Concert review: Louis Lortie’s splendid all-Chopin recital, Melvyn Tan’s passionate reading of Korngold

Canadian pianist Louis Lortie worked his way through Chopin's Etudes and Preludes in one sitting. PHOTO: UNG RUEY LOON
Singapore-born pianist Melvyn Tan (above left) offered a passionate reading of Erich Korngold's Piano Quintet In E Major with the Concordia Quartet. PHOTO: MALCOLM NG

Chopin’s Etudes & Preludes

Louis Lortie
Victoria Concert Hall
Last Friday

Concordia Quartet With Melvyn Tan

Victoria Concert Hall
Last Saturday

Two internationally acclaimed veteran pianists, well known for many splendid recordings on compact disc, performed on consecutive evenings at Victoria Concert Hall over the weekend.

The first was Canadian pianist Louis Lortie, presented by Altenburg Arts, making his Singapore debut with an all-Chopin recital. Completists would be more than satisfied experiencing all of Chopin’s 24 Etudes (in two books) and 24 Preludes in a single sitting.

A task of Herculean proportions, the transcendental technical difficulties in the Etudes and ever-shifting moods of the Preludes required endurance and sheer stamina. Lortie had all of these, and more.

It takes the bravest souls and stoutest hearts to launch headlong into the arpeggio thicket that is the C major study (Op. 10 No. 1), and then negotiate rapid slithering chromaticisms of the A minor number (Op. 10 No. 2).

Both pieces strike fear by their mere mention, but for Lortie, the fun had just begun. Chopin’s Etudes are the ultimate marriage of digital dexterity and lyrical poetry, not didactic exercises, but tonal masterpieces.

The slower numbers in E major and E flat minor (from Op. 10) and C sharp minor (Op. 25 No. 7), also known as Cello for its mellow low voice, became true songs without words.

Ultimately, feats of daredevilry – such as roulades of thirds in G sharp minor (Op. 25 No. 6), stampeding octaves of the B minor (Op. 25 No. 10), the blizzard that enveloped the A minor (Op. 25 No. 11) or Winter Wind – were what thrilled the audience most and left mouths agape.

The Preludes (Op. 28), an enticing mix of simple and complex pieces, was another odyssey of discovery, completing the recital with stunning aplomb.

Lortie’s encore of Chopin’s hauntingly beautiful Nocturne In D Flat Major (Op. 27 No. 2) showed that not everything has to be blistering or thunderous to be memorable.

The second pianist was Singapore-born Melvyn Tan, now a British citizen, who performed Austrian Erich Korngold’s Piano Quintet In E Major (1921) with the home-grown Concordia Quartet.

His very engaging preamble about the child-prodigy composer and his highly lucrative film music career was topped only by the performance, which exuded heart-on-sleeve passion from every pore.

Neo-Romantic in spirit, the music fused Viennese decadence with Hollywood opulence. Dissonant and occasionally pungent harmonies never lapsed into outright atonality, while a melodic thread was always sustained through its absorbing half-hour.

While violinists Edward Tan and Kim Kyu Ri, violist Martin Peh and cellist Lin Juan worked in close tandem with Melvyn Tan, there was little doubt that the pianist ran the show.

His highly detailed part dovetailed solo passages with stretches where piano became so intertwined with strings as to be indivisible. Even when huge chords and octaves were demanded and duly delivered, Tan and the quartet were in one mind throughout.

The central movement – a set of variations on an earlier song – provided the work’s most sensuous moments, while the playful finale romped home with irrepressible elan. Putting a twist to an oft-quoted jibe concerning Korngold, this performance was more gold than corn.

The quartet’s unusually adventurous programme also included an intensely incisive yet sensitive reading of Prokofiev’s First String Quartet, likely to be the Singapore premiere.

Its acerbic strains were balanced by the folksy sentimentality of Two Waltzes by Dvorak, making for an enthralling evening.

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