Concert review: Sterling duo performance from Christina Tan and Esther Wang

It has been a long time since Singaporean pianist Christina Tan has given a public performance. Although this concert on Friday evening at the School of the Arts, entitled Legends, was billed as a duo recital, the winner of the 1986 Diners Club Pianist of the Year Competition showed that little of that fire and lustre which distinguished her performance of the finale of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra had been lost over the years.

She was joined by the Minnesota-based Chinese pianist Esther Wang in duo repertoire, which began with six of Antonin Dvorak's Legends. Although less popular or familiar than the Czech composer's Slavonic Dances, these pieces are imbued with the same folk spirit and salon charm. Both pianists were well matched in temperament and sensitivity, providing the requisite give and take in its alternating animated and lyrical lines one a single keyboard. The music of mostly fast movements sparked to life in their capable hands.

Then came the ambitious segment for solo piano music. Few early Romantic works are as infused with the same passion as Robert Schumann's Second Sonata in G minor Op.22. Tan launched into its four movements like a woman possessed, impressively conquering the fiery outer movements and taking no prisoners. The first movement famously instructs the pianist to play "as fast as possible", and than exhorts "faster" before adding the implausible "faster still". She really took this to heart and the adrenaline flowed; the piano quivered as her flowing locks flew. 

To show she was not just adept at playing fast and loud, the slow movement was a model of chaste beauty and pristine purity, with exemplary pedalling that gave the Shigeru Kawai grand piano an organ-like sonority. After the intermission, she offered Maurice Ravel's Alborada Del Gracioso (Morning Song Of The  Jester), which sparkled with Spanish castanets and flamenco rhythms before a series of sweeping glissandi brought the showpiece to a heady close. 

Not to be outdone, Wang offered a rare performance of Francis Poulenc's Les Soirees des Nazelles, a suite of ten short but linked movements. What may have seemed like a randomly scattered hodgepodge of ideas came across more like a personal diary filled with wry observations, fleeting jests and tasty vignettes, all coloured with the Frenchman's uniquely perfumed harmonies and artful witticisms. This was Virgin Mary meets Edith Piaf, and even if she was not note-perfect, Wang brought out its quintessentially anarchic spirit. 

Both pianists united once more, now on two pianos, to close with Witold Lutoslawski's well-loved Paganini Variations. This was based on the same theme from Paganini's Caprice No. 24, which had been well served by the likes of Liszt, Brahms and Rachmaninov. The Pole's riotous version thrived on harmonic surprises and deliberately placed wrong notes, all to tease and cock a snook at his forebears.  

Tan and Wang's performance was more on a cautious side, opting for sturdiness rather than outright unfettered brilliance. No matter, as the well-filled hall rewarded the duo's efforts with generous applause and a hearty send-off.

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