Tag Archives: Chopin

Keyed-Up series



Raymond Yong (piano)

Callaway Auditorium

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Few composers are as demanding on musicians as Mozart. The tiniest misjudgement in passagework, the smallest lapse in clarity can prove disastrous. Happily, Raymond Yong succeeded in steering the clearest and most musicianly way through the solo part of Mozart’s Concerto in A, K414 ensuring, seemingly effortlessly, that the peak of the afternoon lay securely in the keeping of the Salzburg master.


It was a rarely encountered version of the work, with the orchestra here replaced by a string quartet, an alternative mooted by Mozart himself. Here, with his customary distinction, Paul Wright led a quartet made up of Isabel Hede (violin), Jared Yap (viola) and Sophie Parkinson-Stewart (cello).


If this had been Yong’s only contribution to the afternoon, it would have been an altogether fulfilling experience, such were the precision, fluency and expressive insights brought to bear on the score. Raymond Yong


Later, we heard Liszt’s massive Sonata in B minor, a work which is

no-man’s-land to all but the very few pianists able to meet its formidable challenges, not least of which is substantial staying power to maintain momentum through its frequently gruelling episodes. In its half-hour course, Liszt’s work poses immense physical and stylistic challenges that can test the mettle of the most experienced of pianists. From every standpoint, however, Yong was clearly in control. It was an heroic effort, crowned with success in a way that augurs well for a solo career of distinction. There was no hint of strain at all, despite the massive demands the sonata makes on the performer.


A bracket of the first eight of Chopin’s 24 Preludes opus 28 was less uniformly persuasive. The first, in C, barely hinted at the composer’s requirement that it be played agitato. No 5 in D sounded rather bland. But the famous Prelude in E minor was a beautifully considered offering, an essay in melancholy. The Prelude in F sharp minor, too, could hardly have been bettered, its fiercely demanding, very rapid figurations in the right hand despatched with utmost agility and accuracy.


As encore, Yong played Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat, its serenity a perfect foil to the passionate grandeur of the Liszt Sonata.

Chopin: Mickhail Rudy (piano)

Chopin: Mickhail Rudy (piano)



Piano Sonata No 2 in B flat minor; 24 Preludes; Nocturnes Nos 8 and 13

EMI 343831-2 TPT: 1:15:43

reviewed by Neville Cohn



As is well known, Chopin described the movements of his Funeral March Sonata as four of his wildest children – and over the generations many have tried to tame them.

Latest of these is Russian pianist Mikhail Rudy. Inevitably, while listening to this timeless and powerful work, one thinks of it in relation to Cortot’s famous recording of it which, in its utterly unique way, sets the standard for all others to be judged by. And in this, Rudy’s performance stands up well to aural scrutiny.

It is clear in the first two movements that Rudy possesses the muscular forearms and fingers of steel needed to negotiate a way through some of the most horrendously difficult music ever conceived. In the opening, there is about the playing a nobility and hauteur that suit the writing well although, for this writer, the Cortot version which is a frankly ineffable blend of euphoria and a barely concealed underlying hysteria, still remains incomparable.

Rudy’s account of the Scherzo, the physical difficulty of which makes it a closed book to any but the favoured few, is impressive, not least the controlled manner with which those villainously awkward double octaves are despatched.

It is in the famous funeral march, though, that Rudy scales the heights with a reading that has about it a wonderful simplicity, never interposing himself between the music and the listener but allowing it to speak for itself. And although, for this critic, Cortot’s wizardry in the finale in conjuring up images of whirling phantom shapes is incomparably fine, Rudy’s fingers are second to few in their agility and accuracy.

Of the two nocturnes on offer, it is opus 27 no 2 in D flat that is highly recommended. It comes across as the quintessence of expressiveness, a little miracle to be cherished.

There are gems aplenty in Rudy’s account of the Preludes, opus 28. How does no 3 in G stand up to Rubinstein’s famous LP recording of the 1950s? Pretty well insofar as speed and accuracy are concerned, although tone is not as diamond bright as the old wizard’s version. Listen to Prelude no 5 in D; its notes are offered as a glittering cascade. And no 8 in F sharp minor is a joy to hear, its floodtide of notes given wondrous clarity at high speed; it’s an essay in euphoria. And the sheer drive and bravado with which repeated notes are despatched in no 12 in G sharp minor make this a miniature at which to marvel.

