Digressions review by Paul Serotsky


MusicWeb International

Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Piano Sonata BB 88 (Sz. 80) [13:23]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816 [17:06]
Tony Chen LIN (b. 1988)
Digression (Meditation on R. S.) [5:15]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Humoreske, Op. 20 [30:10]
Tony Chen Lin (piano)
rec. 2018, Adam Concert Room, New Zealand School of Music, Wellington
RATTLE RATD080 [66:06]

To those who have heard him play, the pianist Tony Chen Lin is remarkable on several counts: most obviously for his virtuosic technique, but even more so for his sensitive and insightful musicianship. Yet, by far the most remarkable is that, other than in New Zealand and some parts of central Europe, he seems to be something of an unknown quantity. This I find a bit puzzling, particularly in view of one quote given justifiable pride of place at the top of the “About” page on his website. Coming from no less a personage than Tamás Vásáry, this pretty well paraphrases my opening sentence: “Tony Chen Lin is a true artist. Rarely have I encountered a finer musician who has something truly exceptional to say in music. He has a strong musical personality that speaks to audiences and possesses the technique which is expected today, but also [an] artistry which is not always expected.”

That authoritative confirmation of my own feelings encourages me to suggest a likely reason for Lin’s apparently far-too-modest international profile. Bluntly, it’s publicity, or – more to the point – the lack of it. Searching the Web, I found only one performance review that reached beyond the parochial – and that was mine, posted in September 2019 on Seen & Heard. Although Lin, it seems invariably, wins the admiration and respect of all his live audiences, of itself this does nothing to put him “on the map”.

Of course, it doesn’t help that, thus far, his only foray into the recording business is the CD here under consideration – of which, although it was issued as long ago as April 2018, even Web reviews are still as rare as the fabled hens’ teeth. But having a “Web presence” and a capful of “parochial” reviews out there on the Web won’t do any real good because, if the name’s not known, how could anybody think to go a-Googling for it?

My rummaging did turn up one review of this CD that I thought was both very well-written and erudite; Peter Mechen’s closely-observed and detailed analysis of Lin’s performances is well worth perusing. Needless to say, my pointing you at it in no way constitutes an endorsement of Mechen’s findings – my duty as a reviewer is to dish up my own opinions in my own way; any concurrence between my conclusions and Mechen’s will be entirely coincidental.

Packaging and presentation are to a uniformly high standard: for a start, instead of a brittle jewel-case the CD is housed inside the front of a satisfyingly sturdy cardboard “gate-fold” sleeve (slightly bigger than a jewel-case, but not so much as to inconvenience your CD shelf), with the booklet firmly mounted on the opposing inner side. The decidedly muted, dark-brown colour scheme may well remind you of those sophisticated coffee adverts that used to be everywhere on the TV (whatever happened to them?), but nevertheless sets a tone that harmonises with the contents. This extends to the CD’s label – possibly the most understated that I’ve ever encountered – a slightly “smoky” dark-brown background broken only by the bare bones of identification in a small ring of white lettering around the spindle-hole, along with a modest “Rattle” logo to show you (should you need to know) which is the right side up. On the minus-side is that, although the two-page contents list includes individual track timings, there are neither overall work timings nor a total running time. For anyone blessed with elementary arithmetical skills, I suspect that this will not be a deal-breaker.

The booklet has been written by Lin himself. Three pages are devoted to acknowledgements, credits and a brief biographical note, and nine – including one page explaining the thinking behind the album title, “Digressions” – to notes on the music. Eminently readable, it is a model of lucidity and balance, in nigh-on immaculate English – right down to the use of proper “quotation marks”, as opposed to the ‘apostrophes’ dragooned into performing that function (badly, I reckon) in these decadent days. Such is the cogency of his argument, I find myself convinced (well, very nearly) of the unequivocal validity of his thoughtful theme, which at least does provide an intriguingly neat and not glaringly obvious binding thread.

Not surprisingly, then, the CD’s programme is effectively that of a concert: so much so that (unlike many of these “albums”), this CD does work, and works very well, if you listen to it right through in one sitting. This is surely the best way to do a debut disc, where the whole point is to set out your stall as effectively as possible in every respect. With Bartók, Bach and Schumann on the menu, it certainly covers considerable stylistic ground and – I’m happy to say – in my opinion Lin’s views of these works will happily cohabit with any you may already own.

