Painting a vivid musical landscape

REVIEW / CONCERT

HUSEYIN SERMET

Victoria Concert Hall

Last Saturday

Turkish pianist and composer Huseyin Sermet may not be a household name in the piano world, but his captivating performance of a balanced and substantial programme was a delight.

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Sermet's ability to draw in the listener was apparent after just a few bars of Mendelssohn's Fantasy In F-sharp Minor. It is a handful for any pianist and his ability to paint a vivid musical landscape with tone, timing and dynamics brought it to life.

The final movement of the Fantasy calls for dazzling fingerwork and the deftest touch, but there is much more to Mendelssohn's writing than an abundance of notes. Here, Sermet showed that he was not only a virtuoso, but a most sensitive musician who always allowed the music to take centre stage.

Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 21, "Waldstein", which followed, is one of the best-known piano works for many concertgoers. Sermet's performance would have been a surprise for some as he presented a highly thoughtful and compelling reinterpretation of the piece, more moderately paced and less fiery than is often heard.

The dynamics, rhythm and phrasing were outstanding, although one questions if the energy asked for in Beethoven's marking "allegro con brio" (lively, with brilliance) was fully attained.

There were no reservations, however, with Sermet's deep, soul- searching expressiveness in the second movement, or the beautifully paced beginning of the final movement. His tempos were very broad throughout the finale, but there was excellent ebb and flow, and the sonata ended strongly.

As Singapore International Piano Festival's artistic director Lionel Choi mentioned in the programme notes, composer Modest Mussorgsky's manuscript for his Pictures At An Exhibition did not include metronome marks. Thus,tempos are left to the discretion of the performer. Sermet's choice of tempos in portraying a visitor's stroll through an exhibition of the works of artist Victor Hartmann seemed to be in perfect accord with Choi's descriptions of the movements.

There was plenty of character in his playing, with mischievous shifts in tempo as the children played in the Tuileries Gardens, ironic humour in the gossip of the women in the marketplace, and a dark, mysterious tone in the sounds of the catacombs. The subtle, and sometimes less subtle, changes in the Promenade between movements were superbly characterised, suggesting how the visitor was affected by each exhibit.

This was a brilliantly conceived performance of not just a set of exhibits, but a whole journey through Mussorgsky's Exhibition.

Sermet does not have an extensive discography and, judging from this performance, his take on the Waldstein sonata and Pictures At An Exhibition might be considered a tad eccentric or indulgent.

But then, few recordings are able to capture the sonority of a great pianist in a good concert hall with its seemingly infinite range of dynamics and a musician's ability to totally draw in the audience on a particular occasion.

In the context of a live recital, Sermet's playing was immensely engaging, highly musical and most satisfying.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2017, with the headline 'Painting a vivid musical landscape'. Print Edition | Subscribe