Trans­fig­ur­ing the dead into divine spark

Bangkok Post - - LIFE - TOMÁŠ BAZIKA

The Thai­land Phil­har­monic Or­ches­tra (TPO) de­liv­ered a chal­leng­ing pro­gramme last Satur­day: Arnold Schoen­berg’s early tone poem Trans­fig­ured Night; the Suite from Leoš Janá ek’s The House Of The Dead; and young Tai­wanese tal­ent Ting-Chia Hsu joined Chief Con­duc­tor Al­fonso Scarano and the TPO in Sergei Rach­mani­noff‘s Pi­ano Con­certo No.3.

Widely re­garded as the pin­na­cle of Ro­man­tic pi­anism, Rach­mani­noff’s Con­certo No.3 In D Mi­nor, Op.30, re­calls an im­age of the tow­er­ing vir­tu­oso with large, sprawl­ing hands. The com­poser played it in 1910 with the New York Phil­har­monic con­ducted by Gus­tav Mahler. Af­ter a decade of ne­glect, it was pop­u­larised by pi­anist Vladimir Horowitz and ac­quired the rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing one of the most tech­ni­cally de­mand­ing, even feared, con­cer­tos in the pi­ano reper­toire. Scott Hicks’ film Shine (1996), star­ring Ge­of­frey Rush, il­lus­trates the con­certo’s dif­fi­culty.

Af­ter his 2015 de­but with the TPO, the 27-year-old Ting played the open­ing of Rach­mani­noff’s Third with a soft, barely au­di­ble legato. Some lis­ten­ers later ob­served that the pi­ano did not stand out enough from the or­ches­tra. Even in the se­cond row, Ting sounded at times too quiet and timid. The pas­sage work that fol­lowed lacked in flow and con­ti­nu­ity.

This, how­ever, im­proved in the ex­tended ca­den­zas, in which Ting sur­mounted many hur­dles and ex­e­cuted com­plex pi­anis­tic fig­u­ra­tions with bril­liance: his trills were in­cred­i­bly smooth and scales blind­ingly fast, as if at­tempt­ing to prove Horowitz’s be­lief that “the se­cret to vir­tu­os­ity is to play more notes in a shorter amount of time”. By this stan­dard, Ting suc­ceeded ad­mirably, but over the tech­ni­cal fire­works loomed a cloud of dis­en­gage­ment. The strug­gle in­her­ent in the mu­sic was stymied by a con­flict be­tween two op­pos­ing vi­sions of Rach­mani­noff, a mis­match of a great con­duc­tor and a great pi­anist. Ac­cord­ingly, the in­ter­play be­tween the soloist and the or­ches­tra lacked a bal­ance of tempo and an ur­gency of di­a­logue. As a hu­mor­ous par­al­lel, lis­ten on YouTube to the 1962 con­cert in­tro­duc­tion to Brahms’s D Mi­nor Pi­ano Con­certo, in which con­duc­tor Leonard Bern­stein dis­owns pi­anist Glenn Gould’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the piece.

Af­ter the in­ter­mis­sion, a spirit of har­mony re­turned to Mahi­dol. Schoen­berg, the 20th cen­tury rev­o­lu­tion­ary and pi­o­neer of the twelve-tone tech­nique, is best known for his early tonal works, of which Trans­fig­ured Night (1899) is the most ap­peal­ing to many lis­ten­ers. This sym­phonic move­ment for strings alone was in­spired by Richard Dehmel’s poem. In the poem, two lovers roam the for­est on a moon­lit night. She con­fesses to him that she bears the child of an­other man.

Mae­stro Scarano and the TPO high­lighted the pro­gram­matic as­pect of the mu­sic. Soft string shim­mers painted the dark­ness of the cold for­est. The vi­o­lins ex­pressed the sad­ness of the woman’s con­fes­sion, and the cel­los and dou­ble basses the man’s con­tem­pla­tion of the news. Later, bright tone colours of the com­bined strings re­flected the man’s peace­ful ac­cep­tance.

Scarano’s play­ers cre­ated sus­pense by re­peat­edly hint­ing at, but de­lib­er­ately post­pon­ing, a re­turn to the home key of D. Their phras­ing un­fet­tered the bound­aries of me­tre, giv­ing a sense of evo­lu­tion. The evo­lu­tion was twofold: the nar­ra­tive mov­ing from se­crecy to for­give­ness and Schoen­berg stretch­ing the di­min­ish­ing tonal clar­ity of late Ro­man­ti­cism to­wards atonal­ity, a new lan­guage free from the old rules of har­mony. (To ex­pe­ri­ence this star­tling free­dom, lis­ten to Schoen­berg’s Pier­rot Lu­naire, called by Stravin­sky “the so­lar plexus of modernism”.) The night was then “trans­fig­ured” from D mi­nor to D ma­jor with the glow of the cou­ple’s in­ner warmth.

Tak­ing the au­di­ence from an Aus­trian for­est to Bo­hemia, the TPO per­formed the suite from Janá ek’s last opera The House Of The Dead. Posthu­mously pre­miered in 1930, the opera de­rives from Fy­o­dor Dos­to­evsky’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel about his po­lit­i­cal im­pris­on­ment in Siberia. Sig­nif­i­cantly, Janá ek bor­rowed Dos­to­evsky’s idea of the divine spark present in ev­ery hu­man be­ing, which was then rekin­dled by the TPO’s per­cus­sion: the rarely heard sonori­ties of an anvil and a rat­tle, while the clank of chains evoked the pris­on­ers.

The TPO con­veyed the opera’s theme of iso­la­tion — felt also by the com­poser be­cause his young muse Kamila Stösslová had re­jected him — and the cold­ness of the prison. The grim at­mos­phere lifted in the se­cond move­ment when im­petu­ous tempi and reck­less rhythms in the or­ches­tra cap­tured the grotesque hu­mour Janá ek brought to Dos­to­evsky. In the last move­ment, the TPO con­jured up a touch­ing mo­ment in the opera de­pict­ing the es­cape of a wounded eagle.

Lis­ten­ers may have won­dered why the mu­sic seemed to re­peat­edly stop and start, and why the mood abruptly shifted. By this, the or­ches­tra ac­cu­rately in­ter­preted Janá ek’s dis­jointed, frag­men­tary style, marked by rapidly chang­ing melodies and pace. If the Rach­mani­noff found the au­di­ence puz­zled, the Schoen­berg and the Janá ek gleaned en­thu­si­as­tic ova­tions, and en­sured this was a com­pelling evening.

In lov­ing mem­ory of Ung-Aang Talay, a long-time Bangkok Post jour­nal­ist who loved Schoen­berg.

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