Six Players in Search of a Piano

Statistics prove that there are more pianos in Malaysian households than there are OSIM massage-chairs. More people take piano lessons than violin lessons, although this balance might change soon. However, statistics still cannot disprove the fact that there has been a decline in the number of amateur pianists and people with enough knowledge to be able to appreciate the fine art of piano playing and piano literature.

When HSBC kicked off their timely support-the-arts programme with the HSBC Classics Piano Festival 2005, I thought that this might be a revival of sorts. I had hoped that the age-old glories of the piano would be defined and redefined, as we all are by our DNA.

The mundane into the mystical
Loo Bang Hean, featuring Cecilia Yap, Lawrence Fong, and Yap Ling

The first concert (9 Aug 2005) saw the piano as an accompanying instrument to the clarinet, violin and voice. The piano used was a Yamaha concert grand. Playing it was Loo Bang Hean.

Bang Hean was probably aware that playing as an accompanist demanded a different disposition from his usual role of soloist or main instrumentalist. In the Fantasiestücke for clarinet and piano, however, Bang Hean over­compensated by being too mezza voce and subdued. This disappointed me, knowing that Bang Hean is quite a good pianist, and should have accorded the Schumann piece with a little more colour.

Clarinettist Lawrence Fong was disturbingly loud and monochromatic in the Schumann piece. When the music demanded polished sensuality and melting beauty, there was hardness, particularly on the high notes. This is not to say that Lawrence is incapable of playing with warmth of tone. However, this beauty of tone was only evident later in the Schubert piece – Die Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock). I make no apologies for Lawrence but I suspect the harshness of his playing was more the result of very dry and cold air than the lack of skill. KLPac has better be aware that performers of string and wind instruments and singers are all affected by air conditioning that is severely drying. And musicians should be aware so as not to stand under the direct blast of the air conditioner.

The violinist Yap Ling gave a very credible performance of Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major with Bang Hean a little bit more assertive on the piano. Bang Hean also dispatched the solo piano of Chopin’s Nocturne in C Minor Opus 48, No.1 with dazzling virtuosity. He was technically proficient but the music held no allure and even less charm. No blame on the air conditioning this time. I put this lack of magic down largely to the unsuitability of a Yamaha piano for the performance of works by Chopin. Chopin’s favourite piano, which propelled his works and his playing to fame, was the Pleyel. Unfortunately, this piano is almost unheard of in Malaysia. Yamaha pianos are generally good for many things but can really sound plastic with works by Chopin or Debussy.

The soprano Cecilia Yap sang after the interval. Her sustained pianissimo in Caro Mio Ben showed good technical mastery of voice. Though her German was cloudy at times, she pulled off Schubert’s Die Hirt auf dem Felsen with great aplomb and great accompaniment from the clarinet and piano. The hauntingly beautiful Chère Nuit by Bachelet was rendered in tones of pearly sheen. This was Bang Hean’s best performance. He was able to communicate delicate emotion and passionate restraint while allowing the serene authority of Cecelia’s voice to transform the mundane into the mystical.

The last two pieces by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff were hectic rather than expansive, with Spring Waters played with too much of a Teutonic touch. The encore, Vocalise, had the singer, clarinet and violin back on stage to share solo sections of the piece. Originally written by Rachmaninoff for voice and piano, the decision to allow every performer that evening to have a piece of the cake was a mistake. Bang Hean, who has had much success with Rachmaninoff pieces, would have shone brilliantly had the Zoltàn Kocsis arrangement been used instead of performing the Chopin Nocturne or the shared Vocalise.

Serene lyricism and dark poetry
Foo Mei Yi

Foo Mei Yi is touted as Malaysia’s young and upcoming virtuoso pianist. It is easy to guess why. All of the pieces she chose to play for the concert (10 Aug 2005) were technically difficult and would be the sort of repertoire one would submit for major piano competitions. However, I am unsure Mei Yi knew exactly what pieces suited her best.

The Bach Partita No. 5 is undoubtedly the most virtuosic of all the six partitas. While Mei Yi displayed many moments of stunning virtuosity in the vein of Glenn Gould, I felt that she had not sufficiently grasped the weave of lines in the piece that is made even more difficult to unravel by the dominant dance rhythms, particularly in the Sarabande section. The final Gigue with all its trills in odd and frightful places was handled with fluid skill and complete mastery, although the playing was a little less aristocratic than I would have expected. Again, to quibble about the piano, this would have sounded so much better on a Fazioli or a Rippen.

