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Highlights from the Singapore International Piano Festival

Reviewing an extraordinary weekend of piano.

Singapore International Piano Festival

Kseniia Vokhmianina, Li Churen, Nicholas Loh and Chang Yun-hua
Victoria Concert Hall, June 3 to 6

An Extraordinary Time
Zhang Haiou
Esplanade Concert Hall, June 5

Cancelled last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Singapore International Piano Festival returned this year in its 27th edition with limited audiences of 50 and pianists based locally. Yet, the restrictions did not dampen the excellence of the programming.

There were performers from Ukraine and Taiwan alongside two Singaporeans. Significantly, three of the four had completed undergraduate musical studies in home-grown institutions.

For the first time, women pianists outnumbered the men. Ukrainian Kseniia Vokhmianina opened the festival with a grand manner of pianism in the tradition of her birthplace’s classical greats, such as Shura Cherkassky, Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter.

Her inclusion of Three Preludes by Ukrainian composer Levko Revutsky was an exploration of nostalgia and longing. The late Romantic and Slavic flavour, reminiscent of Sergei Rachmaninov and Alexander Scriabin, looked back to a bygone era of harmonic opulence.

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This was prefaced by J.S. Bach’s First Partita, six dance movements crisply articulated and buoyantly dispatched. The short preludes also ushered in Rachmaninov’s Six Musical Moments, more extended essays that moved from grief to ecstasy through lyricism and prodigious fingerwork.

It was curious to see Singaporean pianists champion the music of American avant-gardist George Crumb, born in 1929. This tradition was started by Margaret Leng Tan and is now carried on by Li Churen and Nicholas Loh.

Crumb was a pioneer of the “string piano”, in which the instrument’s interior is played as an extension of the traditional keyboard.

In Five Pieces (1962), Li plucked, strummed and scraped the strings, creating a netherworldly soundscape that was atonal and violent, intermittently soothing but always provocative.

Her programme was a masterclass of sonority, opening with her own improvisation Prelude After Bach, before launching directly into the eight rhapsodic pieces of Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana.

  • Piano Concerts

    Pianist Li Churen at the Singapore International Piano Festival.

Crumb’s timbral ambiguities fused almost seamlessly with Maurice Ravel’s impressionistic Miroirs (Mirrors). Fantastic visions of night moths, sad birds, a boat assailed by surging waves and pealing bells gave way to the most extroverted reading possible of Alborada Del Gracioso (Morning Song Of The Jester).

Li’s sense of imagination and colour knows little bounds.

Loh’s take on Crumb’s Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik (A Little Midnight Music, 2001), built around a motif from jazzman Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round Midnight, was just as impressive.

He struck the piano’s wood and threw in quotes from Claude Debussy, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, before shouting out in Italian a countdown to midnight.

His final piece, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, seemed custom-made for his leather-clad burliness. In a bruising feat of piano pugilism, he seemed to pummel the instrument with palms, arms and fists.

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Taiwan-born Chang Yun-hua closed the festival on a high with two masterly sets of variations. Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations were astringent but compact, carved out with a granite-like resolve, while Johannes Brahms’ Handel Variations gradually built on its expansivity, culminating with the most mighty of fugal finales.

The 21-year-old’s enormous range also encompassed Ludwig van Beethoven’s programmatic “Les Adieux” Sonata and Spaniard Isaac Albeniz’s lilting Almeria from Iberia, both handled with sensitivity and idiomatic nous.

It was a packed weekend for piano lovers, as Altenburg Arts presented a separate pair of recitals by Chinese pianist Zhang Haiou, the first overseas-based pianist to perform in Singapore since last year’s circuit breaker.

With two pieces of transcribed Bach by Samuil Feinberg and Dinu Lipatti, Zhang established a rich tonal palette for the two late Beethoven sonatas that followed. He served romantic outpourings without reservation or apology.

His stunning mastery of the narrative was not without humour, such as cheekily inserting the Ode To Joy motif in one of the final sonata’s variations.

Four evenings and five recitals of piano music, uniformly of high standard and without a weak link, would scarcely be thought possible during a pandemic. One may count this, to quote the title of Zhang’s recital, as “an extraordinary time” indeed.

This article was originally published in The Straits Times.

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