[REVIEW] Admirably adventurous piano program from Jason Bae at Waikanae

Admirably adventurous piano program from Jason Bae at Waikanae

©Middle C (2015) 

By Lindis Taylor, 20/09/2015

Jason Bae – piano

Liszt: Three concert études, S 144 (Il lamento, La leggierezza, Un sospiro)
Puccini/Mikhashoff: Portrait of Madame Butterfly
Chopin: The four Ballades

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 20 September 2:30 pm

The concert by Jason Bae was one of a nationwide series arranged through Chamber Music New Zealand. He also plays, a different programme (see our Coming Events), on 27 September at St Andrew’s on The Terrace for Wellington Chamber Music.

It is commonly a mark of an intelligent and serious minded musician when he plays entire works and, where it’s feasible, complete sets of pieces. Liszt’s Three Concert Études and the four Chopin Ballades are examples of groups of pieces that benefit from being heard together, and formed the major part of an interesting programme.

Il lamento announces its subject with a series of descending phrases, though with little decorative turns that partly disguise much overt grief. In fact, to my ears, rather than the loss of a loved one, it suggests the sort of emotion one feels at the end of an exciting and happy holiday, when the reality of work and chores looms again; but always tempered by delightful memories, and that was reflected in the somewhat sentimental tune that takes over through most of the study. Bae’s playing was unaffected, free of any rhetorical or theatrical excesses, and he even maintained a fairly limited dynamic range, hardly above a mezzo-forte.

La leggierezza assumes a tone that is, of course, lighter, creating a mood of pleasure, where circumstances have produced an ebullience in the spirit; it was fluent and colourful and though he seemed to hit the notes purposefully, they were never percussive.

And Il sospiro, understandably more popular as a result of its sighing (if I can’t find a better word), mildly reflective tone; again even tone, taking full advantage of the fact that humans have two hands; and loving warmth rather than self-indulgence. The trio of beguiling pieces induced me, at home, to dig out a couple of LPs, one by Katchen, one by Jerome Rose, both in lovely warm analogue sound, in performances that hardly surpassed what I’d heard a few hours before in Waikanae.

One approaches arrangements or transcriptions or paraphrases or reminiscences or pot-pourris of others’ music with caution (I’m still thinking of Liszt of course, though a lot of his are wonderfully heart-warming and exciting). An arrangement, perhaps rather a fantasia, on music from Act II of Madama Butterfly, by an American pianist/composer Yvar Mikhashoff (real name Ronald Mackay), is one of several transcriptions from Puccini operas which have been recorded by Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

It’s a very creditable and attractive piece, with most of the recognisable themes from ‘Un bel di’ and the Flower Duet onward; they captured the spirit of self-delusion and of the character of the opera generally. It seemed to be cast the three parts, like a classical suite, with plenty of scintillating virtuosity that suited Jason splendidly.

Then came the rare chance to hear all four of Chopin’s Ballades played successively. They run almost the full gamut of Chopin’s composing life in Paris from 1831 to 1842, and explore all the moods to be found in his piano music: the delicacy, the achingly melodic, the sentimental, the massive climaxes, the limpid gentleness; from passages that even an ordinary pianist can cope with to the parts where that pianist simply closes the score and gets a recording. I

These were admirable performances, which seemed to be enhanced by close proximity to each other. They are hard work and I sensed that towards the end a little tiredness revealed itself. One sometimes wonders whether it is only musical tradition that permits some disparate groups of movements to be known as sonatas or suites and others, like Schubert’s Impromptus or his Drei Klavierstücke, like Chopin’s Scherzi or Ballades, which are rarely played as a group. But then, the challenge of playing them all in a row might be quite a persuasive reason.

After most of the crowd stood in acclamation, Jason talked his way to playing another tough piece, another opera transcription. Because he judged that not many in the audience might have been familiar with the story of Peter Grimes, he went through it and then played a seven-minute-long Peter Grimes Fantasy by Ronald Stevenson, a pianist and composer who died earlier this year (why is he only a vague name to me?). It’s a fantasy on many of the musical ideas in Britten’s great opera and the sounds he produced created a disturbingly realistic impression of the opera, with recognizable moments like the storm, Ellen’s Embroidery aria, motifs from the last harrowing scene, suggesting the dawn and the sea and the work’s enigmatic conclusion. Towards the end he stood to reach inside the piano to pluck the strings: for once with some musical purpose. Though the place in the opera of the little evanescent motif eluded me, it conjured the uncanny atmosphere that Britten evoked during the depiction of Grimes’s crisis and disappearance.

I found a quote by pianist John Humphreys about Stevenson’s piece: “His seven minute ‘Peter Grimes Fantasy’ encapsulates the essence of the opera in a way that astonished Britten at a private performance in Aldeburgh”.

As an encore it was courageous and in a way, was the most revelatory and memorable piece that we heard in the afternoon. It also revealed something of the breadth, and perhaps the depth, of this young musician’s musical experience and understanding; he is no mere piano virtuoso, but a well-schooled artist with an admirable curiosity, and the entire programme reflected those qualities.