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RECITAL REVIEW

Pianist Ching-Un Hu

HAUNTING RACHMANINOFF WORKS IN HU'S MAO RECITAL

by Terry McNeill
Thursday, February 8, 2018

Ching-Yun Hu made a return Music at Oakmont appearance Feb. 8 in Berger Auditorium, reprising a recital she made in the same hall four years ago. Many of the recital’s trappings were the same, but the music Ms. Hu chose to play was decidedly different.

All afternoon the pianist was in an aggressive and speedy mood, beginning with the complete Rachmaninoff Etudes Tableaux, Op. 39. These nine works from 1917 are far removed from the more popular studies from Op. 23 and 32, and mostly portray dark sonorities in knotty figurations and powerful rhythmic surges. Missing throughout the set was a warm piano sound, contributed to by the instrument’s bright top-end and of course the composer’s constant fist fulls of notes. Lots of notes, but they were great notes, and building blocks for Mr. Hu’s dramatic contrasts and big chords.

Highlights for me were the long ending fermata in the opening C Minor; the lyrical “wind and water” voicing of the A Minor (No. 2, that Respighi orchestrated so mysteriously); the accurate heraldic skips and doubled staccato chords in the allegro molto; the left-hand rumbles and graded ritards in the E-Flat Major appassionato; and finally the improvisatory and pianistic playing and dissimilar repeats in the A Minor allegro. Repeats that were varied, a welcome romantic pianism touch.

These were formidable short “tone poems” played well with the needed speed and momentum. This approach continued after intermission with Earl Wild’s Gershwin transcriptions – Embraceable You, Fascinatin’ Rhythm and the happiest of the three, I Got Rhythm. Each was a tour de force in quick scales and contrasts – jazz, a bit of Ravel, many arpeggios. The open textures and rolled chords revealed the piano going out-of-tune in the treble.

Chopin’s Op. 2 Variations on the “La Chi Darem La Mano” theme from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni was next, a substitute for an Alkan piece. The playing had the easy charm and tour de force of scale passages characteristic of early Chopin and Thalberg, with legato and non-legato passages vying vigorously. It was the most bewitching piece in the recital.

Continuing the program’s focus on pianistic velocity were two Kapustin Concert Etudes from Op. 40. These were both played with a fiery technique, the first in presto revolving phrases, and the second with parts languorously sounding like Palm Court music from the 1950s. Ms. Hu’s command of tsunamis of notes was complete and the offbeat accents and intricate harmonies posed no difficulty for her. The program’s second standing ovation ensued, though not vociferous.

Prior to an encore (Rachmaninoff’s Op. 21 Lilacs) Ms. Hu announced that she was shortly to record an all-Rachmaninoff CD. The melancholic Lilacs was reminiscent of Chopin and was played vividly with a hazy use of damper pedal.