January 13, 2014

Four Sides to a Concert – Critics take on Fou Ts’ong’s Mozart

Four Sides to a Concert – Critics take on Fou Ts’ong’s Mozart

It all started out with an email from the PianoManiac sometime last October, suggesting that “all of us write a review of the Mozart Concerto played by Fou Ts’ong, and see if we agree or differ,” after finding out that all four of us were attending the performance. We were to submit our reviews within three days of the performance, and those would get published on his blog and mine.

the 4 of us before the concert

So on the 11th of January 2014, four music critics witnessed Chinese pianist and soon-to-be-octogenarian Fou Ts’ong perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K488, and here are the views on his performance:

Chang Tou Liang is a doctor by profession, the classical music reviewer of The Straits Times, and the founder-editor of Pianomania (see link above). This is an excerpt from the full review found here.

Three landmarks or milestones were celebrated in this evening’s concert. The obvious one was the 150th birth anniversary of German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949) around which a mini festival was built. Another was the coming 80th birthday of Fou Ts’ong, the first Chinese and Asian pianist to make a mark in the West, by winning 3rd Prize in the Chopin International Piano Competition in 1955. Sporting a full head of jet black hair, he did not look like an octogenarian. His gait was slower than before but maintained a dignity which always distinguished this patrician among pianists. His playing in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 in A major (K.488) seemed to roll back the years. He did not project a big sound, but that was not necessary for Mozart in any case. His pearly tone and limpid runs in the faster outer movements, free of arthritic afflictions, were proof that all his faculties were gloriously intact. The Adagio slow movement brought out the most beautiful legato playing, the tragic lilting air being the work’s emotional high point, before fluently letting rip in the exciting finale. The audience yearned for an encore, but sadly there was none. However they could console themselves for having heard the finest of the three Esplanade appearances by Fou playing Mozart concertos. He seemed to find a second wind in the Indian summer of an illustrious career.

Kevin Tan is a well-known constitutional lawyer, historian, hi-fi aficionado and musicophile, former President of the Singapore Heritage Society, and former classical critic of the BigO magazine.

As the lights dimmed, out walked a man too young to be Fou Ts’ong. He proceeded to announce the impending performance by Fou Ts’ong and urge the audience to join the SSO in wishing Fou Ts’ong a Happy 80th Birthday. Did a quick check – Fou was born on the 10th of March in Shanghai – so he was two months shy of his ninth decade. From a distance, the lanky Fou Ts’ong did not look 80, but his gait and stooped shoulders gave him away. Hair slicked back and dressed in a black silk Chinese top, Fou made his way slowly to the piano, sat down and nodded his readiness to the conductor Lan Shui.

The orchestral introduction was taken slowly, the first indication that this was not to be a firecracker performance. Fou’s entry was muted and strangely lethargic and while he clearly had the measure of the music, he was not able to get all his cylinders firing. Age had clearly caught up with the old magician. The legendary touch and sound were still there, but in flashes rather than in swathes. Every so often, one heard the Fou Ts’ong of old – urbane, cultured, manicured, slightly mischievous, and just-so – but not enough of it.

The sublime second movement was little better, but far more acceptable, as Fou coaxed a wide range of sounds and shades from the piano. Alas, the patchiness of the first movement persisted and at points, the pace began to sag and teetered on the brink of somnolence. Fou appeared to be having some problem with his right hand as his otherwise pristine runs would mysteriously slosh about in muddiness from time to time. It did not help that the orchestra was often too loud and threaten to drown Fou out. But in the third movement, Fou was 40 again. It was as if the first movements were little more than warm-up sessions for this finale which he took at breath-taking pace. I almost dared not breath, for fear that he could not sustain the tempo, but Fou had clearly found his momentum and he sailed – dare I say ‘effortlessly’ – through to the end in a triumph of prestidigitation. It was the only movement where both pianist and orchestra seemed to be ad idem, and as the last notes of the orchestra died away, the audience roared lustily. Maybe Sir Thomas Beecham was right after all, so long as you start together and end together, the public will think it a good performance.

