Chamber music and recital

Mohammad Reza Mortazavi

Date: April 5, 2018
Location: Pierre Boulez Saal, Berlin.

Mohammad Reza Mortazavi, tombak and daf

Sandwiched between two Parsifal outings in Berlin is a recital by Mohammad Reza Mortazavi, an Iranian-born, Berlin-based percussionist now regarded as the world’s foremost virtuoso of tombak, a goblet-shaped hand drum widely used in Persian music. Tombak musicians snap and scratch their fingers on the drumhead to create sound. A wide variety of timbre is created by changing: fingering velocity, the duration of touch on the drumhead (a kiss vs. a snap), and contact friction (skin vs. fingernail). Mortazavi revolutionized tombak playing by introducing new techniques by the dozens, including heavy use of finger knuckles, use of one’s thumb to “divide” the drumhead into two sides with different tensions and therefore distinguishable pitches, and extensive use of the side of the drum for antiphonal clicks. In other words, Mortazavi has redefined tombak playing as an interaction between any physical structure of the drum instrument and any physical structure of the human hands. It is hardly surprising that Mortazavi’s unconventional playing has drawn the ire of traditionalists, who consider the pure art of tombak playing gravely endangered. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the new inventions introduce a richer texture of sound with heightened expressive capabilities.

The evening performance did not have a stated program – the proceedings seemed to be a direct result of Mortazavi’s, as well as the audience’s response to his music. In addition to tombak, Mortazavi also played the daf, a tambourine-like hand drum. In fact he played with two of them, one of which included a web of metal rings clung to the rim to effectuate breeze-like metallic jingles. All his pieces were constructed with multiple cycles of varying dynamics, surging to great heights and then receding to dark, hushed valleys. His fingering varied from a meticulous series of light tapping to a rapid firing of uninhibited fury. Using nearly all his fingers (except thumbs), he created perfectly aligned rolls of notes with a machine-like consistency. By changing placements of his palm on the drumhead, tones swerved from high to low, sometimes falling off a cliff on a whim, other times sliding slowly into an eerie oblivion. Some of his solos lasted well over fifteen minutes, with undulating dynamics, long plateaus of fiery jubilations, and cascading sets of tonal features. Mortazavi’s music is not, and probably not meant to be programmatic, but the rugged mountain ranges of the Zagros come to mind. Mortazavi was humorous too: after a long languish, he would end a piece with a crisp beating of the side of the drum or a comedic brush of the drum body’s decorative grooves. Or he would bookend a ravishing finish of blazing intensity with a lazy snap on the drumhead.

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Chamber music and recital

Mark Padmore / Wigglesworth / Cook

Date: April 4, 2018
Location: Kammermusiksaal at the Philharmonie, Berlin.

Schumann – Liederkreis Op. 39
Wiggleworth – Echo and Narcissus
Janáček – Zápisník zmizelého (The Diary of One Who Disappeared)

Mark Padmore, tenor
Ryan Wigglesworth, piano
Allison Cook, mezzo-soprano
Members of the Vocalconsort Berlin

Echo and Narcissus: A Dramatic Cantata is Ryan Wiggleworth’s setting of the Narcissus poem from Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid. The piece is a perfect companion to Janáček’s The Diary of One, set to the text by Ozef Kalda, not least because Wiggleworth’s inspiration for the format of his work came from Janáček’s – a musical setting with a male voice as chief protagonist, a female voice as narrator, piano and an off-stage female choir in mind. Both pieces also tell the story of a man falling for the beauty of another (for Narcissus, the reflection of himself), enchanted in part by the glitter of the eyes: “He could not believe / The beauty of those eyes / That gazed into his own” (Hughes); “Pohledla po mně zhluboka / pak vznesla sa přes peň / a tak mi v hlavě ostala / přes celučký, celučký deň. (With searching eyes she looked at me / then swift as a bird flew / but left me yearning after her / for all that day, all that day through.)” (Kalda). Both men bid farewell to a land where their lives begin, but this is where the comparison ends: Wigglesworth’s ending is chilling, as if all lights around us are dimming to an eternal darkness. Janáček’s treatment is more upbeat, as the protagonist bids farewell with a new chapter of life already in mind – after all, he clearly knows he is eloping with his temptress Zefka. Where Janáček’s colorations ebb and flow, Wigglesworth’s palette is decidedly more somber. His piece ends with Mark Padmore repeating the word “farewell”, in a slow diminuendo and with two syllables in a descending semi-tone. The counterpoint is the off-stage chorus (situated at the back of audience balcony) repeating the same words in an eerie pattern of ascending harmonic progression. Wigglesworth’s writing here is simple, elegant, but dramatically effective, and I wish this work could find a place in the standard repertoire. Mark Padmore never over-dramatized (in contrast to Ian Bostridge’s; see earlier review here), but elucidated his lines clearly, with conviction and utmost reverence. This kind of treatment was particularly evident in Schumann, where his delivery flowed with conversational beauty, without the sort of overt, let-me-tell-you-something sort of didacticism prevalent with some of the more lieder recitalists today. His on-stage demeanor gave the effect of letting the voice and words speak for themselves, and he was merely a conduit between us the audience and the composition. Allison Cook was a fine singer who mustered different timbres as she cycled through bursts of singing, narrating, and whispering. Ryan Wigglesworth had a fine touch and sensibility on the keys. His prolonged pedaling of the final chord in Janáček punctuated the protagonist’s exhilaration, as if to reflect upon the more somber Schumann and Wigglesworth that came before.

