Four-handed piano delights from Sunny Cheng and Kris Zuelicke at the NZSM’s Adam Concert Room in Wellington

Te Koki NZ School of Music presents:
Sunny Cheng and Kris Zuelicke – Piano Duo

MOZART – Fugue for Piano, four hands K.401
DAVID HAMILTON – Five New Zealand Characters
SCHUBERT – Grand Rondo in A Major D.951
POULENC – Sonata for Four Hands
MENDELSSOHN – Andante and Allegro brilliant Op.92

Lunchtime Concert
Adam Concert Room, NZSM Kelburn Campus
Victoria University of Wellington

Friday 11th September 2020

I didn’t leave home early enough to find a park, or be able to walk to the concert venue in time for the first item’s beginning – so I came in with the first item still in midstream, actually waiting outside the door, so as not to disturb the music’s flow or the listeners’ concentration. I could hear it all reasonably clearly, and was soon caught up in the intricacies of what was left of the music. This fugue was originally composed and played by Mozart as a solo piece, a commentator at the time noting that  the composer “played this piece with no help, while others could manage it only via a four-hand execution”. There’s been a suggestion that the work was devised for a “modified keyboard instrument with pedals like an organ” – Mozart’s father made reference to Wolfgang owning one of these instruments in a letter to his daughter Nannerl – “he has had a big pedal-fortepiano made which stands under the grand piano, is three spans longer, and surprisingly heavy!”

Having settled myself in after the Mozart had finished, I was ready for David Hamilton’s “Five New Zealand Characters”, which was next on the programme – they turned out to be pieces the composer had written for two children of friends he had stayed with in the UK some years ago – Hamilton comments in a note accompanying the music that the pieces “are written with an easier primo part, but both parts contain some challenge especially in the rhythms”. The pieces’ titles refer to various birds and animals “which have a special place in the biosphere of New Zealand”.

Because of the intricacies of trying to find a seat I missed hearing clearly the spoken announcement introducing the five sections of the work, and so wasn’t sure of the order the pianists had adopted – I discovered later from the SOUNZ website that opening the set was “The Sleepy Tuatara”, the music consisting of a lyrical, repeating figure sounded over a chordal, hymn-like melody, with ear-catching dynamic variations, and a swopping to the treble of the melody over a bass ostinato for the second part. The piece’s title seemed to fit the music, but I was worried regarding the second piece’s title in view of its music –  a chirpy staccato mood with angular hopping set against running figures, quirky harmonies and textural changes – were these really “Pekapeka – long-tailed bats”? And “The Little Spotted Kiwi” was a wistful figure seeming to inhabit vistas reminding one of Monet’s water-lilies, an all-pervading 3-note figure sounding over a murmuring, watery bass.

The two remaining were less problematical – I loved the music for “The Fantail (Piwakawaka)”, a playful romp of a piece, with running figures answered with a cheeky chirp! – and the swaggering cake-walk-like rhythms of the last piece fitted the picture of  “The Yellow-Eyed Penguin (Hoiho)” like a glove!

Worshipping the Schubert four-handed pieces for piano as I do, I confess to being slightly disappointed with Cheng’s and Zuelicke’s performance of the Grand Rondo in A Major D 951  I thought their pacing of the work was nicely judged, but found much of it too dynamically unvaried  – I wondered whether a bright-sounding instrument and a forward, lively acoustic in the Adam Concert Room was something players new to the venue perhaps needed to be wary of. But, right from the very beginning, where I wanted the music to “steal in” more winningly, I felt the tones seemed too forward, too “beefy” in places, and, of course, left the more forthright episodes little room in which to really expand and make their point via contrast. Just occasionally the players did drop their tonal levels, but not for long enough – the music didn’t maintain the more inward character the playing all-too-briefly suggested. The change of accompanying figuration to triplet figures would have been an appropriate place to intensify the tones and build to an “opening up” of the dynamics, but by then my ear had been over-sated and I was wanting some relief – it was as if the composer had been talking to me in a somewhat mezza-forte voice the whole time, and I was craving something different. They played as if performing in a much larger hall, and for some reason feeling a need to reach out to its extremities – a manner of presentation not needed in this venue!

Fortunately, both the Poulenc and the Mendelssohn items that remained gave a lot of pleasure by dint of the players’ responsiveness to the music’s “character”. I enjoyed the motoric “charge” of the Poulenc Sonata ’s opening, a mood that changed to wistful wandering for a while before the opening “clattered” back again, only to be abruptly “kicked downstairs” for its pains!

The second movement’s ostinato-like figurations alternated charming sequences with acerbic gestures, the playing’s tonal variation of a range that the Schubert item should have had; while the last movement playfully tossed figures between the hands, before building up a growling, insistent bass to near orchestral splendour – Poulenc’s melodies had such insouciance, such a simple, casual manner, with a ‘kind of “nudge-wink” ending proclaiming “That’s all, folks!” Most engaging!

I thought the Mendelssohn work “Andante and Allegro Brilliant” got the concert’s best playing from the pair, the playing romantically full-throated at the work’s beginning, with plenty of light and shade and rhythmic pliancy of phrasing, all of which gave the onset of the Allegro a sparkling energy which conveyed rippling fun and enjoyment, including some great swirling bass figurations! A more lyrical, gently swaying episode mid-movement captured a trio-like contrasting relaxation, the minor-key moments conveying a real sense of the music’s melancholy – some additional swirling arpeggiations  brought back the lyrical “trio” section in a heart-easing way, Cheng and Zuelicke pulling out the pianistic throttle with a Lisztian deluge of running figures that together brought the music home – a whirlwind triplet-driven coda left us breathless and satisfied at the end – great stuff!


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