Concert review: 16-year-old Mervyn Lee finds heart and soul in Mendelssohn piano concerto


MERVYN LEE Piano Recital

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestral Hall/Thursday

It is always fascinating to follow the progress of child prodigy musicians, because few if any actually realise their enormous early potential in adult years. Many fizzle out and lose interest along the way, or are lost to competing professions and preoccupations.

Sixteen-year-old pianist Mervyn Lee, who at 10 was the youngest soloist to perform at the President's Young Performers Concert in 2009, looks to be making good progress. A student of both Yio Chu Kang Secondary School and the Young Artist Programme at the Conservatory, he also pursues early music performance and musicology, and composes.

In an 80-minute recital that reflected the broad palette of his interests, he performed first on a Carey Beebe harpsichord. Music by 16th- and 17th-century masters Johann Froberger and Jan Sweelinck usually resides in the domain of baroque specialists, but he displayed a natural flair and sensitive touch. In the former's Toccata in G major, certain liberties taken with tempos and exactness in fugal passages found a happy medium, while a robust humour inhabited the latter's pastoral variations on More Palatino.

He was next heard on a modern Bosendorfer grand piano in Muzio Clementi's Sonata in F minor (Op. 13 No. 6). He coaxed a mellow, velvety sonority in its dark-hued pages, yet was able to command an orchestral intensity when called for. There were stark dissonances and surprising modulations in the slow movement, but it was ultimately lyricism that held one's attention. The Presto finale was merely an illusion, aided by undercurrents of unease which Lee brought out well.

A Steinway grand was wheeled out for the rest of the concert. While he was technically accurate in Chopin's Polonaise in E flat minor (Op. 26 No.2), further gravitas could be sought in its pages of smouldering disquiet. In Edward MacDowell's Etude subtitled Schattentanz (Shadow Dance), the elfin lightness and mercurial flittering were marvellously captured.

When one expected a degree of brutality in Bartok's Romanian Dance No.1, Mervyn achieved his musical goals without hammering or brute force, much like how the composer played himself. The solo segment closed with Charles Griffes' Scherzo from Three Fantasy Pieces, where his variegated touch in this dreamy impressionist soundscape impressed.

The second half was devoted to Mendelssohn's Second Piano Concerto in D minor. Although less popular and far less-performed than the First Piano Concerto, it has a more lyrical bent that better suited the teenager. Instead of treating it like a virtuoso showpiece, he approached like ultimate chamber music.

One could sense how in tune and sync Mervyn was with his accompanist Teh Jiexiang on second piano, and the two blended seamlessly. The prestidigitation in the outer movements seemed to serve one purpose: that is to support arch-like the glorious slow movement. Here, where the volume lightened and the notes stood still albeit for a few minutes, Mervyn found the work's song-like heart and soul. That is what striving to become a true musician and artist is all about.

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