Steve Garden’s recording is notable for its “sound” judgement. Recording a solo piano is not quite as straightforward as it might seem. Tricky choices include: how close to mike it? how much room reverberation to admit? how big an “image” of the piano in the stereo sound-stage? indeed, how to orient the piano image? Garden has plumped for the sensible option of fairly close miking whilst preserving a realistic atmosphere around the instrument.

Rather more controversially, though, he’s opted for not only a spatially extended piano image but also one in which the bass end is towards the left and the treble end towards the right. As regards proximity this puts the listener in a very good seat, but as regards spatial perception the said listener is sitting with his knees wedged against the back of the piano stool. This is similar to, but less extreme than Jesper Buhl’s famously favoured “jumbo piano” image. Whether it bothers you is a matter of taste. Personally, I find that the overall impression is that you’re sitting on the piano stool and thus, arguably, in the optimum position for listening.

Over the years I’ve heard many pianists flaying Bartók’s more acerbic piano works to within an inch of their lives. At the time, of course, I assumed that that was how it was supposed to be done – but hearing Lin’s rather different “take” on the Bartók Sonata has given me pause to reflect. How “different”? Pretty well right across the board. For starters, the sound he makes is nowhere near “flayed”; from the ample, rich bass right up to the sparkling top end, this is a proper grand-piano sound. But, neither is there any feeling of Bartók being “sugar-coated”: all the requisite crunching dissonances are nerve-tinglingly present, as harmonic consequences of Lin’s boldly-projected, pin-sharp balancing of the conflicting notes.

Lin’s tempi are just as judicious, to my ears hitting the composer’s markings dead centre. If this makes the first movement seem a bit leisurely, so be it – but here as elsewhere Lin makes sure that the music retains all its fangs. Again, if the final allegro molto sounds a tad slow, reserve your judgement – it only starts that way. Moreover, there’s nothing motoric about the outer movements; flexibility is Lin’s watch-word. As well as doing as Bartók directs, Lin freely tickles the tempo according to his interpretative intents. Whether you like this depends to some extent on your preference; my impression is that Lin has very carefully set his boundaries; every single instance in some way serves the music. I could wax equally lyrical about his atmospheric middle movement, his way with dynamics and his elucidation of the music’s many contrapuntal aspects (not to mention its taut formal structure), but suffice it to add that Lin’s approach has one thing in common with those “flayers” – oodles of sheer excitement.

I’ve always been in two minds about the playing Bach’s keyboard music on a modern grand piano. Part of me says, “Why not?” – usually whilst I’m listening to Stokowski’s sinful but hugely enjoyable symphonic arrangements. Part of me says, “Bad move” – usually when hearing it played virtuously on a harpsichord. To some extent, Lin’s treatment of Bach’s French Suite No. 5 tends to salve my conscience because, rather than romanticising, Lin tends to emulate the virtuous harpsichord. As a resolution to the argument, it does have its attractions: you get all the stylistic benefits without it sounding – to quote Beecham’s vivid but perhaps not entirely accurate simile – “like two skeletons copulating on a corrugated iron roof”.

Now, I’m not saying that Lin plays this music with the monotonous rigidity of a clockwork music-box – rather, he applies expressive effects with all due circumspection; just enough to make the point, but no more. Come to think of it, the only such effects (mostly inflections of tempo) that are at all obvious are those which are also possible on a harpsichord. For instance, we all know that the members of the harpsichord tribe have no “volume control”; if you want to seem louder, you must press more keys at once. If Lin doesn’t actually bow to this “rule”, he nevertheless gives a jolly convincing impression that, by and large, he is, very nearly, doing so.

Lin’s articulation deserves a mention, and not just for the way he springs the rhythms to bring out the music’s dancing quality. Somehow, he managed to convey to my ears a fairly passable emulation of the harpsichord’s plectra. Maybe this was simply the pinpoint precision and alertness of his approach to baroque ornamentations and contrapuntal lines, but whatever it was, it held me entranced every step of the way.

