An agile journey through the geography of piano etudes



Esplanade Concert Hall

Last Wednesday

The etude, or study, is a short piece written to train digital and motor technique, thus honing agility in students of the instrument.

Piano etudes have often struck fear and dread, especially those dry and didactic finger-twisters by Czerny and Hanon which barely pass as listenable music.

British pianist Freddy Kempf served up a coup with a recital of 24 etudes, fortunately those written by Chopin, Rachmaninov and living Ukrainian composer Nikolai Kapustin.

Quite uncharacteristically, he opened with three Concert Etudes from Op. 40 by Kapustin, jazz-inspired numbers which are usually performed as encores.

Getting off to a thunderous start, he immediately had the audience eating from his hand.

The central Etude No. 7, titled Intermezzo, opened with smokey and clubby insouciance before working to a tipsy frenzy that was hard not to wholeheartedly applaud at its conclusion.

That was exactly what the audience did, clapping through short breaks between the 12 Etudes Op. 10 by Frederic Chopin, mostly after those which ended with a big bang.

One wondered whether Kempf was distracted by the inappropriately timed and intrusive accolade, but he more than held his nerve.

Scintillating bravura was the order of the day, beginning with the wide arpeggio stretches in the C major Etude (No. 1) and concluding with the coruscating passion of the C minor Revolutionary Etude (No. 12).

In between, his razor-keen reflexes and hyper-acute synapses fired, tossing off treacherous pieces like the A minor Chromatic Etude (No. 2) and G flat major Black Key Etude (No. 5) without so much as breaking a sweat.

There was none of that mindless playing-by-the-numbers pianism so often encountered in keyboard automatons churned out by the dozen.

Instead these were very nuanced readings, where purring pianissimos and furious fortissimos were mixed in with deliciously timed rubatos, that inimitable soul of musical Romanticism.

Kempf's performances of the 9 Etudes-Tableaux Op. 39 by Rachmaninov that followed after the interval were arguably even better.

Moving away from mere virtuoso display, these are little tone poems which seem to tell stories from deep within the Russian soul.

The first two were obsessed with the Dies Irae (the mediaeval plainchant of Judgement Day), first angry rumbling followed by calming placidity.

Then there was that astonishing sequence of etudes that relived bells of all nature and kind.

The E flat minor (No. 5) tolling variety was vividly contrasted with the heavier-laden pealing in C minor (No. 7).

In between was wild scampering in A minor (No. 6), which will readily remind listeners of Little Red Riding Hood And The Wolf.

Gentle swirling eddies in D minor (No. 8) soon gave way to the triumphal procession in D major (No. 9), where a marching band's parade closed with a thrilling and sonorous carillon.

Kempf's journey through the geography of piano etudes had come to an end, and there was one encore.

That was a complete antithesis to the mighty study: Chopin's simple little waltz called L'Adieu, or Farewell.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2018, with the headline 'An agile journey through the geography of piano etudes'. Subscribe