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Chamber music and recital

Bricolage by Toolbox Percussion

Date: June 29, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, Hong Kong.

Westlake – Omphalo Centric Lecture (arr. Michael Askill) (Hong Kong premiere)
Cage – Third Construction
Kopetzki – Night of Moon Dances
Lam, Fung – Round (world premiere)
Trevino – Catching Shadows
Xenakis – Peaux from Pleiades (Hong Kong premiere)

Louis Siu, Karina Yau, Wei-chen Lin, Iskandar Rashid, Chronicle Li, Lei-lei Hoi (percussion)

This evening has been highly anticipated, not only because Nigel Westlake’s “Omphalo Centric Lecture” is a work that I have longed to hear live, but because I am eager to find out how Louis Siu has evolved as an artist. As reviewed here a few years ago, Siu proved technically proficient, but could be more expressive, whether musically or visually. That assessment was not damning, as his previous program was as technically audacious as he was young, but it would be disingenuous to dismiss him entirely by that sampling point of one single concert. This evening, his curation was as delicious as it was technically daunting, though much more in reference to the demands of ensembleship and stage management than the pieces themselves.

But first, “Omphalo Centric Lecture”. Westlake’s marimba quartet is made famous by its pulsating ostinati, whereby at least one of four percussionists would anchor the proceedings with a solid pulse, on top of which harmonic structures and further rhythmic embellishments are layered and interact with each other. The premise is simple enough, but a lot of effort and rehearsal time unseen by the audience are needed to perfect its execution. Many versions and arrangements endure over the years, but the arrangement by South African percussionist Michael Askill was presented here. The quartet comprising Siu, Yau, Li and Hoi did not fail to deliver the aforesaid basic premise, as Westlake’s pulsating locomotion was clearly heard here. Yet, no sparks flew at the fringe, and the quartet probably could have extracted more excitement and emotional gravity out of it by intensifying the various crescendos and accents, which also could have helped with ensembleship in terms of rhythmic cleanliness. The audience received the performance lukewarmly, that is, without much response after its end. That, however, probably had much to do with the decision, as Westlake’s piece rendered to a close, to dim the stage lights completely, which offered no visual delineation between the end of Westlake’s piece and Cage’s “Third Construction”. With Cage’s wildly popular composition, the quartet found much of the spark missing in the Westlake: tin cans, maracas and tom toms never sounded so good together! Even the various conch shell sirens, delivered by Li, beamed with wild and exciting frenzy. HKAPA’s Amphitheatre, which normally scatters sonic output and, in particular, eats up thin sounds, surprisingly provided a great deal of fidelity, notwithstanding the few lion’s roar moments coming out rather like a lazy cat’s meows.

Kopetzki’s “Night of Moon Dances” found the evening’s peak of ensembleship, when Lin (marimba solo) joined the group. The entire effort was clean and tidy, and smelled of either extraordinary focus or ample rehearsal time, or both. Lin’s stick work was fiery, and furiously accurate. His upright body stance and demeanor reminded one of a confident sportsman. There was much to appreciate from this performance, whether it be Lin’s clean stick work, Siu’s fearless bass drum playing, or Yau’s deft approach to the solitary timpani.

