By Meg Cotner
On December 1 and 2, Portland Piano International was delighted to welcome Hong Kongese pianist Rachel Cheung to the Lincoln Hall stage. Here’s a little background on PPI’s connection with Rachel, as told by executive director Ellen Bergstone Wasil:
“Every four years Portland Piano International takes a group of piano lovers to Fort Worth for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. One of the highlights of our last ‘pilgrimage’ to the semi-finals in 2017 was experiencing Rachel Cheung’s amazing performances. It was no surprise, therefore, when she received the Audience Award that year. Rachel possesses a special ability to draw the audience into her playing.” Her performances were truly remarkable and completely mesmerizing; the audience loved her.
She played two completely different programs on the two days — Saturday’s recital featured works by Mozart, Schumann, Janáček, Schubert and Liszt; Sunday’s recital featured works by Franck, Chopin and Schubert. The weekend of recitals started with the gem that is Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor K. 511.
Saturday’s Recital - Mozart, Schumann, Janáček, Schubert and Liszt
As it says in the program notes, “The famous musicologist and pedagogue Charles Rosen once declared the Rondo in A minor to be Mozart’s finest composition for the piano,” and after hearing Rachel play the piece, that’s a pretty good assessment. The music is pure Mozart, and Rachel produced a wonderfully rich and tender sound. Her use of timing, articulation, and command of the piece’s dynamics was exquisite. She seemed enraptured from the start and overall it was a joy to listen to. It was my favorite piece of the weekend.
Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17 comprised the rest of the first half, and the aesthetic could not have been different from what came before. Sound poured out from the start, and while the Mozart felt like an intimate experience, this Fantasie was full-on extroversion. That said, the first movement had satisfying variety — rhapsodic moments of high emotion, lighter articulated sections, and enticing melodic passages. The soft ending of the first movement was gorgeous.
I was particularly taken with the dotted notes in the second movement that provided a wonderful energy level; the third movement’s hocket-like gesture was fun, and the way Schumann manipulates the theme is really interesting. The fourth movement was clearly a moving experience for Rachel, as you could see it on her face. It starts out sounding pretty tragic and continues on full of emotion; it’s like Schumann is pouring out his heart here. The audience connected with the music, offering up plenty of applause, a standing ovation and two curtain calls.
During intermission we learned that Portland Piano International is offering a holiday special: a CD of Benjamin Grosvenor and two tickets to any of this season’s remaining SOLO series concerts for $75 (a $120 value). Also, the upcoming Concerto Competition is coming up, and the public is invited to witness the finals on Friday, January 25 at 7pm. Finally, Piano Day is around the corner on Friday, March 29; signups start Friday, February 1.
The first piece on the second half was Janáček’s In the Mists, an atmospheric piece in four movements. Rachel really brought out the beauty and the Impressionistic character of the piece. Particularly like the dramatic descending line in the final movement.
Next up was a transcription of one of Schubert’s songs, Auf dem Wasser zu singen. It’s a piece of beautiful harmonies and Rachel surely brought out the shimmery sound expressed in the text of the original song. It was a joy to hear.
The final pieces on the program were by Liszt: Les jeux d'eaux a la Villa d'Este, and Mephisto Waltz, No. 1. Rachel was able to get a wonderful mix of sounds out of the piano for Les jeux d'eaux a la Villa d'Este — there were times it sounded like a harp, other times it sounded like a hammered dulcimer, and there was much idiomatic piano passage work. At times the work sounded light and ethereal; and at other times, the passion was unbridled.
Mephisto Waltz is known for its status as a showcase piece, and it is a very impressive work, for sure. This was a virtuosic extravaganza, and Rachel was more than ready to meet the task of mastering the beat of a work. The piece requires the pianist to navigate all over the keyboard through introspective, excited, tender, effusive, and exuberant moments. Rachel received a standing ovation and plenty of cheers for her mastery and spectacular playing. She did come back to the stage to play an excerpt — Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy— from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite. She chose this because, in her words, “we are so close to Christmas.
Sunday’s Recital - Franck, Chopin and Schubert
Sunday’s recital was made up of just three pieces, and they were all pretty spectacular: Franck/the Harold Bauer arrangement of César Franck’s Prelude, Fugue et Variation in B minor, Op. 18; the entire 24 preludes by Chopin; and Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960. The Franck was originally composed as an organ piece and it was a beautiful rendering on the piano. Rachel leaned into the simple start or gentle, calm music – it was sweet yet passionate. The gorgeous chord progressions gave the first movement a true prelude feel, and the recitative-like transition to the fugue was very satisfying. I actually think this part in particular would sound nice on the harpsichord; I definitely picked up on some baroque sensibilities. Rachel really brought out the beautiful sound world in this piece and it was a great way to start the afternoon.
It’s not often that you hear all 24 Chopin preludes performed in one day, so this was a real treat. One wonders, with an estimated time stamp of 40 minutes, why isn’t it done more often. Well, despite the relatively short time for a large number of pieces, it really is an adventure to go through them all. It also hits you that Rachel (and most pianists) play all these pieces, one after the other, from memory, and it becomes even more impressive a feat. The preludes run the gamut – from light and airy, to wild dances, to pastoral scenes. Rachel was able to easily showcase the different moods and overall vibes of the different preludes. On a personal note, it was a real joy to hear some of the preludes I remember working hours on in my early days at the piano (especially prelude number 4). For her incredible performance, the audience gave a standing ovation and plenty of cheers and applause.
The entirety of the second half was taken up by the magnificent Schubert sonata. It’s a huge work, but frankly, it seemed to go by quickly during Rachel’s performance. It had such positive energy in its opening, a joyous sound you just wanted to float away on. Schubert’s music has the uncanny ability to show us who a pianist truly is, in virtuosity, emotional complexity and diversity of talent. The music needs not just chops but a sophisticated level of awareness as a musician. Rachel was surely up to the task.
While the first movement was truly a feat, the second movement has an almost meditative feel to much of it. The bright and light yet brief Scherzo that follows is a lovely contrast and Rachel really brought out the airiness in it. The final movement had moments that felt like a casual romp, and some parts that were weightier and more passionate. Over all, Rachel really took us on a journey and it was beautiful.
This was definitely well-received by the audience, who were on their feet, cheering and applauding. Rachel looked really happy. She gave us an encore of Widmung a Schumann work transcribed by Liszt; it was an impressive offering after already performing such a solid and intense afternoon of music. We can’t wait for her next time in Portland.