A modest but well-pleased audience hailed pianist Changyong Shin as he concluded his Sunday, November 17 recital for Steinway Society – The Bay Area at the Independence High School auditorium in San Jose. Responding with one encore, Chopin’s Grande valse brillante in E-flat Major, Op. 18, rendered flawlessly, Shin more than confirmed his prowess in music that demands audacity, dexterity, and poetry by such diverse personalities as Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel, and Granados. Shin seems to embody that “smart performer of smart music,” to paraphrase Ned Rorem — that musician whose mind proves as agile as his gifted fingers. The two large works on the program, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109, and Ravel’s daunting Gaspard de la nuit, each required the careful balance of deft articulation and intellectual acumen to bring off manifestation of power and lyric intimacy at the same time.
Shin opened his recital with Beethoven’s Sonata, Op. 109, composed in 1820, the first of that trinity of final sonatas which sum up a lifetime of experimentation in the sonata medium and released Beethoven’s imaginative powers in startlingly antique forms here applied to new heights of subjective expression. Set in E major, the piece falls into the traditional three movements, but it does so with a Baroque compression that acknowledges much to the models of J. S. Bach. Within the first movement’s 16 opening measures, Beethoven suggests a fantasy by Bach, soon moving, cadenza-like, to a duet between two high registers. Shin emphasized the music’s lyric affect, the raptures or dreamscapes exploiting the full keyboard in arpeggios and scalar figures. Without pause, the music proceeded into E minor, an aggressive prestissimo that hurtles left hand chaconne-like figures against a hectic right hand, the two colliding in canon and double counterpoint. No trio intervenes to soften the mood, the contrapuntal, chromatic development’s having assumed a manic energy. Just as suddenly, with the end of the middle movement, Beethoven announces a kind of Lutheran chorale theme in four voices, much in the Spanish manner of a sarabande, marked Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung (singing, with the most intimate emotion). Shin then embarked upon the six variations, of which the second might have taken its cue from the medieval hocket — dividing a melody between two parts with notes in one part and rests in the other. The third and fifth variants alluded once more to Bach and his penchant for two-voiced, double counterpoint. The last variation had Shin ornament and adorn the original tempo of the original motif, the while increasing the tension through sublime pedal-points. When the theme spoke to us for the last time, we might have recalled how Bach’s Goldberg Variations end with that similar ingenuousness, as if, despite the colossal import of all that has transpired, really nothing has happened.
Shin proceeded to perform two Chopin works: the late (1846) Nocturne in B Major, Op. 62, No. 1 and the Scherzo No. 4 in E Major, Op. 54 (1843). The eminently flowing nature of the nocturne assumed a luminous character with Shin reveling in its subjective colors in dolce and legatissimo. The ternary song-form here assumes huge proportions, so as to accommodate Chopin’s idiosyncratic harmony, syncopations, and counterpoint, all played sostenuto. The music would make us believe the keyboard strives to become a singer of a Bellini bel canto aria, embellishing the extended melody (into A-flat major) via trills, grace notes, runs, and mordents. The vocal continuity of the piece sets its challenge and its charm, duly met by Shin’s canny rubato and pedal effects. The fourth of the Chopin Scherzos, in E major, avoids the grim sense of tragedy that besets the first three of the genre: its mercurial and mischievous nature enjoys glissandos, large spans, and impetuous shifts of meter, all of which delighted composers Saint-Saëns and Pierné revealed in the influence from this work found in their respective concertos. The mixture of triple and duple meter at last gave way to an elegant middle section, più lento, that truly soared in emotional sincerity. A return to the glitter and general optimism of the work in the coda kept us in thrall to Shin’s fluid, facile technique, here in a work that defies the grim “joke” of the other scherzi.
After intermission, Shin performed the forever daunting Gaspard de la nuit (1908), a piece Alfred Cortot once called “one of the most astonishing examples of instrumental ingenuity ever contrived.” Many authorities cite Balakirev’s Islamey as Ravel’s model for virtuoso keyboard difficulty, but Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition loomed just as near the composer’s heart, especially its Gnomus section. Responding to three selected poems from the 1830 set by Aloysius Bertrand (1807–1841), Ravel invokes three tone pictures respectfully, in C-sharp major (“Ondine”), E-flat minor (“Le gibet”), and G-sharp minor (“Scarbo”). Water music, sensuous and glistening, emerged over Shin’s keyboard, inviting us to share the water-sprite’s fatal, submerged palace. Her response to emotional rejection, a fit of cruel laughter and tears, coalesced with the water figures to engulf us in fluids, amniotic and erotic, in haunted figures. The Gibbet describes a corpse as it dangles in the sunlight, a study in ostinato ad nauseam, through obsessive B-flat octaves. The bell tolls enough to assume the quality of a fantasy on one note, implacable, desolate. The pièce de résistance, Scarbo, proffers a punishing toccata describing a malevolent dwarf—similar perhaps to Fuseli’s figure in The Nightmare—who changes shape and color as he haunts and draws life from his victim. To watch Shin negotiate the constant tension of his hands in staccato and crossed-hand figurations meant to witness the Gothic monster arise and manifest his insane influence upon us all, a bitter reminder of Khayyam’s admonition that we ourselves “are heaven and hell.”
The final work on Shin’s program, Granados’s Requiebros from the collection Goyescas (1911), left us with a flamboyant, but quite human side to erotics, since the piece, a brilliant jota, celebrates the art of flirtation. The opening “guitar” riff incited a series of responses in triplets, resonant inner voices, whimsical shifts of meter, and the allusion to the sound of castanets. Eventually, the passionate rapture of the work attests to the success of the opening gambit, and the piece revels in sonorities divided between Liszt and Wagner’s Tristan. The natural grace and athletic aplomb of our guest artist no less beguiled the audience to seek him out for his CDs on the Steinway & Sons label.