Sonata in A minor, D845
Preludes Op.102 No.21 in B flat; No.6 in D minor; No.7 in E flat
Partita in G, BWV829
Gaspard de la nuit
Mei Yi Foo (piano)
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: 19 May, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Schubert’s A minor Sonata started at a flowing tempo with beautifully soft yet focused tone and a sense of melancholic mystery, and the more martial second subject brought staccato attack in the left-hand and subtle dynamic variation. The development was purposeful and the phrasing and attack varied, but a greater sense of threat and disruption was needed at the climax. In the Andante the opening was too loud and literal and the extemporary nature of the variations was underplayed; and although the scherzo had a sense of fantasy the trio was too slow and more rhythmic attack and variety was needed. In many ways the first and second themes of the finale mirror those of the first movement; here Foo needed to convey a greater sense of danger and tension. Nevertheless throughout the sonata Foo’s use of tonal variety and rubato was very fine and she has the makings of a notable Schubertian.
During his lifetime York Bowen (1884-1961) was mainly noted as a performer. The three Preludes are in the style of Schumann, Rachmaninov and Ravel: all are rather quaint if unmemorable, the Toccata similarly. Stephen Hough has recorded some of Bowen’s music (Hyperion), but I doubt if he plays these technically challenging pieces better than Foo – as with the Schubert her tonal discrimination was natural, while the Toccata was tossed off with considerable virtuosity.
Foo’s Bach was certainly romantic; she employed the sustaining pedal, rubato, and rhythmic and dynamic fluctuations, although somewhat regrettably she ignored the repeats. The tempo for the ‘Praeambulum’ was fast and in the ‘Sarabande’ she got away with a very slow tempo by virtue of her singing tone and sense of concentration. What was missing though was that sense of inexorable logic and rigour that is an essential part of Bach’s language.
For her own Sonic Vision, Foo provided a rather pretentious programme note which talked about “symbolising the core of various colours as ‘heard’ by a non-synaesthete” (the mingling of two senses into one). As with the Bowen pieces the music was not particularly distinctive or memorable.
To end with Gaspard takes some guts and Foo seemed less at ease here than in the Schubert and Bach. Ravel’s score is very heavily annotated but many great pianists have managed to present dramatically divergent performances of the work. With Foo the flourishes of ‘Ondine’ needed more menace and greater strength and fluidity in the fingering to achieve a sense of rise and fall without compromising note lengths and tone. The gentle swinging of ‘Gibet’ lacked a true hypnotic quality because the tempo was too slow and the phrasing lacked delineation. The horrifically difficult ‘Scarbo’ was not threatening enough and the romantic aspects of the second theme were overplayed, while other elements needed more definition and a sense of dance. Strangely, Foo’s tone was too warm and less varied than in the Schubert, I was also concerned that at the climax of ‘Scarbo’ she lacked a true fff; pure power is needed here and she didn’t quite have it.
Despite these reservations Foo is a pianist to watch. Her playing of the opening of the Schubert will stay in my mind for a long time and quite clearly she thinks very deeply about the music she plays. Not only this, she also communicates to the audience and I look forward to hearing her again.