There is something intimate about piano duos, and is perhaps the reason many of the world's foremost ensembles are husband-and-wife tandems. In the second recital of the SG50 series held at the Victoria Concert Hall on Saturday, the chemistry that married duo Dennis Lee and Toh Chee Hung displayed onstage was electrifying.
If one hadn't known any better, one would've mistaken the pair as regular folk taking up piano as a hobby after retirement - such was their humble demeanour, until they sat at the piano and swept the audience away with their immaculate artistry. Through decades of performing together, they have forged an impeccable understanding and singular musical mind.
With Toh taking the primo part and Lee on secondo, the Sonata In E-flat Major by Friedrich Benda and Sonata In B-flat Major by Jan Dussek sparkled with understated elegance while their ability to balance distinct timbre between the high and low registers of the piano allowed them to weave endless lyrical lines in Schubert's Rondeau D. 608.
What captivated the audience the most was how much they were enjoying themselves onstage, with Lee never ceasing to smile and Toh the more animated of the duo. Even the Marche Caracteristique D. 886 by Schubert sounded full of joy and positivity despite its heavy military pulse.
Taking turns to perform solo works, it made their partnership all the more remarkable considering how differing their characters were. Toh showed in Liszt's Un Sospiro and Sonetto del Petrarca 104 to be a flamboyant and passionate virtuoso who plays with her heart on her sleeves. Although a little more flexibility in tempo for the latter would've been preferred, such is the mark of a great artist that even in disagreement do they convince.
Lee's extraordinary mastery of tonal colors gave life to five of Debussy's Preludes. The eccentricity of General Lavine the American clown, and the peacefulness of Bruyeres were contrasted to perfection, as were the bleakness of Des Pas Sur La Neige and playfulness of Minstrels.
There were no unnecessary flashes of brilliance in the composer's L'isle Joyeuses, even when there were ample opportunity to do so, as Lee instead opted to paint a picture of a world without worries.
They came together as a duo again in three of Dvorak's Slavonic dances, and showed off their rapier-like reflexes with precision accents and running passages.
Joking that he didn't want to obstruct the audience's view of Toh's bright red dress, Lee finally took to playing on the high registers for their encore of The All-American Hometown Band by Walter and Carol Noona.
Young musicians have much to learn from this veteran duo. They did not need prancing or preening to mark their presence, nor did they need to resort to showboating or pageantry to sell themselves. What they had were an overwhelming love for what they do, and a ceaseless desire to share their joy with the world.