Prelude to a Brilliant Career
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The trick in modern performance of Frédéric Chopin’s 24 preludes is to make each of his little gems interesting within the artificial context of presenting them as a matched set — the standard practice in our encyclopedic age. Harmonic cohesion may be present when both sets of 12 are offered, but, unlike with Bach, whose “Well-Tempered Clavier” may have inspired Chopin, there is little sense of beginning, middle, or end and there is a high risk of epigrammatic overload. It takes an artist with a very large palette to sustain our sense of wonderment, as Vladimir Feltsman does with his recording of the works. But live performance is another matter. Like a recitation contest in ancient Greece, this is a set that separates the men from the boys.
So it was intriguing to hear the youthful Yuan Sheng, who holds a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music and writes a monthly column for the Chinese magazine Piano Artistry, program the works for his Saturday recital at the International Keyboard Institute and Festival at Mannes College.
Mr. Sheng began with the C sharp minor, Op. 45. Within a few measures, he came a cropper, badly missing an early landing and intoning a highly dissonant faux pas. But Mr. Sheng righted himself quickly and began the 24 with a clean slate.
As a colorist, he was quite impressive, imparting certain preludes with majesty, others with flamboyance, and still others with gentleness. Pianists who traverse the entire set often pause on a regular basis, but Mr.Sheng simply soldiered on, creating some ear-catching contrasts by jumping right into the next prelude before the overtones had died away from the previous effort.One overriding technical problem, however, haunted this interpretation. Mr. Sheng often displayed decided unsteadiness in the left hand, rendering the desired regular rhythm choppy and uneven. Without this basic foundational building block, whatever melodic substance that was being expertly crafted in the right hand seemed amorphous, the individual tableaux built on quicksand. Although some of the individual realizations — such as a mightily constructed D flat with killer crescendos or a powerfully clangorous D minor — were superb, overall there were a few too many equivocations to consider this performance entirely successful.
Before some salon music of Moritz Moskowski and a none too clean version of “El Albaicin” from “Iberia” by Isaac Albeniz, Mr. Sheng introduced to New York the “Distant Voices” of Ping Gao, a pianist and composer who resides in New Zealand. Here, the recitalist demonstrated colorful technique of a different stripe, creating a highpitched waterfall for “Nostalgia,” his right hand seemingly more adept at this type of steady repetition; romantically exploring the lyrical in “Love Song of Kang-ding Town”; and generating a cannonade of sound for “Blue Flower.” This was very intriguing performing and left me with the impression that Mr. Sheng is well on his way to exceptional pianism. His hands need only to keep pace with his heart.
Organ recitals are a vanishing breed, so it was with great delight that I attended Thursday’s installment of the International Organ Festival at Trinity Church.
Jeremy Filsell of England performed an all-French program featuring the work of Dupre and his pupil Pierre Cochereau, both former residents of the fabled loft at Notre Dame.
Mr. Filsell is both a pianist and an organist and is the only practitioner who has recorded the complete works of Dupre. He felt the need to explicate his program with a bit of a lecture, and it was amusing to hear the voice of an organist channeled through an amplification system that was turned up too high, resulting in his voice reverberating around the cathedral ceiling and enveloping itself almost to the point of unintelligibility. At that moment, he was truly at one with his instrument.
He constructed this recital around Dupre’s three Preludes and Fugues from Op. 7. The B major is a powerful work.The melody is exclusively in the left hand during the stately prelude, while the right hand and both feet are busy with uninterrupted arpeggiated material.
There are two types of organ concerts: Either the player is visible, or he is not. Thursday’s event was nearly of the latter variety, as the front console of the Marshall and Ogletree instrument was on tour until recently, but was ultimately of the former, as the console arrived back in time for this part of the festival. Our ability to see Mr. Filsell paid large dividends here, as he demonstrated superb dexterity, both manual and terpsichorean.
The F minor is a much quieter work, contemplative in nature and exhibiting a faint modal tinge of the North African in the fugal section (compare Holst’s Beni Mora Suite). The G minor is more of an impressionistic essay with complex four-part chords pronounced exclusively with the foot pedals. All three showcased Mr. Filsell’s splendid coordination.
Cochereau’s Scherzo Symphonique sounded exactly as its name implies, an orchestral style of hurried movement with a good deal of nervous energy and Gallic flair — the Berliozian March to the Scaffold, without the grotesquerie. The piece reminded one that not all organ music is sacred; some is downright profane.
But surprisingly, the most popular part of the program was Mr. Filsell’s transcription of Paul Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” This was certainly a lot of fun, although the rather pallid use of color, especially considering the kaleidoscopic possibilities of such a polychromatic instrument, made me realize the brilliance of Dukas’s original orchestration.
Unfortunately, the organ at Trinity is an electronic one and cannot begin to recapture the beauty and majesty of the old Aeolian-Skinner pipe instrument that so enchantingly suggested a direct kinship to human respiration. That reedy voice was irreparably damaged when dust and debris from the collapsing World Trade Center clogged its pipes on September 11, 2001. The present arrangement is strictly a temporary one and, although it may be less acceptable musically, it does reflect the indomitable spirit of New York. Trinity Church and its adjunct St. Paul’s Chapel – the firefighter’s churches – will go on with their spiritual lives as normal. No terrorist act can stop their essential mission of hope and healing.