Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Music review: In semi-darkness, a good recital of Schumann, Tchaikovsky

Pianist Yang Shen.

By Greg Stepanich

Even the most devoted of piano fans could have been forgiven Saturday afternoon for taking a raincheck on a recital at the Steinway Gallery in Boca Raton.

Moments before Lynn University pedagogue and pianist Yang Shen took the stage in the small recital room, a lightning strike took out the power, leaving the gallery in a semi-darkness that soon became close because of the lack of air conditioning.

But esprit de corps won out over creature comforts, and a nice-sized house heard a solid, tasteful program of music by Schumann and Tchaikovsky. Shen is a thoroughly able pianist, technically accomplished and serious of purpose, and if her playing sometimes was more cautious than you had the feeling she was capable of, she did well by her program and her audience.

One of the ways she did that was by including the Dumka, Op. 59, of Tchaikovsky, who despite the deathlessness of the First Piano Concerto is not generally recognized as a composer for the piano. The Dumka, written in early 1886, is explicitly Russian in melody and mood, and its simple main theme is subjected to elaborate, virtuosic treatment as it proceeds.

Shen's focus here was on making a good case for the purity and beauty of the primary theme, and her playing was most effective early on in its first expansion. A dumka is a dance, and the more vigorous, rustic, major-key theme in the middle had color and power but not a lot of sparkle; Shen seemed more comfortable applying her lovely singing tone to the moody theme as it returned a few moments later.

She was able to raise plenty of sound from Tchaikovsky's often-awkward keyboard fireworks, and here, too, things were polished and precise rather than extravagant or dramatic. A careful performance, then, of this rarely heard piece, but the audience loved it, and Shen deserves much credit for programming it.

The other two works on her program were by Robert Schumann, beginning with this first published opus, the Abegg Variations, begun when the composer was still in his teens. Shen's clear, clean aesthetic served this well-wrought piece of Hausmusik admirably, and she made good distinctions between the moods of the variations.

The Abegg Variations calls for a lot of exercise-style passagework, which Shen dispatched with ease. But the final section, marked Vivace, was taken at a decidedly slower pace than that tempo marking would indicate, which made the ending pleasant and charming when it was really dazzle that was called for.

Shen closed her concert with Schumann's great Fantasy in C, Op. 17, a sonata in everything but name and one of the seminal works of the Romantic piano literature. Shen's technical strengths were well in evidence, beginning with the rolling left-hand sixteenth-notes that sounded like a controlled roar, just as they should, with no hint of how tricky they are to play. That first movement had a strong sense of tension, too, of the music threatening to burst its bounds, and Shen made good use of the wide contrasts in the movement without letting it lose coherence.

The big leaps of the second movement's opening rolling chords didn't seem to cause her any problems, and she handled both the subsequent bluff march and acrobatic jumps of its last pages with a steady, accurate hand. The dreamy final movement was perhaps a little too dreamy; it needed a bit more inner fire to make the big chordal climaxes, which Shen built toward with skill, believable as a logical consequence of all that brooding.

In general, Shen played this difficult work very well, with thorough preparation for its challenges evident in every bar. What it was lacking was a stronger feeling of improvisation and surprise, a deeper feeling of exuberance and emotion. Yet the less-than-optimal performing conditions Saturday evening may have led Shen into more restricted territory than she otherwise would have explored.

I have enjoyed her work before, and it would be good to hear her again, in full stage light and cooler temperatures.

The next concert in the Piano Lovers series at the Steinway Gallery in Boca Raton will feature the American pianist Christopher Atzinger, who currently teaches at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Atzinger will play the late Op. 116 Fantasies of Johannes Brahms and the epic B-flat major Sonata, D. 960, of Franz Schubert. The recital is set for 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4. Tickets: $20 in advance, $25 at the door. For more information, call 929-6633 or visit

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