Mining the Goldbergs: An Interview with Chiyan Wong | The Flying Inkpot
The Goldberg Variations: Piano Recital by Chiyan WongSunday 31 Oct 2021
Esplanade Concert Hall
RAVEL – Prelude and Minuet from Le Tombeau de Couperin
BACH – Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (ed. Busoni / Wong)
CHOPIN – Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 63 No. 3
BUSONI – Nine Variations on a Chopin Prelude, BV 213a 
(Programme subject to change at the artist’s discretion)
Hong Kong-born and Berlin-based pianist Chiyan Wong made us sit up and pay attention when he made his Singapore debut at the 19th Singapore International Piano Festival in 2012. He returns this October with an intriguing programme that is also the focus of his critically acclaimed album. Aileen Tang speaks to him to find out more about it as well as what performing in Asia personally means to him.
The Flying Inkpot: Your 2nd album – J.S. BACH-BUSONI Goldberg Variations released this January – generated a lot of interest about Busoni’s edition of the Goldberg Variations, with some detractors bristling at Busoni’s abridged version. What do you think are the main issues – or edits – that have caused such debates and what is your personal response?
Chiyan Wong: I think debates and issues are wonderful in that they stimulate us to reconsider our response to works which have, over the course of time, been exposed to such a dizzying array of different responses – both in terms of performances, as well as writings about it – that one can feel quite overburdened. In a way, the Busoni edition is but one of three reference points for which I derived my own ‘edition’ of “the Goldbergs”, with the other two being the so-named original text (“Urtext”) and an edition which is equally insightful – that by the American harpsichordist, Ralph Kirkpatrick. I am drawn to all of them for different reasons, and paradoxically, feel compelled to move away from all of them too! If any curious listener follows the Busoni edition with my performance, they will discover that I’m not following a lot of the suggestions, and instead pay respect to the “Urtext”, or the Kirkpatrick edition. My intention is to simply celebrate Bach’s music through the piano.
TFI: We know you’ve had a strong interest in composition, so is Chiyan Wong a composer too?
CW: Chiyan Wong isn’t a composer! He is curious how certain notes are formed, whether they are the premises set out by Bach, and how he moves in and beyond these premises. This is also the case in the delicious, artificial world of Ravel – “artifice” is often seen to be derogatory, but Ravel’s music is often an ornately constructed artifice, one which tells you more about reality than perhaps reality itself. Busoni’s music just allows you to see musical development as one continuum, where Bach’s legacy is but an as-yet-incomplete circle, from which composers, still unborn, will continue to draw from.
TFI: You were born in Hong Kong, then moved to the UK, and are now based in Berlin. Do you still identity strongly with your Hong Kong roots? How Asian are you?
CW: I don’t quite know what constitutes Asian, although as a child, I certainly looked in awe at the musical achievements of two Asian pianists: Kun-Woo Paik and Fou Ts’ong. Certainly despite the distinctness of their sonority, they shared a virtue, in that they always carried a glow of humility towards their craft. But that’s not particularly “Asian” – I think the pianists that I look to as references, such as Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Mikhail Pletnev, they possess it too.
I certainly feel that “home” is Hong Kong, in the way that my heart beats faster whenever the plane approaches the Chek Lap Kok Airport. Being away from Hong Kong has drawn me, perhaps, closer to it.
TFI: You performed in Hong Kong this April and you’ll be back to perform in Singapore this month. What does it mean for you personally to be coming back to Asia to perform?
CW: I left Asia at a relatively early age, so returning sometimes makes me feel like being a child again.
During these uncertain times, it is incredibly courageous of Lionel Choi of Altenburg Arts to put on these concerts at this moment, and I appreciate all the administrative hurdle-jumping that is necessary to enable this to take place.
TFI: You performed at the Singapore International Piano Festival in 2012 and 2017, and with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 2016 – so you’re no stranger to Singapore audiences! Can you tell us more about the programme that you’ll be performing in Singapore on 31 Oct?
CW: I think that with the pandemic, a new paradigm is starting to form. It’s one of serenity, of lightness. It’s also an age of being a collective – of the “individual” stepping back, and being a listener. That’s why this recital is one that eschews “demonstration” of any kind, and instead of trying to “point out” the differences of each individual represented in the programme, it shines a light on them, as a single organism.
TFI: What have been some of your fondest memories of Singapore? Is there anything that you’re looking forward to revisiting or re-experiencing this time round?
CW: Performing Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto in 2016 at the Esplanade with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra was a thrill, as well as my first visit in 2012. I actually spent one year as an 8-year-old in Singapore! I was a student at ACS and was introduced to very Singaporean TV shows and cartoons, from Phua Chu Kang to the Mr. Kiasu comic series. I also remember fondly Borders bookstore, where people could sit with books for hours on end.
TFI: What drives you?
CW: Opening a page of music, or lifting the piano lid every day fills me with wonder. The wonder drives me because I believe that it only reveals itself to me, with the knowing that with work and patience, it will be passed on to others.
Tickets for The Goldberg Variations: Piano Recital by Chiyan Wong are available at SISTIC
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