[Review] Youthful, exuberant virtuosity - Jason Bae at St. Andrew's, Wellington.

By Peter Mechen, 27/09/2015, ©Middle C

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
JASON BAE (piano)

CHOPIN – Four Scherzi
No.1 in B Minor Op.20
No.2 in B-flat Minor Op.31
No.3 in C-sharp Minor Op.39
No.4 in E Major Op.54
BRITTEN/STEVENSON – Fantasy on Peter Grimes (1977)
LISZT – Venezia e Napoli – Gondoliera / Canzone / Tarantella

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 27th September, 2015

I remember hearing for the first time New Zealand pianist Richard Farrell’s recording of Chopin’s First Scherzo, and being bowled over by the playing’s youthful verve and exuberance.  Similar to Farrell’s in brilliance of execution and youthful élan was the performance of this same work by Jason Bae which opened his Wellington Chamber Music Series recital at St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace on Sunday. For me, in fact, the “shock” of the recital’s opening generated by this young pianist had the effect of a sudden electric charge sent tingling through one’s being, which, of course, was exactly what the composer would have intended.

Jason Bae continued on as he had begun throughout this work, his playing capturing the compulsive “churning” aspect of the figurations, and bringing off the transitions between sections with a fine sensitivity – the central lyrical theme remained slightly “charged”, unable, it seemed to me, to completely relax, brought here, as it had been, in a veritable whirlwind, tempestuous and unnerving!  When it came, the pianist’s reiteration of these agitations heard at the opening simply renewed our astonishment at the fieriness of both music and its performance.

Following this, the tense “question-and-answer” opening phrases of the Second Scherzo were beautifully contrasted, the reply to the darkly-covered beginning ringing and resounding in great style. When repeated, this dialogue took on for me an even more spectral aspect, as if death had made a spoken gesture and been recognized, though Jason Bae’s sensitivity and nimble fingers also kept the passage’s melodic quality stoically to the fore. I liked the pianist’s rich, mellow plunge into the middle sequence’s world – and he did so well with that alchemic transition from those reverential tones back to the recapitulation – a wonderful mini-adventure! Then, in his hands the return to those first exchanges brought out a more rueful, even a somewhat “old friend” quality, after which the interplay of growing tensions culminated in a blistering coda, startling in its power and velocity!

The third Scherzo’s opening was less spectral and sharp-edged than grim and unremitting, dark, terse mutterings followed by angry octaves, delivered with incredible panache! Jason Bae caught the nobility of the contrasting episode, with its beautifully-weighted chords, but seemed to me somewhat at a loss to know what to “do” with the descending filigree figurations, treating them, I thought, as if they were purely decorative. Even when those same noble chords re-emerged decked with darker hues, beautifully voiced by the young pianist, the downward cascadings still lacked, to my ears, any kind of discernible character – strange, when his responses to the music’s other episodes were so sharply and/or richly focused.

After all of this grim, tight-lipped stuff, the relative genialities of the Fourth Scherzo were more than welcome, though Bae seemed more concerned with bringing out the elfin brilliance of the piano writing at the outset more than its good humour. There was breathtakingly delicate playing, with amazing right-hand work in places, the figurations at times just “brushed in”, everything clear as crystal, but light as air and swift as thought.  And the lyrical heart of the work was expressed with legato playing of such loveliness, it seemed churlish to wonder what it was that was in the young pianist’s mind other than the desire to make a beautiful sound. A friend I conferred with immediately after the concert felt much the same thing – that the virtuosity of the playing was breathtaking, but the lyrical moments needed more “character”.

Chopin reputedly said, once, that “if you want to play my music, go to hear Pasta or Rubini” – two of the stars of the opera at the time. Chopin loved the female voice as an instrument (though, surprisingly, he wrote fewer songs than did, say, Liszt), attended the opera regularly,  and befriended opera singers such as Pauline Viadot and Jenny Lind. Though his Nocturnes are celebrated as the most markedly lyrical works in his output, singing lines occur almost everywhere in his other compositions, as witness the central sections of these Scherzi. And just as a singer inflects the melodic lines he or she sings, according to the texts of the songs, so do Chopin’s melodies suggest appropriate dynamic and rhythmic nuance and a range of colour, according to the music’s overall character.

Throughout these Scherzi performances I thought Jason Bae readily captured a sense of the music’s excitement and dynamism, giving the works a wonderful volatile aspect, and a real sense of danger, of encountering the unexpected, and of conquering in places incredibly complex strands of creative impulse and making their intertwining cohere. He was able, as well, to display a gift for realizing a beautiful legato, one which was possible in many instances to enjoy as pure sound (as Chopin was reputed to have enjoyed the female voice or the sound of a violin). Still, in places in these performances I felt the need for more than beauty per se, for a stronger identification with the music’s expression that would give those sounds real intent.

