britain are mentioned but that doesn’t imply place of residence; the first reference to New Zealand was with a Rattle recording in 2018, but he may well have been born and educated in New Zealand.

However: his playing – all Chopin – was at a remarkable level. The two Opus 10 Etudes (Nos 4 and 5) were evidence of singular flexibility and fluency of style, while still allowing them to breath momentarily and for their dynamic contrasts to show through.

The four mazurkas of Op 33 did form an interestingly contrasted group, showing the far-from limited character of the ‘mazurka’, apart from a basic, fairly quick triple rhythm. The individuality of each piece was actually enhanced by playing them in their published sequence. It’s always interesting for the pedantically minded, like me, to hear groups of pieces that the composer published together, played in that order (which also applies to the deplorable policy, now pursued by RNZ Concert, of playing single movements from extended, many-movement works).

The set includes the well-known No 2 in D (Vivace) with its charming modulation in the middle, which was a delight in Zhang’s hands. But on either side are the more thoughtful ones, No 1 in C sharp minor (Mesto – ‘sad’) and No 3 in C (Semplice) and these were beautifully played. The fourth mazurka is also marked Mesto and left us in a calm, reflective state.

Chopin Sonata in B flat minor 
The major work of the recital of course was the great Sonata No 2, in B flat minor. Once upon a time, when piano recitals by top visiting pianists were frequent, this was very familiar. Zhang’s playing struck me as very mature, not the least stripped of its romantic character. Like the group of mazurkas, its appeal belongs to the rich emotional variety of the four movements. Though famous for the third movement Marche funèbre, which emerged a bit emphatically for my taste, but undeniably thoughtful, secretive, the entire work is generally admired (even by those who parrot the tired opinion that Chopin couldn’t deal with extended forms; and hearing his cello sonata played last weekend in the Martinborough Music Festival consolidated that admiration), the other movements are its essence. It’s got one of the strangest Scherzo movements, as the entire ‘Trio’ section, several minutes long, is so richly meditative. Zhang played it with great skill and feeling. And the whirl-wind finale which always astonishes when played so fast and fluently, did just that.

Though the recital went a bit over the normal length, it was one of the more satisfying and rewarding lunchtime concerts from the wonderful St Andrew’s series. A real pity that, being on a Thursday, it didn’t attract an audience of the usual Wednesday size.


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