FANTASIES IN SOUND / Singapore International Piano Festival 2012 / Review

19th Singapore International Piano Festival
School of the Arts Concert Hall
Last Thursday, Saturday and Sunday
(28 and 30 June, 1 July 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 3 July 2012 with the title "Piano fantasies come true".

The theme of this year’s piano festival, Fantasies In Sound, was apt in a number of ways. First it explored the genre of the piano sonata, coming from the Italian word sonare, which means “to sound”. The festival also moved to the accommodatingly reverberant acoustics of SOTA Concert Hall, a venue that matches the old Victoria Concert Hall’s engaging ambience with the added quality of greater intimacy.

And there can be no more intimate music than Franz Schubert’s, who found the most sensitive and wonderfully imaginative of advocates in the Briton Paul Lewis on the festival’s first evening. The Moments Musicaux, six very different short pieces, were crafted with the love and caring detail of a lapidary. The familiar F minor number (No.3) had a rustic Slavic charm, contrasted with the martial goose-stepping and song-like plaint of the final pieces.

These served as the prelude to two Sonatas in A minor, a key often portraying tragedy and introspection. Far from sounding monochromatic, Lewis’s journey read like two consecutive chapters of a rather absorbing book. The shorter sonata (D.784) evoked initially tension, then bell-like clarity in the slow movement before rippling brilliance of a quicksilver finale. The longer sonata (D.845), which began with similar moroseness, then expanded into an epic sprawl, expertly guided by the pianist’s compelling sense of narrative.  

Saturday evening introduced 24-year-old Chiyan Wong, a rising star from Hong Kong based in London. In Schumann’s rhapsodic Kreisleriana, he brought out the elements of fantasy with a keen mastery of its myriad dynamics and shades, but his vision of the eight conjoint movements as a whole lacked cohesiveness. Perhaps more time is needed to live and grow with this often elusive masterpiece.

No reservations about the Lisztian second half, which skilfully juxtaposed the poetic with the pugilistic. Liszt’s By The Lake of Wallenstadt and his transcription of Hans von Bulow’s Dante Sonnet revealed Wong’s sublime way with legato and inner voices. Fingers and fists of fury livened up the Dante Sonata and a much-truncated version of the chop-socky Hexameron Variations, based on a march from Bellini’s opera I Puritani.  

In the latter, a number of variations were dropped while Wong added several of his own to spectacular effect. Vulgar music, no doubt, but played with polish and finesse. This statuesque and charismatic young man is the “Bruce Lee of the piano”.  

The final night was a re-acquaintance with a familiar favourite, Britain’s Stephen Hough who demonstrated the broadest definition of the sonata form thought possible. Even the opening Beethoven Moonlight Sonatawas unconventional in its form. Its tumultuous finale led into Hough’s own sonata Broken Branches, a 16-part anti-virtuoso essay that was anything but non-virtuosic. The seeming paradox was borne by the music’s reticence and eloquent restraint that reflected his devout Catholic faith.

The quiet that opened and closed its 16 minutes or so was starkly contrasted with the violent orgasmic catharsis that is Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata, the supposed “poem of ecstasy”. The effect was like that of a tightly wound spring suddenly let loose with the consequent repercussions.

A similar hell-for-leather ride awaited in Liszt’s mighty Sonata in B minor, perhaps the greatest single movement in the repertoire. Anger and anguish coloured this account which saw Hough operating much of its half-hour on the edge, as if his life and very existence depended on it. 

This was the sort of once-in-a-lifetime reading that can never be repeated, only experienced viscerally in the flesh. Seeing the unflappable Hough come close to sweating blood, not to mention his four generous encores, are the very reasons why people turn off their electronic gadgets and still come to live concerts.