Filipino pianist delights with country's favourites



Raul Sunico

Piano Recital

Victoria Concert Hall


Pioneering Pianists of South-east Asia, a festival organised by Steinway & Sons, showcased two keyboard veterans, Raul Sunico (from the Philippines) and Nat Yontararak (from Thailand), who have contributed significantly to the piano-playing culture of their respective nations.

On the first evening, Sunico, who has degrees in mathematics and statistics, performed a selection of popular classics and transcriptions of well-known Filipino songs.

The first segment showed he still has the wherewithal to master two of Rachmaninov's Preludes. Opening with the infamous C Sharp Minor Prelude (Op. 3 No. 2), its chord-filled pages resounded like the carillons of Moscow, while the G sharp minor number (Op. 32 No. 12) was filled with requisite melancholy.

He was less successful in Chopin's Nocturne In B Major (Op. 9 No. 3), where the stormy central section was hurried and messy.

He, however, redeemed himself in Albeniz's El Puerto (from Iberia), where its tricky rhythms were en pointe and throes of passion built up to a crashing climax in the Liszt transcription of Wagner's Liebestod (from the opera Tristan And Isolde).

No concessions were needed for the fact that Sunico is 71 this year.

Attired in the traditional barong tagalog, he ruled the stage in seven Filipino song transcriptions, three originals and four by his own hand.

Totally at ease in this idiom, this was easily the most memorable part of the evening.

Some pieces had clear references to popular classics, such as Mike Verlade's Buhat (Since), which opened with the left hand accompaniment to Debussy's Reverie, while Ernani Cuenco's Bato Sa Buhangin (Stone On Sand) masqueraded as Chopin's ubiquitous E flat major Nocturne in its first bar.

Nicano Abelardo's Nocturne In C Sharp Minor was a dead ringer for Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu.

This was not plagiarism as the pieces gained a life of their own. Much of the glorious melodies could have come from Richard Rodgers, the Sherman brothers and a slew of Hollywood/Broadway composers, such was their popular appeal.

The harmonies were deliciously sweet-toothed and one imagined a Gershwin or Mayerl having a hand.

Felipe de Leon's Kundiman was a bittersweet love song; Francisco Buencamino's Kumintang was a minor key romance in the form of a waltz; and Celeste LegaspiGallardo's Saranggola Ni Pepe was a fast jazzy dance with deeper patriotic leanings, although not obviously apparent.

All these had tastefully varied ornamentations and were performed with much love and pride.

There was even a sales pitch for Steinway's Spirio R, a modern playback mechanism like a player-piano fitted on a concert grand. Sunico thus accompanied himself, playing on two pianos Milhaud's Brasileira (from Scaramouche) and a welcome reprise of Saranggola Ni Pepe.

The closing work of the 80-minute recital was Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue - in a no-holds-barred reading that had all the bells, whistles and augmentations.

Sunico accompanied in two encores with master-of-ceremony Cristina Villonco, who sang, to the delight of Filipinos in the audience.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2019, with the headline 'Filipino pianist delights with country's favourites'. Print Edition | Subscribe