Concert Review: Singapore International Piano Festival 2015 – Lukáš Vondráče

VondráčekSingapore International Piano Festival 2015 “Romantics & Nationalists”
Sunday, 28 June, 7.30pm
Victoria Concert Hall

Lukáš Vondráček, piano

BRAHMS: Piano Sonata No.3 in F minor, Op.5
SMETANA: Four Dances from Czech Dances, Book 2
Furiant • Cibulička (Little Onion) • Hulán (Lancer) • Skočná (Hop Dance)
SUK: Love Song, Op.7 no.1
MARTINŮ: Three Czech Dances, H.154
Obkročák (Stepping Dance) • Dupák (Stamping Dance) • Polka

Review by Soo Kian Hing

It has become an unofficial SIPF tradition to feature a lesser-known young pianist. In recent years, Yuja Wang and Benjamin Grosvenor made their SIPF debuts before other major cities got wind of them. Tonight’s ‘discovery’, though, was less of a newbie: at 29, Czech pianist Lukáš Vondráček is already a concert veteran, having made his first appearance with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and Vladimir Ashkenazy at fifteen. He has toured extensively and worked with a veritable list of who’s who in the contemporary orchestral scene.

brahms8yVondráček’s youthful appearance belies his steady composure at the piano. Taking time to prepare and wipe his fingers and the keyboard in between movements, his studied calm was key to delivering the third Brahms (right) sonata, which exuded youth and vigour whilst maintaining a formal, Classical structure. Brahms’ music is not finger-virtuosic in the style of Liszt or the Late Romantics, but requires its own brand of heavy-handed technique that balanced a German lyricism with a firm, stoic disposition. Vondráček controlled the sprawling notes and massive chords with ease, and the first movement was given a majestic and impassioned reading. Phrasing was generous and he allowed the musical idea to develop organically. Generally I found the slower movements well-played but wanting in pathos; perhaps that level of ennui might be absent from early Brahms, or perhaps Vondráček is still too young a pianist. In any case, the third movement was exceptional, and Brahms’ innate grasp of the dance idiom resonated with the pianist’s temperament very well. The final movement was exciting and rhythmically taut, showcasing the ‘Romantic’ side of the composer in grandiose style.

Being a Festival centred on Romantics and Nationalists, it is of course imperative that our Czech pianist champion the piano music of his own countrymen, much of which has been overlooked in favour of the Austro-Hungarian school, even as composers like Dvořák brought Czech music to international prominence.

smetanaBedřich Smetana (left) may be known best for his symphonic poem Má vlast and his opera The Bartered Bride, but he was actually one of the greatest Czech pianists of his day, opening a piano school and writing several original pieces for the piano. Like those of his contemporary and friend Franz Liszt, Smetana’s piano compositions were extremely virtuosic with an improvisatory leaning. Prague was campaigning for Czech independence from the Habsburg Empire, and Smetana, with his nationalistic streak, was considered the father of Czech music in his homeland. Towards the later part of his life, he wrote two books of Czech Dances; Vondráček gave us a taste of the hugely difficult music from the second book. Despite the extremely involved technique and exotic rhythms, the Dances are actually melodically attractive, and it is really unfathomable that Smetana’s piano music is not better known outside his native country.

sukJosef Suk (right) was Dvořák’s student and son-in-law; his Love Song, Op.7 No.1 was opulent and lushly romantic, full of populist sentimentality that would not be out of place in early-20th century salon music. Indeed, it was transcribed into a popular encore piece for violinists. Nonetheless the piece managed to avoid showy tawdriness, and Vondráček gave a lovely performance that had the audience refrain from applause for several moments. Martinů was Suk’s own pupil; his music was more progressive with complex harmonies and rhythms, though never bordering on atonality. Vondráček again played the technically challenging Three Czech Dances, H.154 with natural ease, ending the evening on a high note with the very fast and capricious Polka.

This evening was an eye-opener, providing a platform for exposing the local audience to Czech piano music, which till now is still only being performed regularly by Czech pianists. It would be wonderful if other pianists would make the effort to overcome the difficulties in the rhythm and technique, and incorporate these pieces into the standard repertoire! Vondráček played Mozart’s Sonata in C K330 for his encore, admitting that “it is not very Romantic”, but the sweet rendition provided a satisfying and succinct close to the Festival, cleansing the palate after a night of heavy Nationalism. Ironically, it was this simple familiar tune that was stuck in my head as I walked out of the hall. Perhaps a return to the Classical masters next year, then?

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