Concert Hall, Hong Kong City Hall / Hong Kong / April 26, 2021 / Ernest Wan /
The 32-year-old, Berlin-based pianist Chiyan Wong came back to his hometown of Hong Kong amid the pandemic to play a solo recital of a J S Bach-inspired programme, one that grew better and better as it progressed.
It opened with Felix Mendelssohn’s Prelude and Fugue in E minor, Op 35 No 1 (1837), which pays homage to Bach not only with its genre but also with its surprising inclusion of a chorale near the end. In Wong’s hands, the torrential prelude sounded suitably tumultuous and agitated, but the moody fugue, whose pages of accelerandi call for the highest level of control to achieve their cumulative and eventually cathartic effect, was let down by often lurching forward suddenly and impetuously. The pianist was perhaps so carried away by his passion that he skipped several bars of music in the middle.
The centrepiece of the programme was Bach’s Goldberg Variations edited by Ferruccio Busoni (1914), who omits as many as nine of the 30 variations in the original work, divides the remainder into groups and updates the keyboard writing for the modern piano. Wong adopted moderate tempi and played with much beauty of tone and contrapuntal clarity. For all its many tricky passages, the music never sounded virtuosic, but exuded a luminous serenity throughout; where it usually sounds dazzling and exciting, it now became shimmering and entrancing, especially in the later variations (20, 23, 26 and 28).
The best thing about the performance, however, was that it was presented at all, and not as a curiosity. Fidelity to “classical” musical texts having been a rarely questioned value for over half a century, Busoni’s unabashed makeover of the Goldberg Variations, had it not been so little known, would have been widely derided as a blasphemous anachronism. Yet Wong’s view that each score can evolve with each new performance is perfectly valid, and is borne out not just by his beautiful rendition of the Busoni text but by the numerous adjustments he made to it, especially in the final reprise of the theme, now so subdued as to suggest a distant echo.
Wong concluded the programme with Busoni’s celebrated 1893 arrangement of the chaconne from Bach’s D-minor partita for solo violin. Here he struck a balance between passion and control, and the music built up steadily towards its majestic close while showing no lack of contrast and drama along the way. A large-scale work such as this was scarcely needed for his excellent taste and execution to come through, though, as the brief encores amply demonstrated. In Busoni’s Turandots Frauengemach (1907) and one of Doming Lam’s Seven Popular Chinese Folk Songs (1962), which respectively use the melodies of Greensleeves and The School Boy, the frequent changes in register and texture were marvellously timed, to delightful, teasing effect. Yet such precise playing was so spontaneous as to sound like brilliant improvisations on familiar tunes, such as great composer-pianists of yore like Busoni himself would throw off.