Toru Takemitsu’s elegant Rain Tree Sketch demands that its tone clusters be blurred and blended by plenty of sustained pedalling, while focussing on precision and presenting the impression of space. I am not quite sure if Mei Yi interpreted the piece this way, as there were passages that ought to have been savoured rather than exaggerated.

The Ravel, Scriabin, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff pieces were all of Mei Yi’s showcase pieces. Despite a slightly “competition” feel to the handling of the pieces, she played with controlled intensity and breath­taking tempi. I particularly liked her Scriabin Sonata No. 4 which she played with unexcitable calm in the first movement, and then was manically exulting in the second. Her Corelli Variations by Rachmaninoff was executed with huge tones and a broad dynamic range. Mei Yi fully explored the piece’s serene lyricism and dark poetry and combined them with careful dramatic pacing that was truly stunning.

Her Ravel Gaspard de la Nuit was preceded with a reading of the three poems that inspired Ravel to write this suite. This was done very well and the audience was presented with a backdrop of both the horror and elegance which they would hear in the music. The most sensuous was the first piece, Ondine. When Mei Yi began very pianissimo on repeated chords, she evoked a dream-like sequence of mysterious elegance. As she played with more agitation, the music became more sinister. The climax was the hammering of chords, showing the crashing waves, in the light of the rejection that the water-nymph Ondine faced when her offer of love to a man was spurned. It is a terrible offer: the man would have to drown himself in order to be united with her in the watery depths.

The second piece, Le Gibet, is characterised with the monotony of a constant B-flat melodic progression, which Mei Yi brought out without fear of sounding dreary. The difficulty in playing this piece about a corpse swaying slowly from the gallows like a pendulum is the playing of extended, stolid chords in utter quietness, making sure that voicing and changes in sound and texture are executed at precise moments. Mei Yi showed mastery in these areas.

The third piece, Scarbo, is about a dwarf that comes in the night. Sometimes it dances; sometimes it lurks and hides in the ceiling. Other times it makes strange noises and seems to herald impending insanity. Mei Yi’s playing successfully captured the grotesque in the broken octaves that mirror the dwarf’s jagged dance. The piece needs lightning speed and specific articulation of motifs in different lines, thus demanding highly acrobatic finger and thumb executions that Mei Yi was able to deliver with impressive temperament. If Mei Yi continues to progress and develop, she would undoubtedly be one of Malaysia’s greatest concert pianists of this generation.

Ornate decadence and beautiful ugliness
Ng Chong Lim

The third piano concert (11 Aug 2005) featured Ng Chong Lim playing his original composition, Daun, and Adeline Wong’s Paces. Both pieces are written for solo piano and electronica. While Chong Lim’s piece is reflective of nature, Adeline’s piece is characteristically metropolitan. Both are unique.

Chong Lim incorporates digitally recorded sounds of gamelan gongs and whispering voices as subtext to his main composition themes. The piano plays rippling melodies of calm and chordal crashes, indicating thunderstorms and huge winds. Adeline’s Paces has even got a mobile phone ringing, which Chong Lim echoed on the piano with humour and wit. The jazz melodies merge with ethnic tunes and are cleverly woven into the fabric of the composition. Even the digitally recorded sounds against the broad backdrop of the piano music are not two disembodied features but are one and part of the architectural scope of what we term today as modern contemporary music. Paces is fastidious in reflecting the modernisation of life and all the complexities of living in the city. While listening to these two compositions, I had the vague feeling of witnessing surrealist wit, like one would get looking at Marcel Duchamp’s La Joconde Aux Moustaches (portrait of Mona Lisa with a moustache and goatee).

Chong Lim also played Debussy’s La Cathedrale Engloutie, two of Schubert’s celebrated impromptus and the massive Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky. The Debussy was performed with no hard edges in spite of the Yamaha piano. His playing was controlled and there were subtle nuances of colour which Chong Lim convincingly painted to give an impression of a shrouded mythic cathedral in mists and water. The two Schubert impromptus Nos. 1 & 3, Opus 90 were a little text-bookish in interpretation, but his fluid playing of the third impromptu was lyrically beautiful.

The original piano version of Pictures at an Exhibition was a definite showcase of Chong Lim’s skill as a pianist. The demands of the piece favoured someone who was capable of huge, magnificently rich chords and superb dexterity in finger-work for rapid passages. Chong Lim sounded appropriately hefty in “The Great Gate of Kiev” and was bombastically manic in “The Hut of Baba Yaga”. And yet, he was also capable of projecting immediacy and wit in “Tuileries” and “Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle”. You get the ornate decadence and beautiful ugliness which had first inspired Mussorgsky to write this epic and demanding piece. The Yamaha piano managed to withstand the intense vigour of this massive work.

