David Tong (piano)
Music by Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninov
reviewed by Neville Cohn
I’ve done this sort of thing before: a curiosity-driven intention to listen to just a snatch of a newly arrived CD before retiring for the night. But what I’d thought would be a tranquil few moments listening to recorded music for piano as a prelude to bed lengthened to well over an hour. And that hour gave way to another as I listened in amazement to the wizardry of a young Macao-born musician who settled with his family in Australia when he was five years old and is now engaged in advanced studies at New York’s Juilliard School of Music.
The combined efforts of Tong’s mother, Stephen McIntyre and the formidable Mrs Yochevet Kaplinsky (who heads Juilliard’s piano department) have done a quite remarkable job of overseeing the development of a frankly sensational gift.
Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata in B flat minor is given an astounding reading that so inflamed the imagination that bedtime was put on hold indefinitely as I listened for a third time to a recording that had about it the focus, drive and intensity – and sheer digital brilliance – of a Horowitz. But this was no slavish imitation of the old wizard’s style. Rather, it is playing in the tradition that Horowitz has come to typify, playing which carries the listener along on a wild ride. This account by young Tong – he is still in his early twenties – that augurs well for a stellar concert career. In fact, with this sort of technical armory allied to a powerfully imaginative approach to whatever he plays, Tong should have little difficulty in manouvering to pole position on the international concert circuit.
But there is far more to Tong’s interpretations than virtuosic agility and the ability to build up roaring tonal climaxes. Listen to the artistry that informs every measure of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G, opus 32 no 5. How beautifully the left hand quintuplets are articulated and how exquisitely serene and lyrical the treatment of the melody line.
The more extrovert sections of Chopin’s Scherzo in C sharp minor bristle with power, all the more effective for those flanking interludes of fragile, treble traceries. And the dazzling bravura that Tong’s right hand brings to bear on Chopin’s Etude of the arpeggios in C from opus 10 is a breathtaking foil to massive-toned left-hand octaves in the bass.
Older and (for the present) better known virtuosi had better look to their laurels if Tong comes to town. The opening measures of Liszt’s Gondoleria instantly evoke images of Venice emerging from the mist. Canzone is informed by thrilling tremolo figurations – and in the Tarantella, Tong’s virtuosity borders on the god-like, sounding, for all the world like some pianistic Zeus hurling massive bolts of sound through the speakers. As well, Tong negotiates often cruelly tricky passagework with a Hermes-like, quicksilver fluency that has to be heard to be believed.
Tong’s account of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz represents some of the most electrifying virtuosity I have ever encountered. The sheer brilliance with which this young pianist surmounts the technical hazards the music poses is without peer in my experience. At its most demonic, the playing is hackle raising and all the more effective for the tenderness that informs the music’s more reflective moments. Liszt’s Wilde Jagd is hardly less astonishing as a demonstration of keyboard mastery at the highest level.
Recorded sound, apart from a touch too much echo, is splendid; it enables Tong’s physical command of the keyboard and his wide emotional range to be heard to excellent advantage. The recording was made at South Melbourne Town Hall.
Copyright 2005 Neville Cohn