Lin so carefully characterises each of the seven dances that your mind’s eye is apt to conjure visions of the dancers. His opening Allemande is stately yet nowhere near ponderous, whilst the succeeding Courante really “runs”, skittering and scurrying merrily. Lin’s Sarabande is dignified serenity personified, whilst the Gavotte treads jauntily. Slipping, tempo-wise, neatly between the Gavotte and the Courante, the bouncy Bourrée is enlivened by a delicious running bass. The curiously angular Loure steps elegantly but gingerly, whilst in the concluding Gigue – where Bach artfully combines fugue and dance – Lin finally loosens his stylistic leash in pursuit of what he describes as “a whirl of dizzying figurations, rustic fiddle and stomping feet.” In the context of the performance as a whole, was this perhaps a bit unwise? I’m not sure, but I am sure that I enjoyed it – along with the entire suite.

As you might guess from its title, Lin’s own short composition probably holds the key to his CD’s theme. Modestly, Lin does not devote a section of his note to his Digression (Meditation on R. S.), but mentions it – and its function – in his explanatory preamble. Hopefully I’m not giving too much of the game away by saying that it stands as a musical “crystallisation” of those moments, whilst studying Schumann’s Humoreske Op. 20, when his mind drifted into idle musing. This is something of which I suspect we are all guilty, but what a neat idea it was to transform his idle thoughts into a “prelude” to the Humoreske. In passing, it’s an interesting concept, that the mere act of writing it down elevates “idle musing” to the more exalted level of “meditation”.

Although Lin designed it as a personal prelude to the Humoreske, it by no means shares the latter’s sound-world. Superficially, it reminds me somewhat of the sort of stuff peddled by the “squeaky gate” atonalists of the latter 1960s, possibly with a little help from their friend, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (the capitals are of course entirely significant!). My slight acquaintance with Schumann’s Humoreske doesn’t (yet) enable me to identify the fragments of this work that have “crept” into Lin’s piece; nevertheless, it does create a striking impression of the musing mind leisurely sniffing at, toying with, prodding, squidging and stretching the bits and pieces that it’s found at its feet – and yes, it does drift rather nicely into a silence that the first notes of the Humoreske can conveniently resolve.

And so to Schumann’s Humoreske, a fitting climax to the recital. I’m as aware as the next man that there is much more to Schumann’s piano works than meets the ear, and that a fair proportion of what’s going on is inaccessible to all but Schumann scholars. We of the common herd have to rely on promptings from our scholarly friends; and, happily, through his clearly expressed booklet essay, Tony Chen Lin proves to be one such. Unfortunately, his elucidations include what to my mind is a “subtlety too far” on the part of the composer – his “device”, in the second of the six sections, of “[giving] the melody to a third, middle stave marked ... ‘inner voice’ that is not to be played” (Lin’s words; my italics).

Hmm. Whilst Elgar sensibly kept the solution of his famous “enigma” entirely to himself, Schumann discloses his, but only to the performer (or score reader) who is thus able to trace its effects on the music. This melody may be (as Lin says) “intended to be sensed inwardly” – but (and this is the unfortunate bit) not by the vast majority of listeners; once this cat’s been let out of the bag, they are doomed to the frustration of knowing of the unheard melody but remaining ignorant regarding both what it is and what wonders it performs – unless, that is, Lin has featured this mute melody in his Meditation. If he had done, he would certainly have mentioned it; the bad news is: he didn’t mention it.

That said, Lin is no slouch when it comes to letting his fingers do the talking. From first to last, his performance is gripping and involving. Although nominally a one-movement work, the Humoreske comprises many highly contrasted parts; I can well imagine some pianists making it sound rather “bitty”. In explaining its architecture, Lin implicitly explains his approach. Fair enough: he uses the word “mosaic”, but he also goes on to discuss the “cement” that binds the work into a whole – and this is what makes this performance so striking. Lin vividly draws all the distinct characters and moods, whilst relating them to the overall musical “arch”, consistently conveying an underlying sense of continuity even where a transition is startlingly abrupt. Thus has Lin presented to me a piano work of which I was scarcely even aware – and made me fall in love with it. And believe me, that is no mean achievement.

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