The subjective nature of listening to music enables nine people in a room to add each of their very different impressions of a piece of a music to that of the musician playing it! – ten different reactions to the same piece of music! But I feel that what stimulates this process is the initial recreative thrust given by the performer – without that kind of interpretative commitmenton the part of a player, music can sound incredibly bland, for all the accuracy or surface beauty of its performance.  Bae himself demonstrated such a level of interpretative focus and skill in bringing to us, immediately after the interval,  the programme’s next item – this was Ronald Stevenson’s Fantasy on Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten’s most famous opera.

Ronald Stevenson (whom I think of as Scottish, but who did have an English mother) died earlier this year at the age of 87. Called by commentators one of the great composer-pianists, his output was considerable, including both large-scale works, a huge body of transcriptions, and hundreds of miniatures. Though he’s credited with writing the longest single-movement work in the piano literature (his Passacaglia on DSCH, inspired by Shostakovich), his songs and piano transcriptions are the best-known of his works. Among the transcriptions for solo piano ( the style of Franz Liszt and his operatic transcriptions or “Reminiscences”) is this Fantasy, written in 1977, the year after Britten’s death.

Not dissimilar to Liszt’s Don Juan Fantasy, which recreates for the listener Mozart’s Don Giovanni through elaborating upon a number of scenes from the opera, though not in theatrical order, Stevenson sets about recreating certain subject-themes from “Peter Grimes”, and, unlike Liszt with “the Don” more-or-less following the design of the opera. Crashing chords with plaintive replies immediately evoke angry voices calling the outcast fisherman’s name at the opera’s beginning, followed by agitated, energetic figurations representing rumour and heresay swirling around Grimes’s head, suspected as he is of causing the death of one of his apprentice boys.

We heard the tumult of the storm and in its desolate wake an extended recitative with softly-whispered scintillations of stars in the firmament overhead, piano writing that staggered with its brilliance, sensitivity and sense of evocation. Jason Bae’s performance caught it all, revelling in the tumultuous piano-writing, but then recreating great vistas of silent, pitiless wonderment, as Grimes took the inevitable, tragic steps towards drowning himself at sea. All that was left at the end was the dawn, which the pianist magically brought into being by plucking the piano strings directly, sounding the “Daybreak” theme from the opera in doing so – a few evocatively-sounded Liszt-like chords, and the piece was over – what a work, and what a performance!

To conclude the recital, Jason Bae chose Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli, music composed as a kind of sequel to the composer’s second Années de Pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) collection, consisting of impressions from his sojourns in Italy. There are three separate pieces in the work, the first two relating to the Venice (Venezia) part of the title, and a final Tarantella associated with Southern Italy (Napoli).

Beginning with a kind of introduction in which we heard the rhythm of the gondolier’s oar and the rippling of the water, the music intoned a popular song “La Biondina in Gondoletta”, Liszt most interestingly casting the opening music in the same key (F-sharp) as Chopin was to use in his Barcarolle for solo piano. Jason Bae gave us some exquisitely-sounded, shimmering textures throughout this section, voicing the gondolier’s song with great sensitivity, and making the accompanying arabesques scintillate all around the melody, perhaps not with gossamer ease in places, but certainly with sheer youthful delight! I loved the reminiscence of Berlioz’s “March of the Pilgrims” from his Symphony Harold en Italie at the end of the gondolier’s song, Liszt’s chiming notes recalling something of the dying echoes in Berlioz’s work.

The agitated Canzone which followed gave us the darker side of this picture, the music actually based on another gondolier’s song, this time by Rossini as used in his opera Otello  Bae plunged himself and his instrument into this scenario of darkness and despair, leavening things a little in places with some resigned moments of light in the gloom before rechannelling his energies for another irruption which seemed to come out stamping and snorting! – to then immediately break into a tarantella, the “wildest of dances”, the pianist’s fingers flying over the keys, alternating strength and power with delicacy. Respite of sorts came with the cantabile theme, though as the piece gathered momentum, and the “swirl of the girl gone chancing, glancing, dancing” became wilder, some of the melody’s accompanying trajectories began to sound as hair-raising as the tarantella itself. The ending? – it was pure, unadulterated panache on both composer’s and performer’s part, and earned Jason Bae an enthusiastic and well-deserved reception.

We were returned to normality of a sorts by a couple of encores (yes, really! – and I’m obviously showing my age by remarking “and after all that expenditure of energy!”) – neither of the pieces I knew, though I laid bets with a friend afterwards as to their respective identities – the first, I thought sounded like Liszt, the second Rachmaninov! Thus far, neither of us has collected any winnings from the other, though I’m sure it’s only a matter of time……..