Hold the Applause, Please

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The New York Sun

The young superstar Lang Lang was not the first Chinese pianist; preceding him by many decades was Fou Ts’ong, born in 1934. This gentleman grew up in Shanghai, but took off for Poland when he was in his late teens. He entered the Warsaw Conservatory (and, in a way, the Warsaw Pact). He is known particularly for interpretations of Poland’s favorite son: Chopin. And he played a recital in Mannes College’s piano festival on Tuesday night. (Fou Ts’ong, I mean, not Chopin — that would have been something.)

Fou Ts’ong began with Haydn’s Sonata in A flat, Hob. XVI/46 — a wonderful work, which we should hear more often. Fou Ts’ong’s conception of it was very free, fairly Romantic.He put more feeling into his Haydn than many pianists do into their Chopin. And you could applaud that, to a degree. Too much Haydn is overly mechanical, even soulless. But Fou Ts’ong went very, very far. Sometimes his playing was simply flabby, or too aggressive. And he had trouble with his passagework, which could be clumsy or sluggish.

A word about the slow movement: Fou Ts’ong applied a lot of pedal, more than other pianists do in their French Impressionism! And this produced some beautiful sounds and phrases. But Fou Ts’ong also did some banging, as he worked Haydn’s melody — and this was completely unnecessary.


May I offer a side note? Fou Ts’ong is a head-nodder. That is, he nods his head perpetually as he plays. I must say, I’ve seldom heard a really good pianist who does this. Perhaps the most prominent head-nodder today is Evgeny Kissin. Kiddies, I admonish you: If you get into the habit of headnodding, stop — before it’s too late.

From Haydn, Fou Ts’ong went on to Mozart — sort of Chopinized Mozart, as he had played Chopinized Haydn. The thought occurred to me: In comparison with Fou Ts’ong, Rubinstein and Horowitz, in their own Mozart, were “period” fetishists.

Fou Ts’ong did not play a sonata, but, instead, five shortish pieces of Mozart. This was a good idea, as all of these pieces are marvelous, and two of them are rarely performed: the Gigue in G, K. 574, and the Minuet in D, K. 355. The other pieces were the Fantasy in D minor, K. 397, the Adagio in B minor, K. 540, and the beloved and beguiling Rondo in A minor, K. 511.


The group began with the Fantasy, and Fou Ts’ong did some really lovely playing in it.Under his hands, the piece was very free — a fantasy, indeed — and who knows? If Mozart himse lf had had that enormous Steinway grand, maybe he would have played his Fantasy much the same way.

When the audience applauded after the piece was over, Fou Ts’ong put his hand up — with irritation — to stop them. He wanted no applause during the set. This struck me as pretentious nonsense. These are not movements, but separate, standalone pieces. Besides which, a performer should pretty much take his applause where he can get it.

I admire performers who stand up even between movements to acknowledge applause. Earl Wild is one such. If you want a younger example — Yefim Bronfman.


Fou Ts’ong finished his Mozart set with the A-minor Rondo. Best about it was that it was not taken at too slow a tempo. Over-slowness is a bane of this great piece. It must move. But Fou Ts’ong did not exactly beguile in it.The F-major section should come as a joyous, almost churchly relief — it did not. The A-major section should be smart, crisp, slightly jaunty — it was not. Mozart’s chromaticism ought to worm its way into your brain. And so on.

The second half of the recital was devoted to Chopin. (I am tempted to say, “more Chopin.”) Fou Ts’ong played an assortment of mazurkas, a prelude, the Berceuse, and the Ballade in F minor.To most of the mazurkas, he gave a fine character, although his playing could be labored.One mazurka, he had trouble starting — he couldn’t remember how it went. But he kept trying, and finally got it. Old pros do not — should not — lose their cool.

His Berceuse was an unusual mixture of beautiful, limpid playing and ugly, heavy playing. Sometimes the line was smooth and shapely, and sometimes it was distorted, wrecked. When the pianist banged on notes, I wanted to say, “Please — don’t wake baby!” (“Berceuse,”of course, means “lullaby.”)

Fou Ts’ong concluded with the F-minor Ballade. He got through it manfully, if not easily or completely musically. But there is no question that he has musical wiles. You could hear them in the way he spaced the final chords.

The audience, at last allowed to applaud – Fou Ts’ong permitted none throughout the Chopin – did so lustily.

The New York Sun

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