Fervent and Fanciful — Pianist Daniel Hsu in Recital for the Steinway Society

Responding to the acclamation of an enthusiastic audience at Le Petit Trianon, pianist Daniel Hsu graced the audience with one encore, a Horowitz staple, Träumerei, from Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Op. 15. The sweet reverie extended the passionate and poised ambiance of the entire recital during this December 9 recital at Petit Trianon in San Jose presented by the Steinway Society the Bay Area. The Bronze Medal winner at the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Mr. Hsu demonstrated in an essentially Romantic repertory that his taste and technical arsenal would justify his having selected the Cliburn Competition test-piece, Marc-Andre Hamelin’s Toccata on L’homme armé, as an example of the prowess and canny lyricism he can apply within the parameters of an honest virtuoso.

Hsu began his program with Ferruccio Busoni’s 1892 arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne from the Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Yehudi Menuhin called the Chaconne the greatest structure ever conceived for violin: a ground bass theme that undergoes twenty-nine variations that span the gamut of technical and harmonic effects that four strings can achieve, Here, Busoni has set the relatively constricted texture of the original to the possibilities of the entire keyboard to suggest the full diapason of the organ. Some claim the Chaconne as a testimonial and elegy to Bach’s late wife, Maria Barbara. Besides the sheer girth of music’s architecture and the physical stamina to realize it, Hsu’s performance introduced lucid moments of introspection, severe but transparent polyphony, and richly resonant sonorities evoked by open fourths, fifths, and sixths. The dynamic range, too, allowed for any number of subtle nuances, either in dolce tranquillo or con fuoco animato figures. My only quibble lay with the impatient audience, who refused to allow the fermata at the coda to decay, rushing in with applause where angels would fear to tread.

Hsu followed the Bach with his most fervent, Romantic acolyte, Frederic Chopin, whose Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53 (1842) and F Minor Fantasie, Op. 49 (1841), ensued, respectively. This most popular of the six “official” Chopin polonaises can all too easily become a trite exercise in percussive nationalism, but under Hsu’s adept fingers, it did not. Certainly, the piece merits its epithet “Heroic,” given the grand introduction and the left hand’s rapid and escalating octaves. But Hsu kept the dynamism subdued so that we could well appreciate Chopin’s color range, that gravitates into E Major and D-sharp Major, all the while maintaining a basal dance-rhythm. Of course, Hsu tried to invest the grand gallop of hussars with a manic energy that occasionally outran his fingers. Nevertheless, the Polonaise had flair and buoyant, lyric charm, not forgetting the singing capabilities of the composer’s lines. “Inspiration! Force! Vigor!” were George Sand’s badges for this flamboyant work, her banner for the very spirit of the French Revolution, now attached to the spirit of Polish liberation.

So, too, the F Minor Fantasie — a notoriously tricky work upon which to impose a sense of organic unity — contains its share of martial energies, one of which (in F Major) alludes to the “Litwinka” motif, “The air blew sweetly across the Polish landscape.” Both declamatory and improvisatory, the piece presents us five themes beset by pregnant pauses and digressions, some of which prove the notion that Chopin adapted the Italian “bel canto” style of Bellini to his own usage. Hsu captured the wistful, nostalgic – even tragic, what the Poles call tesknota — aspects of the score, imbued with poetry and somber dignity. Sadness mixed with heroic stoicism seemed the order of the interpretation, unhurried but in chaste dynamic control, the piece still shone by virtue of Hsu’s fluent runs, arpeggios, and occasionally explosive agitato chords. In his more introverted moments, Hsu’s Fantasie became a nocturne, hymn or chorale, a prayer for what Theodor Adorno called “a decorative song of triumph to the effect that Poland was not lost forever and would rise again.”

The second half of Hsu’s recital opened with Canadian pianist-composer Andre-Marc Hamelin’s Toccata setting of the Renaissance war-hymn L’homme armé. Traced back to somewhere around 1425, the song that demands “the armed man should be feared” seems to have meant to serve the spirit of Crusaders. Around forty versions of the Latin Mass, conceived 1430-1515, utilize the martial song as a cantus firmus for further variation and ornamentation. Hamelin took a commission from the Van Cliburn Foundation for the 15th Competition to provide a piece that each competitor would perform in the preliminary stage of the competition. Polyphonic, technically demanding, and often reliant on stretti over pedal points, the Hamelin work tested Hsu and the Steinways Society’s Steinway concert grand without having to resort to minimalist or acerbic, serial procedures. Hsu, in his brief address to the audience, confessed the Toccata posed a challenge to learn, “but it turned out to be an exciting piece.”

Hsu’s grand recital ended with the 1827 Four Impromptus, D. 899 of Franz Schubert, works that resist the notion of “improvisations” by virtue of their length and complexity. Some, especially the first in C Minor, could easily be construed as an independent sonata-movement. Hsu lent a serene leisure to the C Minor, but he did not sacrifice its tragic, lyric component, nor did he stint on the warmth of the A-flat melody that rises atop of triplet arpeggios in what otherwise would be a march. The second of the pieces, in E-flat Major, had all the virtuosic suppleness of an etude in eighth notes, easily construed to have been penned by Chopin. Hsu’s muscular sforzandos kept us a brilliantly taut rope of lyricism and deft bravura. The famous G-flat Impromptu was all heart, a spun melody of gossamer beauty that owes a debt to the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pathétique, a pure moment of cantabile. Those fluid, legato arpeggios that open the Allegretto (no. 4) in A-flat first made their way to my ears by virtue of Artur Schnabel. Hsu’s performance, in no way derivative, had fluency and Schubert’s pervasive zest for life and beauty, even in the face of his personal travails.


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