Concert Review: Strauss Sinfonia Domestica, Mozart Piano Concerto No.23, Fou Ts’ong, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lan Shui

Kelly Tang Sinfonia Concertante
Mozart Piano Concerto No.23
Strauss Sinfonia Domestica

Fou Ts’ong
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Lan Shui

11 Jan 2014, 7.30pm.
Esplanade Concert Hall

by Soo Kian Hing

The highlight of this concert, for me as a pianophile, was undoubtedly the pianist Fou Ts’ong. But more on that later. The Singapore Symphony Orchestra, directed by Lan Shui, was in top form tonight. The concert opened with Sinfonia Concertante by Dr Kelly Tang, recipient of the Cultural Medallion for Music in 2011. While stylistically accomplished and harmonically complex, in its second revision the work still seems incomplete, and the listener is left hanging seemingly without a resolution to the theme. Perhaps it is too avant-garde for me; nonetheless I appreciate the efforts of the composer to add musical interest with various compositional devices. Mayhaps a further revision would serve this piece well.

The third work of the evening, Strauss’ Symphonia Domestica, is a titan of a tone poem, but the orchestra took the bull by the horns and pulled it off with aplomb and panache. Richard Strauss is a master of orchestration and tone colour, having revised Berlioz’s own “Treatise on Instrumentation and Modern Orchestration” which is still very much valued as a reference text today. Lush strings combined with two harps, an oboe d’amore, and an expanded wind and brass section make for either a breathtaking forty-minute tour-de-force, or a breathless disaster waiting to happen. As it was, Shui was more than able to hold the entire piece together, distilling every theme and nuance from the players effortlessly. The only thing I wished could have been done better was for the eight French horn players to have played even louder towards the end; but surely that would have caused some physical damage to the Esplanade Concert Hall, so I guess this performance of the Symphonia Domestica was as excellent as I could have imagined.

To be very honest, I had my doubts before going for this concert. After having heard Fou Ts’ong play ‘live’ in Singapore several years ago, I was very impressed, but it was more an appreciation of the beauty of delivery and perfection of technique, rather than a sympathetic resonance of the heart and mind — the younger me was more taken with fire-breathing dragons like Demidenko and Argerich. When he returned to play in Singapore three years ago, I decided to give his performance a miss, since he was playing Mozart. Who else but Uchida plays Mozart these days, I then wondered? (I have since humbly learned otherwise, of course.) My parents went, however. From their report that he was wearing gloves — a sure sign of finger troubles — I was not entirely convinced to go this year (Mozart, again!). Furthermore, I wanted to preserve that good memory of his playing; why mar a wonderful impression with a possibly poorer representation, slowed by age and arthritis? But seeing as I’d never know when I would get to hear Fou Ts’ong play ‘live’ again, I went for the Mozart concerto this one time. As it turned out, was I ever more wrong in my life.

Some of Fou Ts’ong’s students in Shanghai have taken to calling him “Grandmaster Fou” (傅爷, alternatively interpreted as “Grandfather Fou”); a nickname that the master had mentioned he is not too fond of, but is letting it slide. Yet, “Grandmaster” was what came to mind when I watched him walk onstage: dressed neatly and conservatively in a black ensemble that resembled what older patriarchs of Chinese clans would wear, he was stooped slightly at the neck but nevertheless spritely in his steps. Even from a distance, his fingers looked knobbly and stiff, and Fou Ts’ong himself had talked openly about the tendinitis that plagued his fingers for many years. True enough, he had to wring his hands a few times to get them going, and the opening of the Mozart concerto required a bit of effort, even though he did not miss any notes, and his timing and rhythm were still impeccable.

fou tsong
Fou Ts’ong has always been a beloved icon of the Chinese people, especially those with ties to mainland China in the sixties — he came to embody both the hopes and tragedies of their struggles during the Cultural Revolution. Born in 1934 into a literati family, Fou Ts’ong started learning piano in his late teens from the director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Mario Paci, himself a student of Liszt’s own pupil. After obtaining permission from the state to further his studies in Poland, in 1955 Fou Ts’ong won third prize in the International Chopin Competition, after Adam Harasiewicz and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Most importantly, the jury loved his interpretation so much that they awarded him the Special Prize for Mazurkas, because his intuitive grasp of Poland’s national dance — requiring a delicate balance of elegant finesse and heroic passion — left them in awe, even more so than the Polish pianists. And thus a legend was born.At the time, Fou Ts’ong was one of China’s finest musical exports. However, while studying in Poland, relations between the pianist and the leftist Communist party of China soured when his father, Fou Lei, was accused of being a right-wing supporter and was persecuted. In 1958, amidst increasing political tension in China, Fou Ts’ong was forced to flee Poland — narrowly escaping arrest by the Chinese consul — and sought asylum in London. He was branded a traitor by China and lived in exile for a decade, unable to return; in the process he became a British citizen. Both his parents committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution in 1966, and only in 1978 was Fou Ts’ong “pardoned” by the Communist regime and allowed to return to his homeland. He has since visited China regularly to teach in masterclasses and to perform, but remains based in London.Since then, Fou Ts’ong has wisely distanced himself from politics, at the same time shying away from media attention, even as he continued to concertise widely in Europe and Asia. He made a distinctive name for himself as one of the top interpreters of Classical and Romantic repertoire, namely Chopin, Debussy, Mozart, Schubert, Haydn and Beethoven. His Scarlatti were also rare gems when one could find them. Another quirk he became famous for was his habit of practising eight to ten hours a day, uninterrupted, on the piano. His fastidiousness, faithfulness to the original manuscripts, and a lyrical and personal style, has led to his Chinese moniker “poet of the piano”. How fitting, then, that the same moniker in the Western world is usually used to describe Chopin himself.A fiercely private person away from the concert stage, Fou Ts’ong nonetheless made fast friends with movers and shakers in the classical music world, among them Martha Argerich, Jacqueline du Pre, Daniel Barenboim, Radu Lupu, and Leon Fleisher. He has been invited to judge at renowned competitions, most prominently the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition (thrice), and the International Chopin Piano Competition in Poland (twice, in 1985 and 2010). His discography, mostly made before the turn of the century, is far from exhaustive, but profuse enough to titillate the tastebuds of audiophiles. Regrettably, many of these old recordings are difficult to find in record stores nowadays. In a recent interview with a Chinese magazine he professed that he does not do recordings anymore for “various reasons” that he demurred from discussing. These days, he still practises a punishing six to eight hours a day, and divides his time between concertising and teaching at the International Foundation for young pianists at Como, Italy, and at the Shanghai Conservatory, and various other masterclasses. A very hectic schedule for an eighty-year-old, indeed!

