Tony Chen Lin – piano evocations, visions and premonitions at St.Andrew’s


Review: Peter Mechen
St.Andrew’s on-The-Terrace, Wellington
Sunday, 11th September, 2016

Tony Chen Lin was one of two supremely gifted young Christchurch-based pianists (the other was Jun Bouterey-Ishido) who “slugged it out” for first prize at the 2008 Kerikeri International Piano Competition, an event which I had the good fortune to attend. The adjudicator, Australian pianist Ian Munro, awarded Jun Bouterey-Ishido the first prize by what he acknowledged was the narrowest of margins, a decision I was glad I didn’t have to make, as I remember not being able to fault either of them, performance-wise, at the time. Both have gone on to significantly further their pianistic and musical careers, this afternoon’s recitalist Tony Lin completing his Master of Music at the Hochschule für Music in Freiburg in 2013, as well as recently performing as both pianist and conductor in Germany (Freiburg and Stuttgart) and in Switzerland (at the Semaine Internationale de Piano et de Musique de Chambre), at which he’s appearing this year once again, as a conductor.

I thought Lin’s recital programme fascinating – the choices suggested that the pianist enjoyed making connections and drawing attention to influences and cross-references. Both the Bartok and the Gao Ping works featured the use of folk-melodies from the composers’ respective homelands as starting-points for improvisations. The pianist’s own’s programme notes underlined the importance for each composer of maintaining the integrity of his original source material, Bartok regarding the melodies “as motifs to be surrounded by the results of their working” and Gao Ping exploring “the rich, microtonal palette of the folk tradition”. Each composer’s “workings” resulted in a distinctively flavoured sound-world that one could readily associate with those uniquely characterful regions.

Separating the two sets of improvisations was JS Bach’s French Suite No.5, a bright and cheerful collection of baroque dances in G major, presenting a more stylised and courtly mode of expression which contrasted surprisingly well with the more earthy/exotic source material of the two works on either side. Then, in the second half, we heard a piece by the pianist himself, a brief, improvisatory meditation-cum-declamation called, appropriately enough, Digression, and whose dying sounds led straight into the concert’s largest-scale work, Schubert’s final Piano Sonata in B-flat, D.960.

The recital began with Bartok, his Eight Improvisations on Hungarian Peasant Songs Op.20, a work which progressed from simple harmonisation of melody to manipulation of their shape, rhythmic patterns and harmonic associations – in effect, the composer gradually “took over” the potentialities of the material, transforming them to meet his own compositional needs while still preserving their basic idiomatic spirit. Tony Lin conveyed something of this spirit amid the volatile rhythms and favoursome harmonies and dissonances of the second song, and the “Night Piece” aspect of the third, with its quicksilver responses in the midst of the gloom, delivered here with razor-sharp reflexes and a powerfully-wrought sense of atmosphere. I particularly liked his “thinking on his feet”-like playing of the sixth improvisation, with its spontaneous series of knockabout “turns”as if from a clown, the music leaping from the black to the white keys and then back again! And, how poignant were those moments of wistful reflection in between the drolleries and caperings!

The Bach French Suite seemed, under Lin’s hands, wrought of some kind of elfin magic in places – gossamer-like threads of musical lines that were woven freely and then tweaked and pulled into place, the playing always flexible yet mindful of the music’s overall shape. Following the opening, minstrel-like Allemande, the Courante resembled a merry brook bubbling over stones, with the occasional refraction caused by natural attrition from the play of light and the ceaseless flow of water. The beautiful Sarabande’s dignified contourings put me into some of the music’s “spaces” most beguilingly, from which the pianist’s quixotic delivery of the Gavotte’s opening gently brought me back, alerted to the movement of the dance-steps and the even more energising garrulity of the Bourée!
Though more circumspect in manner, the Louré had a beautiful spring in its step, Lin allowing the figuration plenty of freedom while keeping the music’s pulse – he seemed to be able to un-regiment the most rigorous of the music’s rhythms. Then, his delivery of the Gigue was a marvel of clarity, demonstrating a keen instinct for allowing voicings sufficient weight and momentum. I particularly enjoyed the second part’s more deeply-registered explorations, whose working-out seemed to acquire an almost orchestra sonority in places, amid the player’s varied command of colours and timbres.

Gao Ping’s Distant Voices demonstrated the composer’s use of Chinese folk melodies as “points of departure”, as did Bartok with his Hungarian Peasant Songs. The first reflection, Nostalgia, drew from a melody belonging to Inner Mongolia, Gao Ping employing “neighbouring” notes to the existing melody, and creating depth, resonance and tension from all registers of the keyboard, both delicate and full-throated. The playing brought out the composer’s “opening up” of spaces, recalling in places Ravel-like sonorities and delicacies. The second evocation, Love-Song from Kangdin, is apparently one of China’s most well-known melodies, from the composer’s own Sichuan region – here were haunting “echo” effects, sonorous melodic lines resounding and filling their own ambiences, enhanced by occasional impulses that suggested bird-song or air-and-water nature-patterns.

