Crystal clear fingerwork by Chinese pianist

Chinese pianist Sa Chen has won multiple prestigious international piano competitions.
Chinese pianist Sa Chen has won multiple prestigious international piano competitions.PHOTO: SSO

This year marked a new chapter in the history of the Singapore International Piano Festival, with local concert pianist Lim Yan making his debut as its artistic director. He is the first of four directors who is a professional musician.

Chinese pianist Sa Chen, prize winner in multiple prestigious international piano competitions, was Lim's opening-night pick.

Thankfully, she did not perform like a serial competitor, often associated with faceless, bland and spotlessly accurate playing of virtuoso fodder.

The recital's first half was filled with spirituality and depth, opening with Cesar Franck's Prelude, Chorale & Fugue.

Despite its austere title and thematic material, Chen's account displayed exquisite tonal colour, limpid fingerwork and excellent pedalling.

While Franck is better known for his organ music, there was no overt attempt to project an organ-like sonority, but the widely spaced broken chords of the Chorale radiated memorable warmth. The wearying final Fugue also showed a mastery of handling voices, which came to glorious fruition.

Two Nocturnes by Chopin followed, the famous D Flat Major (Op. 27 No. 2), with its seamless cantabile line; and the more animated G Major (Op. 37 No. 2), filled with tricky triplets passages. It was the latter's more beseeching central melody that lingered in the ear.

Little prepared one for the onslaught of rapid notes and chords that came with Olivier Messiaen's Regard De L'Esprit De Joie (Gaze Of The Spirit Of Joy) from the monumental piano cycle, Twenty Gazes Of The Infant Jesus.

  • REVIEW / CONCERT

  • 26TH SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL

    PIANO FESTIVAL: SA CHEN

    Victoria Concert Hall/Last Thursday

Here was a different kind of spirituality, one of fearsome and terrifying awe and majesty.

Despite her slight frame, Chen summoned the strength and reserve to overcome its ferocious physical demands.

The Francophilic recital's second half comprised eight of Debussy's 12 Etudes, three from Book One and five from Book Two.

These were well selected, reflecting a diverse compendium of devices that made up contemporary keyboard wizardry in the 1910s.

Far from being merely technical studies, there were tonal paintings that went beyond impressionism.

The first study was a spoof on Czerny's pedagogy, beginning with a simple five-finger exercise before going off on a tangent.

Next was a play of fourths as intervals, while another was a whirlwind on eight fingers with sweeping glissandi to boot.

Imagination ran high, as was Chen's ability to shape and make sense of these seemingly disparate and incongruous pieces.

An elusive in-joke on Chabrier was shared in the study of repeated notes. There was a silky legato in the penultimate piece before the finale's exhausting trial of wide leaping chords.

There was a risk of weariness enveloping pianist and listener, but the evening ended well with Chen's sole encore of Debussy's sublime prelude Bruyeres.

Lim's tenure at the Singapore International Piano Festival is off to a solid start.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2019, with the headline 'Crystal clear fingerwork by Chinese pianist'. Print Edition | Subscribe