From then on, it got better and better, almost like a well-oiled machine that just needed a bit of a kick to get going. The strain visibly melted away, and in between nodding and shaking his head at various points, his fingers bespoke volumes. The beauty of Fou Ts’ong’s clear and lyrical tone was the stuff of legend, and this performance was no different. Mozart came alive in subject and countersubject; the pianist’s interaction with the orchestra, under the direction of Lan Shui, could be best described as repartee between two jovial gentlemen, at times laughing together, at other times lobbing conversation to and fro. Mozart’s mastery of orchestration is uncanny, and his writing is such that the ensemble is perfectly balanced. To this end Shui must be lauded on being sensible, not only in using Mozart’s exact instrumentation, but also in being able to balance the orchestra with the piano so that at no point in time was the piano overpowered. Yet, when the pianist entered he was undeniably the star of the show without sacrificing orchestral power. This fine balance was music to my ears and, before long, the pianist was near the end of the cadenza. As I watched Fou Ts’ong play the trill and look up at Shui so they could bring the orchestra and piano together for the final tutti, I felt a sense of wonderment at the master’s humility in willing to subvert a soloist’s pride to serve the greater musical ideal of the composer, for in his mature concertos Mozart wrote for the piano as part of an ensemble, rather than soloist and orchestra. The intent of the composer is what drives Fou Ts’ong’s music. He once expressed, “I am an evangelist of music. The composers are gods; their manuscripts are my bibles”.

I had heard this piano concerto in passing perhaps once or twice, when I was flipping through Jos van Immerseel’s complete Mozart piano concerto cycle on fortepiano. But nothing had prepared me for the depth of emotion in just the beginning of the second movement: by the end of the first phrase I was virtually on the brink of tears. The program notes quote music critic Louis Biancolli as describing this movement as “an indefinable sorrow, hopeless yet exquisite, clutches the heart…” How apt! Fou Ts’ong played the first phrase with such intuitive sensitivity and remarkable pathos, that it was as if he was compressing his entire life’s anguish, sorrow, disappointment and despair into just a few notes. The sudden outpouring of grief and melancholy was so concentrated and unexpected that my unprepared brain was shocked into nothingness and I felt, for the first time in my life, a kind of resonance with Mozart’s music on a basic human level. And to prove that this was not just a fluke, at the recapitulation of the first theme, I felt the chills in my spine again. This time, even though my mind was prepared, the same nuances again brought tears to my eyes. This inexplicable power to connect with humanity must be why Fou Ts’ong was, and still is, one of the most respected pianists of his generation.

The scene changed abruptly as we approached the third movement. Dispelling the sombre reflective mood of the second movement, Fou Ts’ong launched into a series of runs and arpeggios that had me worrying again about rhythm and tempo under his rheumatic joints. That concern was unfounded, however, when he paused at a particularly loud note that rang out clearly above the orchestra. That note, seemingly, was a focus around which he gathered his musical prowess. As he launched into the next run of notes, the image in front of me shifted — I was seated to the side, behind him so I could watch his hands — and suddenly, through a hazy veil, I glimpsed an image of a much younger pianist at the piano, glittering with confidence, fingers flying over the keyboard effortlessly. Whatever sorcery Fou Ts’ong had used to create this effect, it could only have come from his playing. The spell was so complete that I could easily see his younger self seated at the piano, playing a Mozart that was young, joyful, and ebullient: the accomplished and happy Mozart who wrote the concerto.

And finally, I understood. The master has attained the highest level of musical interpretation: that of total fusion with the composer’s music, borne from an utmost understanding of not only the composer and the instrument, but his music, as well as the inner workings of all music and its relation to the human condition. Fou Ts’ong has understood music, just like what his father had admonished before he left for his studies in Poland: “Before you can be a good pianist, you must be a good musician; before that you must be a good artist; but first and foremost, before all that, you must find it in yourself to be an upright person.” The importance of humanity before all music has been understood by few in the history of music, and I would not hesitate to add Fou Ts’ong to that list. “I feel that I am only beginning to understand music after the age of sixty,” the master had said. As the concerto ended, what stood before the audience was once again an eighty-year-old pianist taking his bows and shuffling offstage. Many younger pianists can play faster and harder, and roll off technically challenging works, but only a pianist of the highest caliber, with a lifetime of experience and maturity, is able to free music from the confines of the physical realm, bend it to his will, and give us a spellbinding performance that transcends time and space. And for that enlightenment, I am forever grateful, Grandmaster Fou.

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