Classical Music Guide - Tuesday, July 22, 2014 - Written by Donald Isler

Yuan Sheng

Gao Ping: Autumn Pond (2012)
Debussy: Twelve Preludes, Book 1
CPE Bach: Fantasie in F-Sharp Minor, H. 300, Wq. 67
Beethoven: Andante Favori, WoO 57
Beethoven: Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53 (“Waldstein”)

Yuan Sheng is a musician’s musician. He always plays with taste, power and refinement, a beautiful tone and an excellent understanding of the style of each composer. Though he is particularly well known for his playing of the music of JS Bach and Chopin he included neither of them on this concert, offering, instead, an interesting combination of standard and little-known repertoire.

Gao Ping’s Autumn Pond, the first work he played, is a lovely eight minute piece, reflective and nostalgic, with an “impressionistic” feeling. Despite the extensive use of fourths, and other harmonies that go rather far afield from where it starts, much of the work seems to be based in, or near, G Major.

Mr. Sheng’s playing of the Debussy Preludes was wonderful! Not just beautiful and sensuous, as one would expect, but deeply thoughtful as well. Among other qualities he excels at is very fine control of the lower end of the dynamic range. One noticed this particularly in the incredibly soft but controlled final chord of Voiles (Veils), and the way Le vent dans la plaine (The Wind on the Plain) simply evaporated at the end. He handled beautifully the contrast of the exuberance, and longing of Les collines d’Anacapri (the Hills of Anacapri) leading into the desolation of Des pas sur la neige (Footsteps In the Snow), which led, in turn, to the menacing Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest (What the West Wind Saw). And La cathédrale engloutie (The Engulfed Cathedral) was glorious, when it arose out of the deep.

The CPE Bach Fantasie includes some showy passagework, interesting modulations and declamatory gestures. Though Yuan Sheng played it very well I was not overwhelmed by the music.

By contrast, I was very taken with Mr. Sheng’s performance of Beethoven’s Andante Favori. Of course, there is much that is subjective, but when you hear someone play a piece and you get the feeling “That’s exactly how this should sound!” it means you’re really impressed! Lyrical, gracious, not metronomic but with subtle shifts in tempo (one was reminded of David Dubal’s comment the other night “Rhythm is respiration”) and a beautiful change in color where the piece briefly visits D-Flat Major, this interpretation was a happy experience for this listener. Plus, in the extended right hand octave section, which I heard no less a pianist than Bruce Hungerford play over and over and over, to achieve a perfect take for his recording, Mr. Sheng hit not a wrong note.

One had the sense that he might have been a bit tired by the time he got to the Waldstein Sonata, where he experienced some memory problems in the outer movements. And yet, it contained a lot of fine playing, with thoughtful tone and tempo adjustments in the first movement, an expressive second movement, and much lovely playing in the last movement, the final page of which went out in a blaze of glory.

Yuan Sheng played one encore, Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3. It was brilliantly executed, and exquisite.

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