Review: A letter to the artist


Radio New Zealand
Tony Chen Lin (piano) – Dreams/Fantasies
The Great Hall of the Arts Centre, Christchurch – 1.10pm, 30 September 2019

From Upbeat, 11:16 am on 2 October 2019

Dear Tony Chen Lin

Every now and then, usually years apart, I encounter a performance that goes straight to my heart and which seems to inhabit my soul. Today, yours was one such.

Everything was overwhelming, and I’m so glad that you retained all four works from your Chamber Music NZ tour in this Christchurch programme. By the middle of the first movement of the Janáček Sonata, the tears were flowing.

Then, at that rapturous opening of Schumann’s Fantasie, my heart was in my throat!

After the second movement I wondered if others in the audience thought it all as special as I did.

The standing ovation answered my question. In other parts of the world such a performance would have inspired the audience to extend their appreciation for many minutes longer; I’m sorry that we are more restrained in Christchurch.

The only other time that I have encountered a live performance of the Schumann was in the same hall from Hungarian pianist Péter Nagy some years ago, then in his final days of teaching at Canterbury University.

Since that exceptional and wonderful performance I have not been able to listen to the work on recordings. If yours was different, it was easily as good; somehow, after the Janáček, I knew it would be; it brought back memories of a truly life-enhancing experience.

And it was as if you were playing it from the heart for someone in particular, just as Schumann wrote it as a love song for Clara.

Since Péter Nagy’s performance I have held to the belief that this is Schumann’s greatest work; your performance reinforced that. Péter’s may have had more of a sense of spontaneous abandon in places, but yours had a gripping intensity that brought the music to life differently and freshly.

The Mozart C minor Fantasia and Sonata at the start was wonderful.

At first I felt that there was ‘too much detail’, ‘too much control’; but then your feeling for seductive phrasing and beautifully contrasted articulation and dynamics won me over. You have a freer way with Mozart than many others.

I especially remember the contrast between your very expressive playing and Michael Houstoun’s more strictly classical approach in Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos earlier this year.

Today’s piece has long been a favourite of mine among Mozart’s sonatas and, somehow, you brought a psychological complexity to it that I have not previously been aware of.

Maybe you stole its innocence but, again, a different perspective brings a piece newly to life when it’s as genuinely felt as yours was.

It would be hard to believe that Gao Ping has ever had his music performed so convincingly as you did here in Daydreams.

I agree that he’s a fine composer. Earlier this year I encountered his brilliantly racy and exciting piece called Finale played by an instrumental ensemble.

And thank you for talking to us!

In some recent reviews I have lamented a few formalities and conventions that undermine some performances of classical music. Getting an insight into the ‘person’ who is playing for us makes such a difference.

Your spoken outline of what we were to encounter in Daydreams was perfect; so much better than printed programme notes. Then, the way that you carried off the singing and chanting was so totally convincing and ‘right’ that this new piece came across as twenty minutes of sheer magic.

The Blues movement was extraordinary, both as a composition and as a performance. What could have seemed gimmicky or experimental, emerged as totally compelling and effective, and added to the genuine expression of the music – especially given the total naturalness, ease and musicianship with which you carried it off.

You possibly have no idea of the sense of edge-of-seat engagement and fascination that pervaded the audience.

And the contrasting vocalisations in other movements were equally convincing. It made me wonder if you know a piece by Frederic Rzewski called The People United Will Never Be Defeated! I’d love to hear you play that sometime (soon!). I think it would suit you perfectly.

I love Janáček’s music. I’ve seen several of his operas, and his Sinfonietta and string quartets are also rather special.

But this is the first time I’ve heard the Sonata 1. X. that you played – What a discovery!!!

Parts of the first movement reminded me of the beautiful final scene of Jenufa. Your playing was very moving indeed and the piece was simply glorious.

It would have been just as moving without your dedication to the Christchurch mosque victims, but the reference seemed totally appropriate when I heard the combination of anger and heartfelt beauty in your performance.

And the way that you followed on so quickly to the Schumann piece seemed to give both works a connection that enhanced their relevance and humanity.

I have certainly enjoyed your playing on the couple of occasions when I’ve heard you in the past, but this was very special indeed. I look forward to your next recital in Christchurch with considerable anticipation – and do investigate the Rzewski.

With much gratitude

Tony ... Link