A long goodbye

SCHUBERT FROM BEYOND: THE LAST PIANO SONATA

Kristian Chong

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall

Friday April 3 at 6 pm

                                                                     Kristian Chong

For his recital program in this worthy and welcome series, young Australian veteran Chong put most of his interpretative eggs into a Schubertian basket, giving us a reading of the final B flat Sonata that came off successfully, chiefly because the pianist knew exactly what he was about, particularly in his reading of the lengthy opening Molto moderato.  You might have asked for a more relaxed slow movement or for less force exerted during the Scherzo; still, it’s a work that speaks to many people in different voices – Richter, Brendel, Curzon, Radu Lupu for me –  and its emotional breadth is so vast and flexible that it accommodates many readings.

To clear his throat, Chong began with two short pieces that have spoken to him across his career.   Siloti’s famous transcription down to B minor of the E minor Prelude from Book I of Bach’s 48  rose to its high point in bar 15 with careful attention given to delineating the alto line melody, as well as a supple diminuendo from the point where the arranger starts spelling out the specific spacing of his left hand arpeggios.   So far. so fine, if a terse entity without its simple 2-part fugue.

Chong has had notable success with certain works by Rachmaninov: the C minor and D minor Concertos, and the Paganini Rhapsody, as well as the Op. 32 Preludes, which he has made part of his public repertoire for at least a decade.   In particular, the pianist has a predilection for the B minor Prelude, No. 10 in the series.  From where the excitement ramps up in bars 18-19, this performance took on a fine authority with an authentic clangour to the weighty chain of thick chords in both hands, the peroration sinking quickly before the change of texture at Rachmaninov’s L’istesso tempo direction

Similarly, Chong’s subterranean fervour in the bars preceding the cadenza demonstrated his control of the prelude’s structure, tension coming from the inevitable progress towards a rhythmic dissolution as well as a brilliant variation of light and shade, tension and resolution, action and hiatus.   I could have done with more spikiness in the right hand during the cadenza where brisk separation brings some welcome glitter to the work’s overall sombre surface.   But the final reminiscence, in particular the last five bars, rounded off a formidable reading of this piece’s gloom-laden pageant.

Schubert’s final sonata has been appearing on Chong’s recital programs for about six or seven years; you can be quite sure that he knows what he’s doing with it.   Or. at least, he has an informed insight regarding its interpretative challenges.   The work has been over-stressed with insights that range from the incisive to the fanciful, this composer being subject to almost as much formulaic type-casting as Chopin; the creators of Lilac Time have  done Schubert as little service as the brainiacs who devised A Song to Remember, or Magic Fire, or Song Without End, or the truly execrable Song of Scheherazade,  But, while you can find some excuses for the cinematic/musical excesses of certain screen biographies of composers, Schubert has been sentimentalised to an extraordinary degree over the past century.

I remember Michael Easton giving a pre-recital talk for Musica Viva in the stalls foyer of Melbourne’s Hamer Hall and being almost physically assaulted by an elderly patron who was incensed at Easton’s observation that Schubert had contracted syphilis about six years before his death.   This tends to undermine the patina of refreshing wholesomeness that surrounds the composer of Who is Sylvia?, Hark, hark! the lark and Standchen.   But can the disease’s physical destruction be called on to explain the subterranean trill in bar 8 that recurs during the Molto moderato and represents . . . what?   The threat of mercury?  Or simply an intimation of mortality?

Whatever your view, this sonata is not so much a technical mine-field as a long-running test of coherence, presenting pages of long paragraphs as a continuum, rather than a juxtaposition of discrete segments which isn’t helped by a series of pauses/fermatas that punctuate the flow.    Chong’s outline of the opening movement’s exposition proved intelligent – a fine line walked between restraint and excitement, as in the gloves-off exhilaration of the move to F sharp minor at bar 48.    He let the tension sag around the interrogation marks at the bar 110 mark but – wonder of wonders – he then took the first ending and repeated the exposition: something I haven’t heard in years.

Through the development, you could not fault the performer’s drive, finding purpose in the triplet pattern and the build-up to calm waters at bar 173.   Even so, a few final quavers of the triplet pattern tended to disappear, not quite sounding or swamped by left hand action.   (As at a previous recital of this series, at this late stage I discovered that the A above Middle C was slightly off.)   At that pivotal bar 173, we could have done with more dynamic cut-back to signal the move to a D minor oasis.    But the escape into the recapitulation at bars 215-216 found just the right ambience of relief in two senses of the word – contrast and relaxation.   Further, Chong treated us to an especially gracious conclusion, the main theme’s final appearance and transformation an excellent passage, the concluding four chords eloquently placed and articulated.

We’ve grown used to quite slow second movements as even great interpreters tend to linger over phrase/sentence climaxes.   Chong centred more on the Andante direction than the sostenuto  –  quite acceptable, particularly if you want to avoid overdoing the pathos (if you think it’s there).    Matters proceeded very well up to bar 408 where the right-hand alto triplets could have been accounted for with less deliberation; here again, a few of these supporting notes went missing, possibly because of the rate at which Chong was going through them.   Nevertheless, the return to C sharp minor at bar 447 reinforced your realization of the pianist’s arching overview of the movement, with a sympathetic subtlety in the heart-stopping move to C Major 14 bars further along.   An avoidance of indulgence also obtained at the final key signature change which quite a few players treat as a Debussyan shimmer, but here you could admire the unabashed across-the-bar sustaining pedal work in this final section where the forward motion is blurred intentionally and the music aspires to a benevolent sonorous halo.

As for the Scherzo, Chong punched his way through it, slamming with unexpected ferocity into bar 530: those right-hand arpeggiated chords have rarely sounded so abrupt.   No troubles with the minor key Trio which asks for heavier-handed emphasis, but you’d expect more sparkle in the movement’s outer pages which are distinguished for their swift delicacy, not any inbuilt force.   In the finale, the interpretation mirrored the first movement in its consistency of attack, despite the more overt shifts in material treatment and abrupt punctuating breaks.   Chong’s handling of the syncopated left hand quavers between bars 220 and 235 appealed for its lack of jerkiness and made you look forward to the pattern’s three recurrences.    More pounding distracted for a while from bar 375 where both hands are well occupied but not necessarily competing.    Once again,  as with most other readings, the final 27 (28) presto bars were given pell-mell handling, sense sacrificed to speed.   Chong is by no means alone in taking this oddly gabbling approach but he might be better to focus less on excitement and more on clarity, especially with regard to pedalling.

In the end, an interpretation that impressed in its chief contours as it wove the composer’s extraordinarily open-ended melodic fabric across a substantial time-scale, gave a clearly thought-out narrative in three of its four movement-sections, maintained a firm technical command despite the work’s stamina-straining demands, and won you round to many unexpected configurations and expressive insights.