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Tra Nguyen
Tra Nguyen

Concert review - Cheltenham

Cheltenham, United Kingdom: Sunday 23 October 2011

The elegant English spa town of Cheltenham is well known not only as an important horse racing venue, but also for its many major festivals: Literature, Jazz, Science and, most famous of all, its Music Festival, which has been a major event in the country's cultural life since 1945. Not so well known, but equally appreciated by its habitués, is the institution of Music at Park House. For over 24 years George and Yoko Mathers have been welcoming Cheltonians to their elegant home's splendid music room on Sunday afternoons, to hear over 300 chamber and instrumental music recitals. The atmosphere in this gold and chinoiserie-wallpapered venue is both relaxed and intimate, the performers often mingling with the guests at the interval, which in fine weather can be spent roaming the Mathers' lovely garden.

British-Vietnamese pianist Tra Nguyen has been a welcome regular at Park House recitals for several years. At her 2008 recital she introduced her audience to several very well received works by Raff and in this afternoon's programme his music again featured, rubbing shoulders with compositions by Schumann and Chopin.

Nguyen began her recital by saying that, mindful of the venue, her programme would concentrate on music of some intimacy.

The opening pair of pieces were two well known works by Schumann: the Arabesque op.18 and the Novellete Op.21 no.8. The familiar Arabesque in C is one of his most loved creations and here Nguyen treated us to a reading which contrasted the playful tenderness of the opening material with the quiet determination and hidden strength of the following section and then introduced a third mood into this mix of emotions: one of pensive thoughtfulness which pervaded the piece through to its end. At almost twice as long as the previous piece, the eighth and last of Schumann's Novelleten op.21 is a much more substantial and wide-ranging work which falls into two quite distinct parts. Nguyen's performance was characterised by a contained tempestuousness; intimate certainly, but no less passionate for all that. The drama of the opening quickly subsided into the robust playfulness and introspective musings of much of the etude-like first half of the work. Drama of a more upbeat kind returned for the second half of the Novellette, the more open-hearted and happy character of which was dashingly carried off by this engaging soloist, in playing of virtuosity and sensitivity which matched Schumann's inspired writing.

In her introduction to the next set of works, Raff's Cinq Eglogues op.105, Nguyen reminded the audience of his high reputation in the musical world in his day and spoke eloquently about her belief in the beauty of his piano music. An eclogue is a pastoral poem and Raff had a fondness for the term, not just producing this set of five piano pieces in 1861, but also giving the title to the first of his set of three Salon Pieces for piano op.56 and to the slow movement of the Symphony No.8 Im Sommer of 1876. Despite its title, the Cinq Eglogues is no set of bucolic dances or literal-minded evocations of babbling brooks and rustling leaves. Rather it seems to evoke the range of emotions which might be experienced in the countryside as, in keeping with Nguyen's theme for her recital, these five little works are more often than not inward-looking and thoughtful.

The filigree Allegro molto of the first piece was played with great delicacy by Nguyen, allowing a slower heartfelt romantic melody, to which it became but an accompaniment, to emerge gradually and swell to a glowingly emotional climax. In contrast, the Eglogue No.2 began with an appropriately rustic Andante con moto before stronger, more emphatic material overtook it and was in its turn replaced by an unexpectedly agitated Presto, which Nguyen shaded wonderfully into the eventual return of the opening material and a more relaxed close to the work. Nguyen's playing of the third Eglogue emphasised her deep sympathy with Raff's unique idiom. A "Song without Words" in G flat, it was a gorgeous Andante quasi Larghetto which under her fingers was as limpid, gentle, warm and sincere as its creator could have hoped for it to be. His op.105 is the only work he dedicated to his wife and one might be forgiven for wondering, inspired by Nguyen's wonderful interpretation, whether this little piece encapsulated Joachim's feelings for his Doris. The next in the set, an attractively yearning Andante mosso in C sharp minor had, in common with so many of Raff's slow movements, an faint edge of sadness and regret to it which offset so effectively the typically grateful melodiousness of the basic material. Once again, Nguyen's familiarity with Raff paid dividends here in a performance of delicacy and pathos. With the final number, an upbeat Presto Giojoso in A major, Nguyen and Raff restored our spirits with a faster, dancing piece, full of glittering ascending and descending motifs and lively, but never empty, passage work in which Nguyen could again demonstrate her virtuosity. The twenty-minute long set proved to be a consistently delightful composition by Raff, embellished by a very thoughtful and intelligent performance by this most expert of Raff interpreters.

After the interval Nguyen treated us to a typically impassioned performance of Chopin's Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor op.58. It was clear from the very opening bars that she took seriously the "maestoso" in the first movement's Allegro maestoso tempo indication. Whilst there was no lack of intimacy and tenderness where they were called for, this was more than anything else an interpretation which was faithful to the grandeur of Chopin's conception. The quicksilver outer sections of the brief Scherzo which followed were raced through with exciting and eye-popping accuracy. This was no mere empty virtuosity for it provided a telling contrast with the poetic soul-searching of the very much slower central section. The slow movement itself is the heart of the work and here Nguyen played the long, pregnant phrases of the Largo with the utmost sensitivity and poetry, producing a spellbinding performance which left the room utterly silent and still at its close. In complete contrast, the Finale at last gave Nguyen her one opportunity of the afternoon to dazzle with a display of bravura pianism and she took it, delivering a performance of spectacular intensity and brilliance which provoked huge admiration and enthusiasm from her audience.

Not only was the afternoon notable for what George Mathers accurately described as "Tra's tremendous technique and passionate performances", it was also a clear demonstration that Raff's piano music need fear no comparison with the works of even the greatest of his contemporaries if it is favoured with the advocacy of players of such finesse, enthusiasm and expertise as Tra Nguyen.

Mark Thomas

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