- What a Pianist Should Not Do

- What a Pianist Should Not Do

Paul Boekkooi reviews Chung Wang’s recent performance with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra.

What a pianist should not do to others and audiences alike.  

Showmanship has since earlier times always been part of the performance traditions of Classical music. During the 20th century, as well as in our own, the level of virtuosity of some of the greatest of soloists and lesser ones who are in the public eye, has often sidestepped and thus ignored the intentions the composer originally might have envisaged while writing a concerto or a solo piece.

On 2 & 3 June the Chinese born pianist Chun Wang (20) was the soloist in the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 during a symphony concert presented by the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, with their principal guest conductor, Bernhard Gueller, on the podium. South African audiences might well remember Wang. He won the third prize during the Unisa International Piano Competition of 2008 – the year in which Ben Schoeman won the coveted gold medal.

Chun Wang’s performance of it on the Wednesday evening (2 June) was one of the most vulgar performances of this work I’ve ever had the misfortune to hear. It’s after all a French composition and one which (I’ll easily confess) is one that is quite difficult to gauge. On some pages during the opening movement, Andante sostenuto, it swaggers with tremendous self-importance only to be deflated by delicious, gossamer-light piano writing and followed cheekily by mock-Lisztian virtuosity. The middle movement, Allegro scherzando, can’t fail to elicit a smile due to the level of timeless grace it reflects.

In any performance where stylistic richness and individuality stands central, one should hear more sparkling articulation and constant poetic nuances to indicate that there is no want of musical imagination. The first movement’s piano sound was often too resonant too soon. It left us with overblown effects, killing the composer’s subtle view of noble Baroque procedures which an interpreter with real insight can reflect with a canny dualism.

Wang approached the composer’s G minor war-horse with speed, a constant loudness, and little respect for the conductor and the orchestra’s participation in the process of achieving a true concerto in the original sense of the word. It means merely a type of work where several performers combine contrasted forces, to make ‘a concerted effort’ to place the audience in awe or just to entertain them. Wang seemed to be totally self-centred. The result was that little of the score’s finer details, like the woodwind/piano exchanges, were done with any kind of chamber-like intimacy.

While Wang’s tempo of the second movement was already too hectic for the orchestra to follow comfortably (the strings really sounded messy in these circumstances), the finale, marked Presto, put Wang in overdrive, with the result that the orchestra and the soloists were seldom in sync in a cogent way.

By playing faster and louder than any sensitive pianist would do, Wang only proved that he’s a law unto himself through neglecting and even ignoring the artistic wellness of the conductor and his musicians. Bernard Gueller is too courteous a man to have gone on the warpath with this soloist, but he certainly could have refused to perform the work at the tempo the soloist enforced on him and the orchestra.

I’m sure Chung Wang thinks he has the right to dictate the way he wants to perform concertos. Perhaps he sees his compatriot Lang Lang as a guiding light. KykNet recently broadcast a performance by the latter of a Mendelssohn piano concerto, with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, Leipzig and Riccardo Chailly conducting. My, o my. The tempos were so deliberately fast and hackneyed, that the music sounded like a patient with an accelerated heartbeat. No charm, little musicality, but only a superficial search for instant gratification in the name of showmanship.

Chung Wang is not too young to realise what he should not do to other musicians, or especially not to a renowned conductor over three times his age.

And then, typically, the Linder audience awarded him a standing ovation at the end. For what? For the fact that he could play faster and louder? Or is it his hard, steely efficient technique?

Over my dead body I pray it can’t be the case. 

Paul Boekkooi is a highly experienced freelance classical music critic and journalist. The views and opinions expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website’s publishers.


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