Conveying more than just words

REVIEW / CONCERT

DICHTERLEBEN: A POET'S LIFE

Yang Shuxiang, violin, and Churen Li, piano

Victoria Concert Hall/Sunday

Introducing a programme of purely instrumental pieces with poetry, eloquently delivered from the stage, is a splendid idea and it gave this concert by two promising young Singaporean musicians a strong sense of individuality.

The poetry helped the audience understand what the musicians were trying to convey in their performances and also served to construct a coherent frame on which to hang four works which might, in the ordinary way of things, be seen as unconnected.

Certainly, the poetry helped concertgoers get to grips with Koh Cheng Jin's new piece for violin and piano.

Titled Ti, after the poem by Sun Ping Yu, which was the inspiration behind the 20-year-old Singaporean composer's work, it began with a cleverly conceived musical representation of the "withered leaf" of the poem.

A delicate shrivelling effect was created by Churen Li both striking the notes and twanging the strings inside the piano. The piece's ending was equally effective and, while Koh has yet to develop her true creative voice - the various stylistic influences in the middle were not fully absorbed into a unified language - this was a most compelling work, much aided by a deeply committed performance.

The downside of using poetry is that the performers are apt to interpret the music in terms of the words rather than identify the genuine voice of the composer.

That was an issue with the Poulenc Violin Sonata where the players focused so intently on their chosen text from Lorca, that Poulenc's own voice got swamped.

Taking the piece at a breathless, manic speed, Yang was simply unable to spit out enough tone to compete with the very forceful piano part in the Sonata's outer movements, while the quieter moments took on an unconvincing mood of ingratiating sentimen- tality. For all the undoubted technical strengths of both players, this never hit the mark musically.

Ysaye's Poeme Elegiaque found Yang spot on target, producing a lovely, richly expressive line with Li lavishing colour and atmosphere on it. With the piano lid wide open, problems of balance were inevitable, but they did not seriously detract from some lovely playing.

The duo were even more convincing in the Fantasy In C by Schubert, a composer for whom poetry and music were just about inseparable.

Based on one of his songs - the text of which formed the poetic introduction to the performance - the music positively sung under Yang's richly lyrical tone, while Li showed subtlety, delicacy and great refinement in her part.

The poet's message of undying love was so clearly delivered by these two musicians that the words, in the end, proved superfluous.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2016, with the headline 'Conveying more than just words'. Print Edition | Subscribe