Scaling neoclassical heights

Ryan Chow.
Ryan Chow.

Neoclassicism in music refers to the 20th-century movement in which composers looked to the past and antique forms for inspiration.

Retrospective views were nothing new even in the 18th and 19th centuries and this intelligently conceived piano recital by young pianist Ryan Chow, presently studying in America, showed that such an approach need not be over-intellectual or didactic.

A warhorse, the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, opened the evening in grand style. Chow was equal to its rigorous succession of short variations, building up in arch-like manner to a massive climax.

His technique was bolstered by a beefy and sonorous tone in Busoni's romanticised transcription of Bach's solo violin piece.



    Ryan Chow, piano

    Esplanade Recital Studio

    Last Saturday

There was a rare outing for Grieg's Holberg Suite in the original piano version, its five movements in imitation of baroque dances. Chow could have yielded a lighter touch for these miniatures, but there was no diminution of the left hand's delicate melodic line in the Air and the prestidigitation of the Prelude and Rigaudon was well served.

Frenchman Albert Roussel's Three Pieces are true rarities, the brief Allegro Con Brio providing a nod in Stravinsky's direction (himself an avid neoclassicist) and the longer Allegro Con Spirito a whiff of dancehall frivolities that was all the rage in Paris between the wars. The elegant waltz rhythms of the intervening Allegro Grazioso found Chow in convivial mood.

The second half was an enthralling journey "back to Bach" beginning with two vastly contrasted Preludes and Fugues by Shostakovich and Mendelssohn. While the Russian's (Op. 87 No. 2) was jerky and angular, the German's (Op. 35 No. 1) was broad and sweeping, culminating in a grandstanding chorale transformed by a glorious modulation to a major key.

The piece de resistance of the recital was surely Paul Hindemith's Third Sonata, receiving its Singapore premiere.

Despite the astringent melodies and apparent dissonance, there was no disguising its homage to J.S. Bach, from the siciliano rhythm of the opening movement, the manic and sometimes jazzy scherzo, to the two fugal movements to close.

Chow was in complete command throughout, mastering its intricacies and lightning-quick turns with virtuosic aplomb.

With tongue firmly held in cheek, the riotous final fugue piled outrageously high with contrapuntal voices to nearly breaking point and brought down the house. But he was not done with fugues yet.

His encore saw the two-hour- long concert come full circle. That was a masterly reading of the mighty Fugue from the Bach-Busoni Organ Toccata In C Major BWV.564, which alternated the lightest of touches with thunderous chords.

Now we must get to hear the whole thing from this exceptional artist sometime.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2016, with the headline 'Scaling neoclassical heights'. Print Edition | Subscribe