Doubledeck Factory was founded by local composer Dr. Austin Yip and percussionist Louis Siu in 2012, and has since been renamed to Toolbox Percussion to better describe its retooled focus on promoting percussive arts in Asia. “Bricolage”, Toolbox’s inaugural project, was this ensemble concert. After intermission, a Doubledeck/Toolbox-commissioned work by Fung Lam, titled “Round”, was presented. Using a mahjong table, the premise is simple enough: to weave a rhythmic fabric using the mahjong table and its tiles. Musicians would alternately generate sound by using a mahjong tile to hit another tile or the table. As musicians call up different rhythms asynchronously, just as four uncoordinated mahjong players would around a mahjong table, the theoretical result could be an adventurous and syncopated layering of rhythmic complexity. But what a should-have-been! In Lam, the rhythmic section was preceded, if intended, with the quartet playing a simulated/actual game of mahjong, as if to juxtapose it with the rhythmic section that was to come after. The rhythmic section built on a limp, and frankly never quite found solid footing anywhere. The effort, if entirely scripted, was unmemorable, and offered little musically or dramatically. The question is…why bother? Anyone who has watched Chinese dama play mahjong would know that finding four aunties well trained in the art of mahjong and who could play at a breakneck speed would have offered a more interesting sonic experience than this. If mahjong is a game whereby tension naturally builds up, that tension was hopelessly lacking here. By comparison, Alexandre Lunsqui’s “Shi”, which moves with more tension and excitement, all the while simulating the robust and diverse sonic experience at a Chinese dining table, has much more to offer.

Ensembleship was again evident in the pieces by Trevino and Xenakis. Percussionists are often accused of playing with their ears, which is mostly true, but aside from listening to each other, the sextet often had eye contact with each other. The curation of this concert was ambitious, but the overall musicianship was quite laudable. Aside from Lam’s composition, which started with a great premise but could benefit from a substantive revision, all the pieces were woven together by the six percussionists into an evening fabric of vivid rhythmic intensity — a bricolage, as one may say. As ensemble recital goes, Siu should not be singled out for review here, but as the artistic director most responsible for the evening’s proceedings, Siu and his effort are commendable. If this evening offers any guide as to the future of Toolbox, percussion enthusiasts in Asia should be thrilled with anticipation.

Bricolage

Bricolage.

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Chamber music and recital, Opera

Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov in concert

Date: March 8, 2016
Location: The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Verdi – Sinfonia from La Forza del Destino
Cilea – “respiro appena…lo son l’umile ancella”
Cilea – “È la solita storia del pastore”
Verdi – “Tacea la notte placida…Di tale amor”
Verdi – “Ah! sì ben mio…Di quella pira”
Verdi – Prelude from Attila
Verdi – “Già nella notte densa”
De Curtis – “Non ti scordar di me”
Puccini – “Un bel dì vedremo”
Massenet – “Toute mon âme est là!…Pourquoi me réveiller”
Puccini – “O mio babbino caro”
Puccini – “E lucevan le stelle”
Puccini – Intermezzo from Manon Lescaut
Puccini – O soave fanciulla

ENCORES

Kálmán – “Heia, in den Bergen”
Puccini – “Nessun Dorma”
Verdi – “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici”

Hong Kong Philharmonic
Jader Bignamini, conductor
Anna Netrebko, soprano
Yusif Eyvazov, tenor

Prima donna Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov, her newly-wedded husband, began their month-long, five-city Asia tour in a sold-out concert this evening as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. In what was her Hong Kong/Asia debut, this must be the most sought-after ticket in town.

Netrebko found an enthusiastic audience eager to be pleased. When she first stepped onto the stage floor, in a plump and elegant white gown, the typically stoic, stone-faced Hong Kong audience went out of character, with an extendedly warm and boisterous greeting that said everything there is to say about her popularity and the enthusiasm towards her long-awaited Hong Kong/Asia debut. That monumental greeting was outmatched by an even more boisterous one when Netrebko came out after the intermission in a strapless, red silk gown with Asian-themed digital print. Netrebko and Eyvazov alternated in a program of popular Italian/French arias. Her voice basked with a warm golden hue, with a stately and comfortable top. She could flow from loud to soft passages with ease: the well supported pianissimos in “Un bel di vedremo” from Butterfly were a good example. On the other side of the token, Netrebko was able to pull some sturdy punches in those exposed, incredibly fast passages in Leonora’s cabaletta, with a searing forte that easily sailed over a loud orchestra while reminding everyone that it was her Donna Anna that brokered her cosmic trajectory to stardom. Netrebko’s breathing was meticulously controlled (save, alas(!), for the erratic final note, sang offstage, in her Mimi), yet with such an unbound vocal reservoir that in “lo son l’umile ancella” from Adriana Lecouvreur, the solo violin accompanying her exhausted his numerous up-bows and nearly failed to keep up with her seemingly endless, and clearly audience-indulging(!), fermatas.