Gao Ping’s third realisation, given the title Blue Flower, used a melody from the Shanbei region to evoke the dynamism and exuberance of dancing and drumming, the sounds reaching to the lowest piano-pitches for added resonance and weight, and opening up the sound-world of the music in an orchestral way. The rhythms drove the music through “little dancings” sequences vividly ccontrasted in Lin’s performance with great swirls of repetitive and dynamic energy, featuring primitive pulsatings set alongside cluster-tines and multicoloured harmonies. At one point the music recalled themes from the two previous movements, intertwining the worlds and regions, and pausing for the reminiscences to take effect before the toccata-rhythm again took the reins, finishing as a scintillation whose energy tapered away to silence – all beautifully realised by the pianist.

After an interval, Tony Lin retumed to the keyboard to fascinate and absorb us with his own piece, called Digression, inspired partly by the pianist’s involvement with Schumann’s Humoreske, and partly as a result of Lin’s own self-confessed inclinations to digress during scheduled practice sessions! The pianist called the work a mere diversion from “the main, more important subjects”, but its value for him was its marking a reawakening of his urge to compose. Between shivers of scintillation, claustrophobic chordings and single-note declamations looking for the light, the piece sounded like a true diversionary exploration, one that, somewhat unexpectedly, led straight into the opening chords of the final work on the programme!

This, of course, was the Schubert B-flat Sonata D 960, one of three such works written during the last few months of his life, music which was destined to languish in relative obscurity until the mid-twentieth century. It’s always seemed to me astonishing, for instance, that one of the greatest of all pianists, Sergei Rachmaninov, reputedly confessed to not knowing anything of the existence of these or any other Schubert sonatas – but performances of them were rare until the renowned Artur Schnabel’s advanced their cause around the time of the centenial of the composer’s death, in 1928. They are now, of course, considered in some quarters to be on the same level of achievement as the very different late sonatas of Beethoven.

Lin brought a highly-wrought degree of sensitivity to the work’s opening – gentle, dream-like nudgings of the melody were underpinned by a murmuring accompaniment, and “ghosted” by rumbling trills in the bass, indicating a kind of “darkenss” waiting in the wings. Then the return of the opening theme burgeoned out of repeated lead-in chords and flooded our sound-vistas with torrents of tone, which continued right up to the sudden, dramatic hush of the second subject. This was played lightly and swiftly, giving the music an “elusive” character which a series of recitative-like question-and-answer phrases attempted to explain, until shouldered aside by the most wonderful, if disturbing irruptions – those angular gestures signalling the onset of the first movement repeat, that ominous bass trill mentioned above here roaring from below like some baleful subterranean Minotaur waiting for its prey. (Of course, the presence of this repeat has been a recurring bone of contention amongst performers and commentators, one which Lin took himself, in my humble opinion, onto the side of the angels by playing it!).

When the development did come it seemed to take on an almost spine-chilling aspect, as if the pianist was reluctant to go there! – a brave face saw him through the initial hesitations, and the rich, comforting warmth of parts of the central section emboldened his resolve! But as the music began to climb out of these warmer regions the chill returned and began to exert its grip, with a desolate, minor-key repetition of the opening theme, accompanied by the ominous trill – we felt the growing unease as the ways seemed to close in on us, and present to us nothing but oncoming darkness.
The return of the opening theme relieved our immediate anxiety – but there seemed a frailty about the proceedings, an almost “tenderised” aspect, the spirit somewhat undermined by the privations of the journey. And the pianist seemed to suddenly tire as well, losing a couple of notes to an ungainly turn of the music, though with the declamatory sequences at the exposition’s end he rallied, and brought about a beautifully-poised lead-in to the coda – in all, it was quite a journey!
The slow movement’s opening confronted us once again with that world of desolation and imminent darkness. The throbbing rhythmic figurations had a heavy, overburdened gait beneath a theme whose upwardly thrusting supplication to the firmament had an anguished magnificence. Lin’s playing had such incredible “hurt”, making the occasional short-lived recourse by the composer to some sweet previous memory so very moving.

After this, the scherzo’s rapid, almost manic energies seemed blurred at the edges, as though things were slightly out of focus – it was though the pianist was suddenly almost running on a kind of “empty”, and trusting in little else except his instincts. The Trio was angular and heavily accented, almost dysfunctional in its presentation, redolent of a kind of recklessness, or devil-may care attitude. Against which the finale’s opening bell-strike sounded a warning-note, from which the music tried to steer away, the major-key sequences attempting to establish a brave face, but being repeatedly reminded of darker realities – Lin attacked the heavy chords mid-sequence savagely, but the music then steered the mood back to a kind of resigned acceptance, the bell-strike once again “centering” the focus and dictating the terms. What a kaleidoscopic array of emotion was here! – with the pianist having to steer a course between hope, and despair, happiness and anger. After another outburst, followed by a curious variant of what Schubert wrote in its wake, Lin marshalled his resources and set the music stampeding to its destiny – “thus though we cannot make our sun / stand still, yet we will make him run”, wrote a poet in an entirely different context, but in a poignant way just as applicable here.

Rather than leaving us amid such a bleak and cheerless scenario, Lin played as an encore for us a Bartok transcription of a folksong, whose words described a poor boy’s wish for a starry night so that he may find his way back home to his beloved – it was played with great spontaneity and quietly-expressed feeling.