 Phan Ming Yen is a self-professed retired music critic, a lecturer at Republic Polytechnic where he is pursuing a doctoral thesis in writing (hence the poetry). In his previous lives, he was music critic for The Straits Times, Editor of The Arts Magazine, and Programme Director of The Arts House. He is the author of the book of short stories “That Night On The Beach”. His review is divided into two parts, a pReview written before the performance as a prediction, and a reView in a poem. 

The original pReview:

 “In a performance which could otherwise have been described as subdued, Fou eschewed the rhythmic idiosyncracies and dynamic excesses which sometimes marred his earlier recordings and exchanged it for subtle shifts in tonal nuances, tautly shaped phrasing and well-controlled tempi. 50 years earlier, Fou may (and occasion did) have delivered a Mozart reminiscent of the parody portrayed in the film Amadeus but now, it was Mozart viewed through the lens of emotion recollected in tranquility as it were.”

and the reView (after Xu Zhimou’s Saying Goodbye to Cambridge):

Listening to Fou Ts’ong with Mozart

Like a scholar from the past he leaves,
Just like the gentleman he is when he earlier walked on;
he smiles softly to the audience
Or perhaps to the memory of a Western sky.

Those soft hued notes that floated up from the keyboard
Are like young brides in the setting sun;
The lightness of their bodies
Keeps echoing in my heart.

The Adagio that is like a siciliana
moves leisurely as if in reverie;
I am glad for such a pastoral mood,
a gentle flow within the river of Time

That modulation within those shades of notes
Holds not clear hope, but a broken dream
Crumpled within a body of sound,
Where forgotten quavers settle.

To search for that dream? He runs with the Allegro Assai,
Upwards with scales and broken octaves,
That burst from the stardom of his youth,
a desperate clutch for the past

Yet, now he cannot play too fast,
perhaps peace is indeed his farewell music;
fortes are now silent for him,
For Mozart this evening is mezzo forte, mezzo piano

Quietly he leaves,
Just as quietly as he came;
Gently with a nod of his head,
He does not give away a single encore.

Finally, my own review of the performance, contrasted a review of Patsy Toh’s recital at NAFA on 6th of January 2014:

They say that opposites attract, and that cannot be more true in the case of husband-and-wife pianists Fou Ts’ong and Patsy Toh’s playing styles. The elderly couple was here in Singapore to perform and teach; Toh played a recital of Schubert and Chopin at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ Lee Foundation Theatre last Monday evening, while last night Fou was accompanied by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra at the Esplanade Concert Hall in a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K488.

Toh walked slowly onstage, her gait slightly uneven, and with some difficulty took a bow before readying herself. Her playing was poetic and lyrical, managing to make the showpieces sound non-virtuosic. The technique was obviously beneath her, as she glided through the difficult passages in Chopin’s Barcarolle and Fourth Scherzo with ease, delicately navigating through them without drawing any attention to the virtuosic writing. Instead, she drew attention to the countermelodies, gently coaxing them out while keeping the melody and accompaniment beneath. She was a picture of elegance and eloquence as she sat playing at the piano, still, unmoving, without any dramatic antics, letting her music express itself.

If Fou Ts’ong was a legend, his glory days were definitely behind him, his playing merely a shadow of better years past. Fou picked a slow tempo for the first movement and plodded along slowly with uneven notes, playing with what can only be described as fragile beauty. The orchestra, too, also sounded uninspired, letting him down with their nonchalant attitude. Perhaps it would have been better for an octet or chamber group to accompany him instead, as the orchestra was often much too loud when contrasted with his brittle and small sound.

The second movement was even slower and almost spiritual; in Fou’s reverie-like state and use of rubato, he seemed to be conveying some kind of sadness in regret or nostalgia. Unlike his wife, his gestures were extravagant, shaking his head and lifting his arms high as he played. The finale that followed was so surprisingly fast that one wondered if he could sustain the energy and tempo until the end. He kept up till the end, even speeding up. At the end if it all, the audience cheered and clapped, possibly out of relief, or happy to have watched the living legend perform in what may be one of his final performances.

In all, it was a most interesting and amusing exercise, with majority (3 out of 4) suggesting that Fou Ts’ong performed better in the years past. Till next time!

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