Ironic sadness of a passing age
Esther Budiardjo

If the second and third concerts were mainly characterised by fire, the fourth (12 Aug 2005) was characterised by cool control. It featured Esther Budiardjo, an Indonesian who now resides in Canada. I found Esther’s playing outstanding in a very poised and elegant sort of way. While there were no obvious fireworks, her virtuosity was clearly there, like pearls on black velvet, to quote Clara Schumann.

Esther performed a selection of Eastern / Oriental inspired works in the first half of the concert. Debussy’s Estampes was played with the clarity of light and controlled delicacy. I even forgot that she was playing on a Yamaha piano. Her pedalling was sovereign, so that the blur of harmonies in contrast to the overt atonalities of the piece were carefully mixed to evoke a scented garden or the mystical sacredness of Javanese music.

The Godowsky pieces from his Java Suite displayed not only Esther’s dexterity but also her absolute control of phrasing and articulation. When she had to be loud, she was never crudely booming and her pianissimo far surpasses any other pianist of the whole festival in terms of control, shading and tone clarity. The playing of A Court Pageant in Solo was both filled with pomp and gaiety, yet infused with an ironic sadness of a passing age, so carefully brought out in the running melodies and parallel chords by Esther.

However, I felt that the real jewel in the crown was her performance of all 24 of Chopin’s Preludes. There was absolutely none of the affected sentimentalism that normally plagues many lesser Chopin performances. Esther played with deep spirituality and conviction, sensitively shaping the linear texture of the melodies. One gets the impression that the music is never hurriedly passionate but quietly sensuous, full of beauty and charm.

Esther played an encore that I found very charming and amazing. Written in 1984 by a famous Indonesian composer, Jaya Suprana (who is also the manufacturer and owner of Jamu Cap Jagung in Semarang), Tembang Alit is a Javanese folk melody often played on the gamelan. Esther transformed the piano into a mesmerising gamelan orchestra complete with resounding gongs: with ten fingers only! I felt that her programme was one of the better-planned ones for the festival and she played mostly to her strengths. It was such a pity that not too many people attended her performance.

Dizzy virtuosity to dazzle
Dennis Lee & Toh Chee-Hung

Penang-born Dennis Lee and his Singaporean wife Toh Chee-Hung performed at the last concert (13 Aug 2005). The formidable duo presented the most exquisite piano pieces for four-hands in a highly eclectic programme. The Schubert Introduction & Variations in B-flat Major on an Original Theme opened the concert. Although I felt that the bass was occasionally heavy at times, there was complete synchronicity in the two players and the happiness in the piece was handled with great simplicity and clarity of playing.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite for four hands was enigmatically handled and magically enchanting while the three Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances (A-flat major, Op. 46 no. 2; A-flat major, Op. 72 no. 8; and G minor, Op. 46 no.8) were performed with verve and obvious enjoyment. The incredibly strong rhythmic character of the pieces demanded precise attacks and alternating dominance in both secondo and primo parts. There were demands for some dizzy virtuosity to dazzle, and this was floridly displayed but without the glitz that would debase it. One of their encore pieces was also one of the Slavonic Dances (in E minor) and this scintillating duet rounded off an excellent performance by two equally outstanding pianists.

Dennis and Chee Hung both played a solo each. Dennis played the Brahms Sonata in F minor, taking great pains to play with deeply felt convictions and to draw out the haunting melodies of the sonata. His playing was never exaggerated and very controlled. Chee Hung’s Berceuse Op. 57 by Chopin was sweeping and had an airy lightness to it. She also took the time to explore the inner and more song-like middle section. Her technique was completely secure and listening to her was like having a sip of champagne. At the end of the concert, Dennis Lee paid a touching tribute to his first piano teacher, Ruth Ramanathan, who had travelled from Penang to listen to his performance.

The organisers of the HSBC Piano Festival 2005 ought to be commended for having organised the series of concerts in spite of some glitches and other minor annoyances. Overall, it was a successful series of five concerts and could have done with a little more publicity and a better piano.


Lisa Ho conducts the infamous Cantus Musicus. In her former life, she trained under Juliet Tay and Czech virtuoso pianist, Martina Maixnerova. She also studied piano accompaniment and is trained in the school of Sir Gerald Moore. As a soprano, she trained under Italian opera singer, Michela Bertagnolli. She plays the pipe organ, flute, bass guitar, drums and the occassional didgeridoo. Her favourite pianos are the Boesendorfer and the Fazioli.

First Published: 01.09.2005 on Kakiseni

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