One could easily dismiss Eyvazov as yet another case of Sutherland’s Bonynge – that buy-one-get-one-free deal in the operatic world, but that would be unjust to Eyvazov here. Eyvazov nurtured a fine voice, with a sumptuous Italianate timbre and the sort of scorching, exposed top that would not displease the loggione a la Scala. Going through Eyvazov’s selections here (e.g. Manrico, Werther and Cavaradossi) and his repertoire (e.g. Des Grieux), one cannot stop but think of Jonas Kaufmann, but the similarities would end here. Even if Eyvazov’s diction could sometimes be slightly muddled (something that nobody would ever complain about the linguistically-inclined Kaufmann), his vocal production is definitively more Italianate. His timbre reminds us of the singers of the yesteryear: Corelli, yet with more sensitive subtlety, or di Stefano, yet with more ease and less abuse of the vocal chord. By that I am not arguing Eyvazov as necessarily equaling Corelli or di Stefano, at least not yet, but there are certain qualities about the Azerbaijani tenor that make him a great candidate to further stardom. His high notes sounded natural and with dimension, and his phrasing was discreet and attentive. The real chemistry between him and Netrebko also helped with the duets on display tonight, especially in the La bohème. If this concert is any indication, his Salzburg debut as Des Grieux this summer could prove to be his star-making party. It remains to be seen if Eyvazov’s exposed top could withstand the wear and tear that come naturally with a busy schedule ahead.

Jader Bignamini flapped his arms in a way that was neither abhorrent nor particularly interesting to watch, but did give the impression that he was not conducting but merely manhandling a rehearsed time sheet. With the prima donna’s presence in mind, no indictment shall be warranted here, but the Hong Kong Philharmonic was left alone to produce a sound that was bland and not particularly Italianate. Unaccustomed to accompanying a vocalist, and probably under-rehearsed for this specific occasion, the Hong Kong Philharmonic sounded like a machine grinding through the proceedings without revealing much of anything. The opulent scores of Verdi and Puccini were not given proper care. It was as if a monotone IBM computer is tasked to read out a punch card – all the precision but none of the excitement. The only outlier was principal cellist Richard Bamping, who with a few committed solo phrases brought us from the raucous commotion following Cavaradossi’s aria to the solitary journey to Le Havre in Manon Lescaut. His phrasing spoke of a haunting desperation, in a voice that was ominous but arrestingly poetic.

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Chamber music and recital

Haochen Zhang recital

Date: December 12, 2015
Location: Grand Hall, Lee Shau Kee Lecture Centre, The University of Hong Kong.

Janáček – From the Street
Schumann – Kreisleriana Op. 16
Beethoven – Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major, Op. 81a, Les adieux
Scriabin – Poèmes, Op. 69 No. 1 & 2, 32 No. 1
Ginastera – Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 22

ENCORES

Mozart – Rondo alla turca (arr. Volodos)
Brahms – Intermezzo No. 2 in A major

Haochen Zhang (piano)

