Concert review: Italian pianist Giovanni Cultrera's Chopin Nocturnes surprisingly earthbound

The eve of Chinese New Year's Eve is probably not the best day to hold a concert. About only 30 people were in the audience to witness this recital by Italian pianist Giovanni Cultrera at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. His hour-long programme of Romantic era works was a throw back to the repertoire favoured by legendary late Russian pianist Lazar Berman, who had spent his last years in Italy.

The third of Rachmaninov's Six Moments Musicaux (Op. 16) opened the recital with big broad chords in the Russian's typically brooding and lugubrious manner. Cultrera omitted the repeat and it ended almost abruptly when a reprise of the central march rhythm would have been welcome to flesh out the work.

Without waiting for applause, he then launched into the music of Liszt, which brought out his best qualities. The second of Two Legends, St Francis Of Paul Walking On The Waves brought out a torrent of sound, in broad striding octaves, chords and arpeggios. Equally thunderous was his account of Funerailles, with its central section of stampeding hoofbeats, often likened to the "Polish cavalry" episode of Chopin's Heroic Polonaise.

Clearly Cultrera has the requisite technique, physical heft and stamina to surmount these technical changes. However in the slender Consolation No. 3 between the two behemoths, stolidity came in the place of warmth and tenderness. Likewise, his takes on two very familiar Chopin Nocturnes were surprisingly earthbound.

The posthumous C sharp minor Nocturne sounded cut and dried, while its counterpart in E flat major (Op. 9 No. 2) was plodding rather than dreamily conceived. The brief Prelude in E minor (Op. 28 No. 4) did however bring some semblance of pathos to his Chopin set.

Instead of performing the whole of Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition, Cultrera chose to play only the last two movements, which was probably just as well. Baba Yaga's Hut On Fowl's Legs was a hit-and-miss affair conducted at high speed and top volume. This was saved by a truly clangourous Great Gate Of Kiev, with its series of tolling bells, bringing the recital to a rousing close.

There was enough applause for him to offer three encores. A lapse in the middle of Tchaikovsky's Autumn Song (October from The Seasons) was unfortunate, but Chopin's Mazurka In A minor (Op. 17 No. 4) was the perfect salve. It was played with feeling and a true folk-like lilt, and there was a repeat of the Chopin Prelude heard earlier. At least it sounded better the second time around.

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