Concert review: Young pianist Clarence Lee's recital fuses beauty and risk-taking

Singaporean pianist Clarence Lee performed a medley of local and foreign pieces at his concert Passion and Poetry on Saturday at the Victoria Concert Hall. -- PHOTO: JOHN ZHANG
Singaporean pianist Clarence Lee performed a medley of local and foreign pieces at his concert Passion and Poetry on Saturday at the Victoria Concert Hall. -- PHOTO: JOHN ZHANG

When the Young Virtuoso Recital Series was inaugurated in 2005 as part of the Singapore International Piano Festival, the fear was that there would not be enough pianists capable of holding their own in the prestigious event.

Although foreign-trained pianists such as Lim Yan, Lee Pei Ming and Nicholas Ho proved more than up to the task, enthusiasm waned and financial support was eventually pulled.

Since the series was resurrected in 2013 it has pianists who received their musical education at our very own Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, whose formation must surely rank as the most game-changing milestone in the history of western classical music on our shores.

Passion and Poetry was the title of conservatory alumni and young pianist Clarence Lee's recital on Saturday at the Victoria Concert Hall, and the programme featured two composers who embodied this ethos: Sergei Rachmaninov and Franze Liszt.

Few pianists possess the ability to make the daunting instrument sound larger than it is and produce a fortissimo that never sounds harsh, but the opening octaves of Rachmaninov's Prelude In C Sharp Minor Op. 3 No. 2 resounded with authority. What followed was a meticulous crafting of layers of sonorities which were at times let down by the acoustics of the concert hall.

The composer's Op. 23 Preludes pose a stern test to the pianist's artistry and stamina and most performers treat them as technical showpieces. But Lee never let the virtuosity of the 10 pieces in the set distract from the hidden beauty of Rachmaninov's surging harmonies.

Even the most famous of them, the B Flat Major and G Minor Preludes, did not sound tired, with the former containing some awe-inspiring playing from Lee with the right hand shimmering above the melody held by the left hand.

As part of the requisites of the recital to include a work by a local composer, Waves by Phang Kok Jun was given its world premiere.

Phang showed that imaginative writing did not necessarily equate to complexity and his idiomatic writing created a kaleidoscopic effect with hints of Debussy's Clair De Lune and Pagodas, with the gentle rocking figuration of the left hand mimicking the breaking of waves on shore, as a simple lullabic melody sparkled unpredictably like the refraction and reflection of light on water.

No virtuosic recital is complete without the music of Liszt and Lee's thoughtful programming saw the polarising pairing of Benediction De Dieu Dans La Solitude and Reminiscences De Don Juan close the evening.

Written after retiring from the concert stage, Benediction is one of the composer's most deeply poetic works during his period of spirituality. Taken at a brisk tempo, there was an unexpected youthfulness in Lee's interpretation. The evenness of the sweeping arpeggio figures was almost unreal and in voicing the melody above the dense writing, he showed his consummate control.

If the work showed Liszt's unlikely religious side, the Don Juan fantasy showed both the vulgarity and ingenuity of his technical innovation. It was in this work that Lee finally tossed caution to the wind, as he dove head-first into the multitude of double-thirds and octave runs.

Taking risks is a sign of a confident musician and while it was not note-perfect, Lee's fiery temperament was on full display.

Visibly exhausted by the end of the recital, he responded to the thunderous ovation with an improvisation on The Moon Represents My Heart and a smashing transcription of Die Fledermaus by Alfred Grunfeld, with the latter showing some glittering fingerwork by the pianist.