One would assume that Haochen Zhang, who studied under Gary Graffman at Curtis, would perform with the sort of exuberant showmanship and unrestrained virtuosity that often define the performing style of Graffman’s other two star pupils from China, Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. That would have been fine, to be sure, as plenty of people are willing and happy to buy tickets to witness the perfect execution of that performing style. In this winter evening at HKU, Zhang offered a similar stomping execution, and then some. There were moments when Zhang flashed with more superficial thrills than musical sensibility, and there were other moments when tempo was modified more for frivolous excitement than for phrasal cohesion. For the better part of the evening, however, Zhang seemed singularly focused on slowly and tastefully unveiling each composer’s music, with audible evidence where he deferred to each composer’s dynamic and tempo signatures, especially in Kreisleriana and Les adieux. With Kreisleriana, Zhang collated various passages, each depicting a varying personality of Schumann’s subject matter (that would be Hoffmann’s Kreisler), with a kaleidoscopic alteration of texture. In Les adieux, Zhang provided a compelling contrast between the lyrical Abwesenheit and the more sonorous Das Wiedersehen. Whereas Lang and Wang often seem to treat the piano as an interpretive intermediary, Zhang’s approach to the keyboard this evening seemed more symbiotic, as if there is equal significance, and substance, between a willing pianist and a willing instrument. Here, the Steinway & Sons concert grand produced a gorgeous sound, with crisp tones at the upper registers and a steely support at the lower registers. Curiously, the middle sections got muffled up, especially on pedals in the Janáček. One would assume that to be an odd characteristic of the instrument. On more attentive listening, this peculiarity could (possibly?) be explained by Zhang’s tendency to overlap his transiting chords under pedal, which created a momentary whiff of cloudiness which then led to a muffling sensation. This overlap would create an incredible audible effect in dreamy music, but the non-linearity could irritate some. Elsewhere, the Beethoven could have sounded less like Rachmaninoff and more like, let’s say, Beethoven, but overall, Zhang’s meticulous and analytical effort paid off with a desirably practical amount of sincerity and authenticity. In the Ginastera, Zhang curtailed some of that analytical rendition and permeated the air with a more relaxed spontaneity. The choices for his three encores: Rondo alla turca a la Volodos, Brahms’ Intermezzo No. 2 in A major and a short Mozart sonata segment revealed not nearly as much technical notoriety as a strategy and desire to earn a reputation as a pianist with, more than just showmanship and virtuosity, a varied and versatile repertoire.

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Chamber music and recital

Benjamin Grosvenor recital

Date: November 17, 2015
Location: The Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Mendelssohn — Two Preludes & Fugues from Op. 35
Chopin — Barcarolle op. 60
Chopin — Mazurkas Op. 63 No. 2 & Op. 30 No. 4
Chopin — Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante
Ravel — Le Tombeau de Couperin
Liszt — Venezia e Napoli

ENCORES
Gershwin — “Love Walked In” (arr. Percy Grainger)

Dohnanyi — Concert Etude, Op. 28, No. 6 (“Capriccio”) from 6 Concert Etudes

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)

Benjamin Grosvenor, declared by The New York Times to be the Boy Lord of the Piano, is certainly an electrifying pianist. His lightning fingering dazzles with fiendish delight. His treatment of softer passages brims with a nursing attentiveness, while in louder passages he could easily summon a stentorian intensity. His piano output glows with confidence, and he exhibits the rare gift of keeping a steady tempo. In two encores, especially the devilishly impossible Dohnanyi, his hands danced on the keyboard with practically no wrong notes, at an impossibly(!) and consistently(!!) fast tempo, and discharged an air of caffeinated intensity that could handily transform Slowpoke into Speedy Rodriguez. But Grosvenor’s playing lacked any meaningful conversational power. At the start of Chopin’s Grande Polonaise Brillante, just as the chimes of the octaves signaled a heightened level of expectation, the result came crashing to naught. Notes overflowed aplenty, but melodic transmission faded away, as if a telegraph wire couldn’t stop dit-dahing but no meaning came out of it. In the first tableaux, Gondoliera, of Venezia e Napoli, the lyrics of Peruchini’s gondolier song could have offered plenty of interpretative materials: “As I gazed intently / at my love’s features, / her little face so smooth, / that mouth, and that lovely breast; / I felt in my heart / a longing, a desire, / a kind of bliss / which I cannot describe!” Grosvenor’s playing was elegant and precise, but no thoughts could be culled from his playing. His hands created plenty of empirical tonal warmth but also a soulless sink hole. In the Tarantella, clinical precision overshadowed, if not entirely dispelled anything that could have come from his heart. Harmony and emotions were obliterated by the sheer force of perfect technique, which seemed, unfortunately, to be the sole star of the evening. The same can be said of the Chopins, especially the Grande Polonaise Brillante, which came with lots of fireworks in individual notes but very little by way of expressive phrasing. With “Love Walked In”, Grosvenor was more expressive, but still lacked the courage to make meaning out of Gershwin’s words: “One look, and I forgot the gloom of the past / One look and I had found my future at last / One look and I had found a world completely new / When love walked in with you.” The only explanation, whether fair or not, is that he has not an abundance of life’s experience to influence his expression. Grosvenor is a seriously talented musician with perhaps the most immaculate touch among all pianists in his generation (bar none!!!), but only time will tell if the Boy Lord could eventually graduate to become a real Lord of our time.

