Classical Music Guide - Tuesday, July 23, 2019 - Written by Donald Isler

Yuan Sheng

July 20th, 2019

Beethoven: Sonata No. 12 in A-Flat Major, Op. 26
Chopin: Sonata No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 35
Chopin: Ballade No. 2 in F Major, Op. 36
Chopin: Waltz in A-Flat Major, Op. 69, No. 1
Nocturne in D-Flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2
Tarantella in A-Flat Major, Op. 43
Debussy: Ballade slave
Debussy: Valse Romantique
Debussy: Nocturne
Debussy: Tarantelle styrienne

Yuan Sheng is a pianist whom I have heard many times over the last 15 years. He is a musician of sensitivity, refinement and culture. He studied both in his native China and here at the Manhattan School of Music. Nowadays, in addition to his concert and recording career, he is a professor at the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music. Those students are lucky to have him!

The first half of the program consisted of the "funeral march" sonatas of Beethoven and Chopin.

The first movement of the Beethoven went along at a good pace, and was thoughtful and elegant. The second movement was quite fast, sprightly, with rollicking eighth note passages. The funeral march movement (the third) was surprisingly fast paced, but ominous. In the finale he brought out the "spilling forward" motion of the first theme, made the C Minor section exciting, and brought out accents and syncopation.

The first movement of the Chopin sonata was passionate, with a huge, but never ugly sound. Its second theme was played eloquently in the recapitulation. The second movement was dramatic, and there was a wonderful contrast in the middle section where the pianist brought out the elegant tenor theme. The third movement funeral march (Why is the third movement always the funeral march?) was relentless and threatening. The D-Flat Major middle theme was simply played, and the return to the funeral march was powerful. The fourth movement is probably the most enigmatic piece of music Chopin ever wrote. It is supposed to be murky but for the first half of it Mr. Sheng used so much pedal that I almost couldn't recognize anything.

He began the second half with the Second Ballade of Chopin, which was expressive, intimate and had beautiful shadings, alternating with the powerful A Minor material. Without pause he then went into the A-Flat Major Waltz, which was terrific! It had charm, originality and some additional, very effective ornamentation. The D-Flat Major Nocturne seemed a bit fast, but also featured extra ornamentation, a magical effect as the piece went into E-Flat Minor, and a gorgeous ending. The Tarantella was energetic, and great fun!

The Debussy group with which Mr. Sheng concluded the official program included both well-known and lesser-known works. The Ballade slave, which I don't recall having heard before, was nostalgic, lovely, and spacious. The Waltz was delightful, with its quirky rhythm and splashes of C major arpeggios. The nocturne did not sound much like a nocturne to me, but was exotic, had a lovely melody, and was more reflective near the end. The beginning of the concluding Tarantelle was fast, light and restless. The theme returned later, louder, in octaves, and there were pungent accents. It ended with a wonderful, very big sound.

Mr. Sheng played one encore, the Berceuse of Chopin. It seemed a bit on the fast side, but was sensitive, and the right hand conveyed the desired magical, and glistening effect.

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