Exquisite and Ambitious: Pianist Sandra Wright Shen in Recital

Sandra Wright Shen

Although she graced us with only one encore, the familiar Tango in D by Albeniz, pianist Sandra Wright Shen certainly provided a generous blend of flair and exquisite fireworks for her program at Le Petit Trianon, Sunday, January 10, under the auspices of the Steinway Society. With a recital that included Bach’s Chaconne in D Minor in the Busoni transcription, Beethoven’s C Minor Sonata, Op. 111, a piano work by contemporary Chinese composer Zhao Zhang, five Debussy preludes, and the first of the Granados Goyescas suite, “Los Requiebros,” Ms. Shen confronted us with an arsenal of color and interpretive skills that set her among the masters of her chosen trade, a musician of first rank with plenty of fingers and personality.

The opening work, the 1897 transcription of the Chaconne from the Bach D Minor Violin Partita, BWV 1004, has Busoni’s replacing violin single lines with chords, now marked “arpeggio,” requiring some degree of improvisation. But the first ingredient in Shen’s sonic world – her capacity to elicit organ sonority from her piano keyboard – bestowed an illuminated luster upon the entire procession of Bach invention, its huge polyphonic architecture based upon a recurrent, four-bar, ground bass pattern. The designation “quasi tromboni” for the modulation to the tonic major confirms the “symphonic” ambitions of Busoni’s scheme. What made the Shen performance so effective was her unity of affect that embraced the constantly developing character of the piece — its bluster, its singing, and its moments of rarified intimacy. All these elements work so well, despite the magnification of the original solo violin line to epic keyboard proportions.

More German depth ensued, in the 1822 Sonata No. 32 in C Minor of Beethoven, a work in two contrasting movements, the first sullen and aggressive, the second an extended Arietta in C Major whose series of variations seem to transcend music itself into a disquisition on the One and the Many. Certainly, Shen opened the C Minor Allegro con brio ed appassionato with the massive fervor of the composer’s middle period, much as the Pathetique Sonata in the same key prefaces a colossal inner turmoil. Already, Shen demonstrated the power and supple fluidity of her trills – and she needed to, since later Beethoven demands chains of sublime double trills in both hands. In the course of the eight variations of the second movement, Beethoven seems to deconstruct his theme into musical germs and explosive kernels, any of which could whisper diaphanously or frolic in some volatile cosmic dance only Yeats could capture in words. Shen literally imposed a kind of trance on her rapt audience, the level of concentration and graduated nuance of which we associate with the refined masters of this colossus: Backhaus, Michelangeli, Haskil, Annie Fischer and Kempff.

The second half, Shen announced, would be devoted to “fun.” Shen’s fellow countryman Zhao Zhang (b. 1960) had fervent representation in his “Pi Huang” — with moments of Peking Opera, a sort of program piece based on a folk hero who suffers abuse but rises in the people’s estimation to the level of a hero whose persona enjoys triumphant bell ringing. The high, whinnying elements of Chinese vocal theater —often scurrying in the manner of an exotic toccata — juxtaposed against instrumental effects, like the Chinese flute and the jinghu, a bowed stringed violin. Quirky, modal, and mercurial, the piece added silken arpeggios to sonorous mix, a definite “water” element well anticipating the Debussy preludes that followed.

The group of five Debussy preludes, from both books of twelve, 1909-1913, testified to Shen’s love of color and impressionistic, “program” vagary. Les Collines d’Anacapri evinced a Mediterranean sensibility, evocative and elusive.The Bruyeres enjoyed a touch of the Scottish highlands, moving diatonically into A-flat Major. La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin almost sounds like plainchant by way of Massenet, suggestive of youthful innocence, at least if we can relate to Jennifer Jones in Portrait of Jennie. The largest of the set, La Cathedrale Engloutie, invoked the legend of Ys, Isolde’s habitat a la Wagner, rife with defined periods, bell tones, modal and pentatonic scales, and images of water and sunlight fixed by Shen’s pliant middle pedal. Finally, the little Minstrels, an homage to the light vaudevilles and traveling village players, strummers and drummers, who occasionally find their way into operetta and Offenbach. Moments of blues, ragtime, and jazz banjo contrived to sing in a jaunty G Major.

Finally, Shen provided a companion from Spain for her one encore, the first of the Goyescas suite, Op. 11 (1913) of Enrique Granados, the so-called Los Requiebros, which may be translated “flatteries.” Color contrasts and graduated, nuanced dynamics – characteristics that marked Shen’s entire recital – dominated here in Granados’ subtle elaboration on a musical statement that assumes various guises and personae, a kind of folk passacaglia. Shen executed the music’s triplet figures, a jota marked Allegretto, that incorporates a popular tune, “Tirana del Tripili,” into the course of its seductive filigree with her luminous grace and touches of imminent sadness, as all passionate love affairs must embrace. And so, after her encore, we too had to depart, still experiencing that “sweet sadness” until we hear Shen once more.

End

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