Piano savant takes on Chopin and Jay Chou in debut recital



Heegan Lee Piano Recital

Esplanade Recital Studio

Wednesday Chang Tou Liang

There have been famous cases of concert pianists making careers despite learning the piano at a relatively late age.

The legendary Russian Sviatoslav Richter and, more recently, Frenchman Lucas Debargue (finalist of last year's Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition) are well known.

Singapore has its own such talent in 26-year-old Heegan Lee, who started taking lessons at the age of 14 after he was noted playing Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto after viewing a DVD.

Diagnosed to be a "prodigious musical savant", he graduated with a master's degree at the Manhattan School of Music in 2014.

Far from appearing like some schizoid Glenn Gould-like character, he is a personable young man with lots of charisma, much of which showed in his 150-minute- long debut recital.

The first half was purely classical, opening with four Rachmaninov pieces. There was much to admire in his handling of complex counterpoint and fussy filigree in Arcadi Volodos' transcription of the Andante (from the Cello Sonata) and Earl Wild's version of Vocalise.

Both are extremely difficult, but he whipped them off with much to spare. The song-like passages and effulgent Romantic spirit were fully upheld. This suffusion sometimes felt overdone in Rachmaninov originals, such as the rumbling Musical Moment No. 4 (Op. 16 No. 4) and Prelude In G Sharp Minor (Op. 32 No. 12).

Over-pedalling became an issue in three Chopin pieces, smudging textures and submerging the prodigious fingerwork. Nonetheless, his technical achievement in the Fantaisie-Impromptu, Ballade No. 4 and Revolutionary Etude was enviable.

In the last, the use of right-hand octaves instead of spreading the running passage to both hands at its conclusion was an audacious sleight of hand.

Much of the long second half was, by his own admission, hotel lounge and elevator music.

Here, Lee seemed more at home playing popular melodies by Yiruma (River Flows In You and Kiss The Rain) and Kevin Kern (Sundial Dreams). In Secret Garden (Song From A Secret Garden), the art of preluding was relived, as he played the opening bars of Chopin's C Minor Prelude before segueing into the piece proper.

Lee's own original composition, The Journey, written for a video commercial, followed along these New Age-influenced lines, closing with upwardly mobile arpeggios like a neo-Bachian chorale.

With the recital proper over, he played pop-like improvisations on short themes and motifs offered by members of the audience. This aspect of pianism is now a lost art. How refreshing to see it being revived, even on its own popular music-inflected terms.

There was a long encore segment, which included a 15-minute-long medley of Jay Chou hit songs and a mash-up of two JJ Lin numbers.

By this time, the audience was melting away with people heading to the door while he was still playing.

However disrespectful that was, Lee was undeterred, offering yet more short pieces by Joe Hisaishi, Manuel Ponce and, finally, Francis Poulenc. This was a lot of piano music indeed, but, when performed this lovingly, what matters?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2017, with the headline 'Piano savant takes on Chopin and Jay Chou in debut recital'. Print Edition | Subscribe