Prelude no 16 in B flat minor, that virtuosic Everest, is no man’s land for all bar those with an iron nerve, a cool head and fingers which know no fears. On all counts, Rudy comes up trumps. With his right hand blitzing through these terrifying measures as if they were some hohum finger study by Czerny – and his left hand accurately negotiating leaps that would make a mountain goat dizzy – Rudy emerges at its end with honour intact. And the lyricism and blitheness with which Rudy informs the following Prelude no 17 in A flat is a perfect foil for what had gone before.

Of the remaining Preludes, no 18 is magnificently peremptory, no 23 in F lingering in the memory for its aerial buoyancy – and no 24 brings the work to as passionately dramatic a close as one could hope for.

Neville Cohn Copyright 2006


Nocturnes (Chopin)

Roger Woodward (piano)

Celestial Harmonies
TPT: 2:04:12 2-CD


  reviewed by Neville Cohn

As a teenager – and much to the annoyance of my parents – I played and endlessly replayed an LP of the complete Nocturnes of Chopin. The soloist was Arthur Rubinstein and the passionately extrovert manner of his interpretations made a huge impression on me. Certainly, those performances of long ago are still as vivid and meaningful for me as they were when I first encountered this keyboard treasure.

These interpretations established for me the standard by which all other performances of the Nocturnes were measured. But the other day, I came across no less lustrous musical gold: Roger Woodward’s account of the complete Nocturnes, a set that includes the two posthumously published Nocturnes – one in C sharp minor, the other in C minor – neither of which formed part of the Rubinstein recordings of the early 1950s to which I have referred here.

Woodward’s offerings are wonderfully considered interpretations. There is nothing remotely glib or cheap about the presentation which comes across with near-faultless taste and refinement of expression. Woodward’s performance has the inestimable advantage of recording engineers who clearly know exactly what they are doing; the end result is magical, piano tone right across the range as true and honest as one could ever hope it to be.

If you value the music of Chopin at the highest level, I urge you to obtain these wonderful recordings. Treasure them; they are a cornucopia of wonders, entirely justifying Rubinstein’s own comment that Woodward was one of the best Chopin interpreters he had ever encountered.

Listen to the first of the set – opus 9 no 1 – glowing toned, unhurried, bordering on the languid, and op 9 no 2, surely the most hackneyed of all the Nocturnes, music routinely massacred by earnest but wooden young piano players at eisteddfodau. Hear it, for once, shorn of honeyed sentimentality. And the third of the set, seldom encountered in live performance is rather too long for its material (in Rubinstein’s famous recording, a hefty segment of it is deleted). In Woodward’s hands, one can savour the ecstatic edge brought to its flying arabesques, its interior mood of turbulence finely revealed but always within the line and contour of Chopin’s idiosyncratic style.

The three nocturnes of opus 15 are given memorable treatment, too: the central section of the Nocturne in F is darkly dramatic, the outer sections essays in tenderness. I specially admired the second of the set – the F sharp minor Nocturne – not least for the refinement that informs the outer sections. And in the third of the set, Woodward captures its elusive essence like a moth in the gentlest of hands.

Other marvels are a profoundly expressive opus 27 no 2 – and the unhurried unfolding of opus 37 no 2 (its thirds are immaculately essayed). And Woodward transforms the great Nocturne in C minor from opus 48, its pizzicato-type bass chords and surging climaxes the stuff of high inspiration.

Highly recommended.

Neville Cohn Copyright 2006


John Chen (piano)

Conservatorium Auditorium

reviewed by Neville Cohn

At his recital on Sunday, John Chen, the youngest ever laureate of the Sydney International Piano Competition, would have left no-one in any doubt of the form that netted him the top prize in 2004, aged a mere 18 years.

Drawing on a seemingly invincible memory, Chen took the listener through a notationally flawless reading of Ravel’s Miroirs. Few pianists, even the most virtuosic, are game to traverse this ferociously treacherous musical terrain in public. Chen, however, with the nonchalance of mastery, gave us a deeply probing performance that yielded musical wonders at every turn.

Whether calling up sound pictures of fluttering moths, evoking images of ocean-going ships or the Spanish-flavoured gestures of a juggler, Chen was immaculate in interpretative terms. It called to mind his glittering reading of Ravel’s Ondine that had made his previous Perth recital so memorable just after his Sydney win. Throughout Miroirs, one marvelled at Chen’s ability to draw on a seemingly limitless palette of tonal colours. It was a tour de force.

In Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise Brillante, Chen was at his persuasive best. The velvet-smooth left-hand accompaniment in the Andante – and the solemn, mellow-toned tranquillity of the chorale section – could hardly have been bettered. And the skill with which Chen conveyed the hauteur that lies at the heart of every one of Chopin’s polonaises – and the diamond brightness which informed even the most rapid and complicated note streams – would surely have lifted the spirits of the most jaded listener as Chen conjured up one massive climax after another.

Since Chen gave his first recital in Perth shortly after his contest win, he has featured in innumerable recitals and concerto performances – but there was no hint at all here of familiarity breeding indifference. In fact, the sense of adventure that was such an appealing aspect of that recital was again very much in evidence at the weekend – and that augurs well for a career which is very likely to take young Chen to the forefront of fellow-pianists on the international concert circuit.

Later this month, incidentally, Chen will give a performance, broadcast by the ABC, of a new piano concerto by Roger Smalley who was in the audience to hear Chen’s keyboard wizardry.

An account of Mozart’s Sonata in C minor, K457 was less consistently meaningful. While his account of the notes was blameless and tone invariably pleasing, this curtain raiser did not yield the listening dividends one had hoped to experience. But in Schumann’s Carnaval – and after a quite routine account of Preambule – this young pianist surrendered to the Muse in the most passionately intense and virtuosic way. In section 13, which is Schumann’s tribute to Chopin, the playing in all its romantic sensitivity could hardly have been bettered. And the extraordinary agility and accuracy at whirlwind speed brought to bear on the Intermezzo was irrefutable proof of a rare musical gift which has clearly been guided by first rate instructors.

Chen, incidentally, is Malaysian-born. He was brought to New Zealand by his parents when he was eleven months old.

As encore, we heard more Ravel in the form of Pavane for a Dead Princess.

Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn

PORTRAITS Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano)

thibauChopin, Liszt, Francaix, Gershwin, Debussy, Mendelssohn, Nyman, Ellington, Satie, Ravel

TPT: 2:28:44
DECCA 476 159-5 (2-CD)


  reviewed by Neville Cohn



In yet another fine 2-CD issue in the DECCA SBS series, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet is showcased in a compilation that lasts just under two and a half hours. Especially in the French repertoire, Thibaudet shapes to the demands of the music like Moet and Chandon to a goblet.
I savoured his account of Debussy’s Pour le Piano. In the Prelude, and unlike that famous recording of some decades ago on a Columbia LP by Walter Gieseking which is informed by a softly mellow sound, Thibaudet brings glittering tone to flawlessly stated note streams. I admired, too, his account of the Sarabande which comes across like a little marvel of dignified introspection ¬ and the lightness of touch in the Toccata is everything one could have wished for.
In Ravel’s Piano Trio, Thibaudet is joined by stellar co-musicians violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Steven Isserlis in a recording of breathtaking quality. Pantoum is magical with its delicate, quasi-pointillist sounds and feather-light buoyancy. The inherent solemnity of the Passacaille is near-perfectly evoked, the perfect foil for the finale in which gossamer-delicate, souffle-light textures at high speed astonish the ear.
Central to much of Thibaudet’s playing is a quality of elegance, wonderfully apparent in Mendelssohn’s Andante and Rondo Capriccioso, drawing on the deepest wells of expressiveness in the opening pages and demonstrating prestidigitation in the capriccio that places Thibaudet comfortably to the fore of current finger-Olympians. Thibaudet’s interpretation impressively captures the elfen nature of much of the writing; it is an interesting contrast to Julius Katchen’s famous DECCA LP recording made years ago which is tonally very much more substantial.
Thibaudet’s skill in executing rapid, silvery-toned, delicato treble traceries with the nonchalance of mastery is much in evidence in Liszt’s Rigoletto Paraphrase.

And of his account of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2, it is the slow movement that is most memorable, coming across in so thoughtfully lyrical a way as to sound like an extended, beautifully considered nocturne briefly interrupted by abrupt declamations midway. Thibaudet is soloist with the Rotterdam Philharmonic conducted by Valery Gergiev. And he is a flawless soloist with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal under Charles Dutoit in Francaix’s engaging Concertino – but sounds not entirely in sympathy with Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy.
Can there be a more hackneyed Chopin nocturne than his opus 9 no 2 in E flat, regularly massacred at the hands of earnest young piano players at eisteddfodau. Listen, then, to Thibaudet’s account – and give thanks that such artistry exists to unlock the exquisite potential of this little piece.
There’s also a vignette by Duke Ellington – A single petal of a rose – its quiet, introverted beauty evoked to the nth degree.
© 2004