Concert review: Bored of Bach? Two pianists venture off the beaten path

Pianist Mark Cheng at his debut recital, Mark Cheng In Recital, in the Esplanade Recital Studio on March 3, 2021. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MARK CHENG



Esplanade Recital Studio, last Wednesday (March 3)


Andrew Litton and Singapore Symphony Orchestra musicians

Victoria Concert Hall, last Friday (March 5)

Bored of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms? Why not build a programme around the rarer sonatas of Czech composers Jan Dussek and Leos Janacek, or the Russian Nikolai Myaskovsky?

That was the mandate of Mark Cheng, one of an increasing number of pianists venturing off the beaten path to perform works outside the core repertoire.

The lawyer, who is also a Singapore Dance Theatre company pianist, delivered in his debut recital 90 minutes of simmering melancholy, brooding catharsis and violent death throes.

Cheng emoted with a wealth of shades and emotions, even if these ranged from dark grey to jet black. The Sonata No. 24 in F sharp minor or Elegie Harmonique by Dussek, a contemporary of Mozart, sounded so modern and decadent it could have come from the late Romantics.

Dies Irae, the mediaeval chant of the Day of Judgement, possessed two works: reclusive Frenchman Charles-Valentin Alkan's Morte and Myaskovsky's Second Sonata, which Cheng handled with utter self-confidence and understated virtuosity.

Some familiarity came in Enrique Granados' Love And Death from Goyescas, inspired by Spaniard Francisco Goya's paintings, and Janacek's Sonata I.X.1905, a powerful work memorialising a worker's murder at a demonstration.

Cheng's magisterial encore, the Funeral March from Chopin's Second Sonata, resonated against the backdrop of two million lives lost to Covid-19 and more needless deaths in Myanmar's civil unrest.

In another outing with a sombre start, Singapore Symphony Orchestra's principal guest conductor Andrew Litton took centrestage as pianist alongside the orchestra's principal string players in an hour-long programme of Viennese chamber music.

Gustav Mahler's Piano Quartet, a single-movement effort written when the composer was a teenager, received a rare hearing.

The morose solo by Litton, who is also music director of the New York City Ballet, set the tone. Beneath its veneer of serenity lay a hotbed of neuroses.

After the piano's tense outburst of octaves, Chan Yoong-Han's violin settled the nerves for a disquieting end. Little wonder this was used in the psychological thriller film Shutter Island (2010) starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Dark clouds gave way to the sunshine of Schubert's Piano Quintet in A major, a perennial favourite popularly known as the Trout Quintet. Its five movements radiated a congenial warmth.

Particularly enjoyable was the fourth movement's Theme and Variations, based on Schubert's song Die Forelle (The Trout), hence the work's nickname.

Despite being familiar, the music never outlived its charm, bringing the concert to a gemutlich (the Viennese adjective for being carefree) and delightful close.

View it/Mark Cheng In Recital (Live stream)

Where: Sistic Live

When: Friday (March 12) to April 11, 11.59pm

Admission: $15 to $45 via Sistic (call 6348 5555 or go to Sistic's website)

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