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Old made new

West Australian Academy of Performing Arts: “Beethoven: Moonlight and Pathétique” ⋅
Richard Gill Auditorium, April 12 ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅

Charisma is a slippery thing, impossible to define, but you know it when you’re in its presence. Mike Cheng-Yu Lee, dressed simply and evincing nothing more than a gentle friendliness, stepped up to the fortepiano and instantly had the audience in the palm of his hand from beginning to end. Playing without a score throughout, his concentration was intense, and the combination of familiar music and somewhat unusual instrument made for a fresh and most rewarding experience.

Lee is currently director of the Australian National University’s Keyboard Institute – the largest collection of historical pianos in the southern hemisphere. On this occasion he was showcasing one of the historical instruments in WAAPA’s expansive keyboard collection in an all-Beethoven program.

The instrument in question – the WA Academy of Performing Art’s McNulty-Walter fortepiano (1805) – is a replica by modern maker Paul McNulty  of a Viennese original by Anton Walter. Lacking the pedals of a modern piano, the dynamics of this version is controlled by knee levers, and notes are generally less sustained, leading to a somewhat clipped sound, but generally sounding completely different to a harpsichord.

Along with the famous Pathétique and Moonlight sonatas headlining the bill, other pieces by Beethoven were included. The first were the six short movements of the Bagatelles Op 126, from quite late in Beethoven’s career (1825) and covering a range of tempi and feelings which allowed the audience to appreciate the style and nature of the instrument and its potentialities. Every note was heard distinctively. Lee was able to produce noticeably varied dynamics, especially in the last two movements, filling the room with robust sound and tapering the sound down to a veritable whisper.

The Grande sonata pathétique, or Sonata in C minor Op 13, is of course one of the most familiar pieces in the classical repertoire, but it was like hearing it anew. In some ways, Lee brought out the darker side of this with an almost tortured sound to the introductory passage followed by sustained precise attack. The Adagio cantabile contrasted with gentle warmth but no sentimentality, with just the slightest pause before launching into the Rondo: allegro with flying fingers and a crisp finish.

After an interval we heard the Sonata in E minor Op 90, with its curiously and elaborately named two movements; the first was definitely played with the specified liveliness, feeling and expression throughout, and a lesson in dynamic effects. The second, marked by the composer as ‘not too fast and very song-like’, was indeed that, with soothing rippling effects and utterly lyrical withal.

It is a toss-up as to whether the Sonata in C sharp minor (Op 27 No 2) Quasi una fantasia but known as the Moonlight Sonata is more famous than the Pathétique, but in both cases Lee’s presentation brought something new. The first movement was played relatively slowly, making it somewhat of a cloudier moonlight than is usual, while the allegretto was perhaps a little faster, and livelier. The Presto agitato lived up to its description with quite a furious attack, but with every note clearly articulated and another satisfyingly concise ending.

Pictured top: The charisma of Mike Cheng-Yu Lee.

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