Dynamic Duo: Angela Cheng and Alvin Chow at the Toronto Summer Music Festival
Review by Paul Merkley FRSC and David Richards
Toronto ON August 1st 2018
Angela Cheng and Alvin Chow; Photo credit: Catherine Willshire
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Angela Cheng and Alvin Chow performed a thrilling concert tonight. Cheng played solo in the first half, and after intermission they played four-hand and two-piano repertoire.
The concert began with Beethoven’s Sonata No.31 in A flat Major, Opus 110. Cheng’s greatest strength lies in the many colours she draws from the piano in every register and at every dynamic. Beethoven's late sonatas feature extremes of register, often juxtaposing the hands against each other. Cheng's technique is well suited to this repertoire. The pedalling is a challenge for pianists who favour harmonic pedal and melodic legato because Beethoven's formative experience as a composer for piano had the pedals split between the two hands, one for the treble and one for the bass, so that the bass could be sustained without obscuring or smudging the treble. On modern instruments this is not possible and a performer must make choices and navigate the textures in a way that satisfies the requirements for legato but preserves the transparency in the right hand. This is especially difficult in the fugue sections of the final movement.
Cheng performed Chopin's first ballade, Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23 very expressively and again with the coloristic palette that brought the work to life. The panoply of rhythmic events was well presented and the harmonic nuances well brought out, including the indirect articulation of tonality. (The ballade begins on the Neapolitan chord.) Here Cheng’s best playing was in the softer, lyrical sections, when she coaxed the sounds she wanted out of the piano. The performance was moving.
As compelling as the first half was, the second half was even better. After intermission Cheng and Chow gave an impressive rendering of Debussy's Petite Suite for four hands. Again the many changes in colours, dynamics, and tempo came out very clearly. The duo was expressive and sensitive to the musical details. I know this work well because it is core repertoire for the budding Richards-Merkley duo. This evening’s performance has inspired me to practise this piece more, and since I am the ‘secondo’, to give my partner more room by leaning to the left more. In the hands of Cheng and Chow, Debussy’s music sparkled, danced, and popped out of the box, just as it supposed to.
The precise co-ordination of the two players as an ensemble was evident in their playing of Milhaud's arrangement for two pianos of two of his incidental theatre pieces, Scaramouche, Op. 165b. They executed the Brazilian rhythms to best effect. My four-hand partner remarked that the program was well shaped, and indeed it built well, from Beethoven’s Opus 110 and Chopin’s first ballade through the Debussy and to the theatrical, Latin Scaramouche.
The pair’s performance of Ravel's La Valse was brilliant. The rhythmic nuances, creeping bass, percussive, dissonant effects, and the exuberance all shone through in their playing. It was easy to hear how Ravel thought this would be good music for the Ballets Russes, and why Diaghilev, no doubt fearing its complexity, refused it. Cheng and Chow delighted the packed house with Ravel’s work, and performed a four hand movement from Fauré’s Dolly Suite as an encore. Altogether it was a wonderful evening.