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Chamber music and recital

Ian Bostridge and Xuefei Yang

Date: October 25, 2015
Location: City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong.

Dowland – In Darkness Let Me Dwell
Britten (arr. Julian Bream) – Second Lute Song of the Earl of Essex (from Gloriana)
Argento – Chopin to a Friend, Schubert to a Friend (from Letters from Composers)
Schubert – Die Mainacht, D. 194
Der König in Thule, D. 367
An die Musik, D. 547
Ständchen, No.4 (from Lieder aus Schwanengesang, D. 957)
Britten – Songs from the Chinese

INTERMISSION

Chinese Traditional Song (arr. Xuefei Yang) – Fisherman’s Song at Eventide (Guitar solo)
Debussy (arr. Julian Bream) – La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin (Guitar solo)
Falla – Homenaje, le Tombeau de Claude Debussy (Guitar solo)
Falla (arr. Xuefei Yang) – Spanish Dance No.1 (from La Vida Breve) (Guitar solo)
Goss – Book of Songs
Dowland – Come Again, Sweet Love Doth Now
Invite
White as Lilies was Her Face
My Thoughts are Winged with Hopes
Flow My Tears
In Darkness Let Me Dwell

Ian Bostridge, tenor
Xuefei Yang, guitar

It is rather unbelievable that Ian Bostridge, an acclaimed and prolific tenor who has traveled all around the world giving recitals and concerts, has never, until this evening, set foot on a public concert stage in Hong Kong. Contrast that with guitarist Xuefei Yang, his partner in tonight’s program who, as a teenager, made her Hong Kong debut some two decades ago. This voice/guitar combo has been touring around the world by dusting off and parading late-Renaissance/early-Baroque gems for voice and early-music string instruments. From works by John Dowland (1563-1626) to those by Stephen Goss (b. 1964), the pair offers materials spanning some four centuries. These materials do not align with an obvious curation, but one theme lingers: the intensity of the human spirit.

In the form of songs, these materials require a capable interpreter who can let emotions flow. Ian Bostridge is certainly one. Well known to be a cerebral performer with a professorial demeanor who meticulously researches the meaning of lyrics before revealing them with a timbre’s heightened scrutiny, Bostridge is never one who skims on lyrics’ emotive power. He is always serious and intense – so intense, that watching his muscles cringe as his voice intensifies sometimes makes the viewer cringe the same. This evening, the intensity of his delivery was more restrained than usual, while his trademarked crisp diction got slightly muffled as it traveled through the evening’s relatively high humidity. But his words still carried lots of weight and meaning: when he sang “Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb entzunden” in Schubert’s An die Musik, one could glean from the generosity of his eye contact, his body’s slightly forwarding posture and an anchored, determined timbre that he meant what he sang or, at the very least, he was pleading to the audience to delve deeper into the subject matter.

Xuefei Yang played with the touch of a gentle feline paw, but could jump in with a powerful chord or two with the leaping ferocity of a tiger’s rage. Like all young musicians, she would make mistakes; but unlike them, she did not dwell upon a few wrong notes. As an artist, Yang painted with poetic persuasiveness: in Fisherman’s Song at Eventide, she rendered an image of a lethargic evening filled with gentle choruses and dimming dusk light. Or, in the tense sections of Plucking the Rushes, in Goss’ Book of Songs, Yang’s fiery fingering brought forth heated drama between the voice and the instrument, with Yang all the while synchronizing the ebb and flow by making frequent side glances at Bostridge. Compared with other talented Asian musicians, the Beijing-born Yang genuinely seemed to enjoy the process of music making, indicated in part by her friendly demeanor as she talked about the various solos after the intermission. Nevertheless, she remained trapped in one aspect that befell most promising Asian musicians: the non-sense that technically difficult pieces would surely please the crowd. In Falla’s Spanish Dance No.1, a piece rearranged by Yang for two hands when it was meant for four, Yang spent all her attention to the finger-breaking fretboard action, and ended up sounding dragged, exhausted and spiritless. The devil of a job neither pleased nor awed. The inviting expressiveness, so eloquently displayed in Fisherman’s Song at Eventide just a few minutes before, remained unsatisfactorily absent here.

Ian Bostridge and Xuefei Yang

Ian Bostridge and Xuefei Yang

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