Chiyan Wong at St Martin in the Fields for the Concordia Foundation.
Bach:Goldberg Variations BWV 988 (after the Busoni edition)
What a treat today in this “Wonderful Town” to quote Simon Rattle .
A real thinking musician presenting one of the greatest works ever written for the keyboard.
To a packed out audience in St Martin in the Fields that had taken a break from the frantic pre-Christmas rush to spend an hour in the presence of that sublime master: J.S.Bach.
Chiyan is one of those totally dedicated musicians that whatever he plays is convincing and so it was only with a little trepidation that I ventured today to hear him present the Busoni edition of this masterwork.
Gone is the era of the rather inflated transcriptions of Busoni and the like .
We live in an era of historic instruments and research into the original scores and origins of these works.
But it was after all Mendelssohn who discovered and revealed to the world the masterpieces of J.S. Bach still hidden away in the archives ,and Busoni who brought the great organ works into the concert hall.
Many of these great works can be played in any combination and I have heard the Goldberg variations in various string groups and of course from many of the great musicians both past and present, all totally different one from the other .
I remember in 1991 inviting Rosalyn Tureck to return to the concert stage after years spent away from her doting public in order to study in depth the composer of which Harold Schonberg,the great american musicologist and critic, described as the ” High Priestess of Bach.”
I invited only a month later Tatyana Nikolaeva to play the same work and was greatly criticised for not having more interesting programmes!
They were both totally different but very great performances.
Nikolaeva more human and warm.
Tureck like a rock of superhuman intellect and total dedication to what she knew were the composers wishes.
The performance I most remember was for the magical appearance of the aria after the quodlibet and was by Andre Tchaikowsky.
Leaving the pedal on the final G of the last variation and then allowing the aria to float on it as if like a magical apparition was truly an unforgettable moment .
This much missed artist ,who died so young, leaving his skull with all his impish intelligent humour to the Royal Shakespeare Company for use in Hamlet.
It was too fragile to be used and I am sure Andre would have much enjoyed this strange ironic twist of fate.
Recently of course we have had the beautifully musical performances of Angela Hewitt where the song and the dance are the principal motivation.
As with the latest great performance from the young Beatrice Rana, a BBC young generation artist who has already recorded Tchaikowsky 1 and Prokofiev 2 with Pappano.
Chiyan Wong is one of the new generation of artists trained from a very early age in England and that are now taking the music world by storm.
England always criticised for not providing the same sort of training in childhood as in the countries of the East or in America.
Thanks to Chethams,Purcell and Menuhin Schools this has now all changed .
Chiyan studied from the age of 12 at Chethams and then at the Royal Northern College of Music under Norma Fisher .
Still only in his 20’s he has a curriculum that includes many prestigious prizes :Hattori Foundation,Jaques Samuel, Horowitz competition in the Ukraine and the Premio Liszt in Parma.
After recent performances of Prokofiev 2 in Singapore and Liszt in Hong Kong he was dashing back after his performance today to the Hong Kong Philharmonic to play the Liszt Fantasy for the New Year Festivities
Total command and clarity were the impressive hallmark of this very interesting performance.
Busoni edition yes but played with the intelligence and sensibility of a young man of today.
Chiyan Wong confided that he was always daunted by the thought of performing this monumental work and asked me if I would turn pages for him. “Why the music Chiyan you are a big lad now!”
I regretted saying it ,but back came the reply that he did not need it after all.
Exactly as Rosalyn Tureck had done in Florence all those years ago.
About to cancel the performance (she well into her 80’s ) we told her that the head of Deutsche Grammophon had especially flown in to hear her .
She not only played but discarded the cards she kept as a pro memoria in the piano .
She too even after a long career had been daunted by the idea of performing this monumental work.
Chiyan appeared without the score and proceeded to hold his audience in his hands for a totally convincing and in many ways masterly account of this very discreetly tainted Busoni edition.
Luckily Chiyan too had decided that Busoni’s triumphant reappearance of the Aria after the Quodlibet was really no longer in style with our present day thinking and respectful knowledge of Bach’s thoughts and so Chiyan had in the Busoni tradition composed a modified equally original version of the Aria in style with both Bach and Busoni!
Hats off to this thinking musician to have found his own solution ,respectful to both Bach and Busoni.
The opening Aria played with just that right amount of personal rubato that allowed the music to breathe and live so touchingly but with dignity never falling into sentimentality.
Infact it was in the slower more lyrical variations that Chiyan really excelled with so many really beautiful things where the part playing right from the second variation was so telling and expressive.
His insistence on non legato almost staccato whilst admirable did mean that the sense of line and admirable rhythmic impetus was slightly colourless.
I can understand his reasoning for contrasting the lyrical with the almost etude type writing but feel that a little more weight would have allowed more real shaping on this very fine Steinway at St Martins.
The 19th variation that Busoni marks Allegretto piacevole was played slower with a very telling light staccato that lead into more serious Busoni territory.
The 20th variation played with pedal that made it sound most unexpectedly like a music box especially for the first of the variations that leads to the build up and the explosion of the 29th .
But in Busoni’s hands he had obviously seen the 22nd variation “alla breve” as a crucial point of arrival played with all the Busoni fanfares ablaze.
The 23rd variation almost descending into a Lisztian study gave way to a simple heart rending version of the Adagio, one of the most profound of Bach’s keyboard works, left to speak for itself in the genial hands of Busoni .
The contrast was tellingly found with his insistent non legato in the following variations but for my taste rather too staccato.
The transposition by Busoni into the higher part of the piano register in the trill variation that is n.28 left me a bit perplexed as to how Busoni could have perceived this almost Paganinian interlude before the magnificent explosion of the 29th.
Here Busoni’s rendition added great grandeur to the penultimate variation that can sometimes be a little helter skelter even in very illustrious hands.
Here he put the hand break on to great effect.
Of course the Quodlibet that is the 30th variation lead in Busoni’s hands to the triumphant reappearance of the Aria .
But as mentioned before Chiyan Wong had as a modern day musician understood that the Quodlibet was the point of arrival and that the gentle touching appearance of the Aria should appear as a dream and should not disturb the now slumbering insomniac count for whom they were composed.
Moments of total silence in which one could have heard a pin drop after the final chord of Chiyan’s Aria was the greatest compliment that one could have paid to the monumental performance offered by this extraordinary thinking musician.
Having touched the very hearts of a public that just sought refuge from the confusion of Christmas in Trafalgar Square today