Concert Review: 葉孟儒 2015 Recital

I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as rare, per se, that one sees works of Alexander Scriabin on a recital program. I’d heard his piano works on at least two other occasions before this one, and was excited then, so when I saw the program for this recital months ago with three of Scriabin’s sonatas on the program, I immediately bought a ticket.

Andrei Yeh is the same gentleman that so exquisitely played Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations back in December with the Taipei Philharmonic. I was blown away by that performance. It was one of those few times when something feels at once passionate and effortless. It was perfection. Aside from the foot-tapping. Concert halls are made for good acoustics, and the sound of hard-soled shoes tapping (in time, of course) on hardwood floors tends to make it around the auditorium.
In any case, I recognized the gentleman’s name and was excited to go.
I had perhaps one of the best seats in the house, aside from the young man to my left and his problems with sweaty palms and flatulence. That aside, it was the best place to be. Front row of the balcony, just slightly stage right of center. Awesome seat.
It seems Mr. Yeh studied in the 1990s in Russia under Lev Naumov, quite a famous classical pianist with quite an impressive list of students who are also quite impressive themselves. We were greeted on the stage that evening with two easels, one holding a large
photo of Alexander Scriabin, the other of Mr. Naumov.
The first part of the program was Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, which I know virtually nothing about and had never knowingly heard until that evening. It was pleasant enough, some sections captivatingly beautiful. The pianist’s performance seemed to do the piece justice, if not a little over-theatric in some places, but we’ll get to that later. I was pleased to be able to enjoy a live performance of a piece as a first listen. There’s not much to say here except that Mr. Yeh is clearly talented and more clearly is passionate about his music, at least the Russian stuff. That was all the program was that evening, and before too long, the first half was over.
The intermission seemed longer than I expected, but we got back to our seats (I never left mine) and I buckled in for three, read them three Scriabin sonatas: the fifth, fourth, and third (fresh off the presses last week) in that order.
The fifth has to be one of my favorite piano works ever. Is that a strange favorite? We’ll get around to talking about it here sometime next year, but it truly is a remarkable piece, as are all of his late sonatas. Each different recording I listen to reminds me of the fantastic complexity and depth this piece offers, and every performance, every recording shows something different about it.
Like I said in my article on Scriabin’s third last week, I’m unreasonably partial to Vladimir Ashkenazy’s performance of these pieces, and it’s unreasonable to expect that any other performance would be identical to that. That being said, any interpretation of anything must be convincing to the listeners, which requires a certain amount of conviction from the performer.
I was anticipating these sonatas even more after learning of the sentimental nature of the pieces for the pianist, their significance for him as well as (or perhaps due to) his studies in Russia under Naumov. It felt intimate, personal, and privileged to be part of a concert that, to some extent, at least I felt, was rather like reminiscing, sharing a part of the pianist’s history with the audience. How can you not be touched by that, especially with giant easels and images on stage, too?
Perhaps it wasn’t. Let me preface my negative statements with a caveat: I would be beyond thrilled to be as talented and commanding and virtuosic on the piano as Mr. Yeh. What I am going to express here is not a criticism of his talent, his abilities, but rather his interpretations (and maybe not even really that).
I should also say that I’m not just picking on him here. My sentiments would also apply to Lang Lang, Yundi Li, or even one of my most favoritest pianists, Mitsuko Uchida (why are they all Asian? There are more, like) Daniil Trifonov and many others come to mind as performers whose facial expressions, movements, and general stage presence (or maybe just writhing) come off, at the very least, as unnecessary, some even to the point of annoyance. If I’m watching a YouTube video, it’s easy enough to go back to something else I was doing and just listen. I have closed my eyes a time or two in the concert hall, engrossed by the performance, but never out of annoyance at the antics on stage. I’m talking hands thrown in the air, fifteen-second long fermatas, stomping of feet, gasps of breath during rests (or aforementioned pauses), jazz fingers, all sorts of theatrics. They even got some laughs from the audience.
This didn’t happen in December with the Taipei Philharmonic (aside from tapping/stomping) and I’m wondering if the accompanying orchestra kept him in line.
Scriabin’s music is dramatic and emotional and passionate enough. The excessively long pauses and Liberace-like hands and gestures were distracting and, in my opinion, lacking taste. The fifth sonata was, for the most part, fantastically played, aside from some places where speed and excitement seemed to outshine meaningful interpretation and depth. This could be said for both the fifth and the third, where some of my favorite moments, small little half-seconds or minute details though they may be, make the piece for me, and many of them were glossed right over. That is, of course, just my taste for the piece, also greatly influenced by the recording I have come to love, but a few of those things disappointed me.
All that aside, I was ready to erupt into applause when the piece ended. I love the way this massive frenetically energetic piece ends, and I wanted to show my excitement for it. I’ve probably never been so excited to clap… but after the last chattery note at the very high end of the piano, we got another pregnant pause, fingers in the air, head bobbing, and a foot stomp. I knew with 100% confidence we’d reached the end of the piece, but not a soul moved. I didn’t dare to start clapping. Somewhat perplexed, and wondering what was going on, I spent most of the ensuing fourth sonata trying to figure out what had just happened. He played the fourth with seemingly more fluidity and less acting than the fifth, but to be honest I’m not super familiar with that one… I was more confused at why they were played back to back, if I’d missed something, or if this was some ‘director’s cut’ of the fifth I wasn’t aware of. The fourth ended and we finally got to clap. Some of us, as I looked around, decided not to at first, but eventually did. I was a bit miffed.
Then came the third. It was in the same vein as the fifth. Technically played spectacularly well (perhaps he has teeny hands?) some of the sections felt rushed over or ignored, but overall, it was a nice performance, just an interpretation distinctly different from what mind would be if I could play anything beyond the first two lines of the first movement.
Ultimately the things I got to thinking about during this performance were passion, nostalgia, the very personal experience of music, and the significance (or lack thereof) of an audience’s physical or emotional response to the sharing of those things. Lots of people may have come because they were ecstatic to hear Scriabin’s sonatas (or the Tchaikovsky piece, but Yeh seemed infinitely more passionate about the former), but our experiences with, our ideas about, conceptions of, opinions toward those pieces are obviously worlds apart, in many instances. And yet none of them are wrong. It’s just interesting. So, in some ways, I feel bad for being critical. When someone shares something with you that means something to them… it’s touching. I’m kind of soft that way, though. It could be something as simple as like, a buy-one-get-one coupon at Starbucks. If it comes from that place in a person, when they mean it, I’m touched, and even if I hated coffee, I will be thrilled to sit down and enjoy every bitter sip of it (I actually love coffee) with you if that’s the case. Does that make sense? It’s the gesture, that you (whoever that is) would go out of your way to share with me something that means something emotionally, financially however-ly to you. That very act gives it value. 
So I can be critical of foot stomping and gasping for air and the *acting* expressions and fingers and theatrics, but come down to it, I enjoyed a concert that meant something special to the performer. While I wasn’t personally invited (I am a paying customer), it was still a privilege to attend. That’s what’s important. This is turning into a “this is what we share and we have this in common so let’s be positive” thing, but I have a hard time criticizing something sentimental. Scriabin’s music is the wok of a fantastic genius, and I was very excited to hear it again live. Thank you.
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