Music at the Wallace Collection – Mei Yi Foo

French Suite No.2 in C minor, BWV813
Fantasia in C
Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.36
(original 1913 version)

Mei Yi Foo (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 18 November, 2001
Venue: The Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London, W1

The very first notes, as so often, suggested what to expect. A limpid clarity, an admirable willingness to let both instrument and music speak for themselves, everything neat and tidy, and nothing forced. The ’Allemande’ that begins the Second French Suite had delicacy and balance; it was the most successful movement in the suite. Nevertheless, these days Bach imitates a harpsichord’s timbre only occasionally – it has become fashionable again to play Bach with a Romantic investment of emotion, and by these standards, Miss Foo was restrained, over-cautious, even anaemic. The ’Air’ at the centre of the suite was disappointingly matter-of-fact; the closing ’Gigue’ had more accuracy than attack.

This was a well-chosen programme, the first half appropriate to the ambience and scale of the ’Long Gallery’ at the Wallace Collection, nothing too familiar as to provoke immediate memories of legendary performances by all-time greats, something at the end to win one’s virtuosic spurs. And perhaps no performer can lose in this environment. Seated in that room, replete with the ’Maison Blanc’ breakfast that completes the attractive package of entertainment and culture, the audience is half enchanted already.

Miss Foo’s Haydn was, however, arguably too routine to be enchanting, not without an element of the playfulness and wit that is the foundation of Haydn’s charm, but ultimately dull. She seemed immediately more at home with the original version of Rachmaninov’s sonata, essentially untroubled by its technical demands, and certainly making the most of the bell-like effects for which the piece is famous. Indeed, the simple effectiveness of the these passages in the central part of the slow movement, as well as the cascade of scale passages at the sonata’s opening, were particularly striking. Although this first version of the sonata (which is now played and recorded at least as frequently as the revision) is more of a showpiece, it does suffer from structural incohesion. At times, Miss Foo lost sight of the wood for the trees.

She is currently studying with Yonty Solomon and Cristina Ortiz. Ortiz is known for élan and dash, and a precise delicacy of tone in the treble; I detected this influence in the first part of Islamey. The opening of this piece, with the fine dynamic gradations of its staccato and an apparent insouciant lightness, was easily the recital’s highlight. Miss Foo understands that the finest virtuosity appears effortless, that good virtuoso music is written to advertise itself. An understated performance of Islamey might seem a contradiction in terms, but she managed to be controlled but not repressed, sensitive but not nervous. Only towards the end, in the thickest textures, did the performance lose its way, although she recovered for a precise, crisp conclusion.

In this marketed and branded age, it is ironically the case that authenticity is ever more prized and easily valued. One can never do better than to play from the heart. The authenticity of an individual voice is, however, usually a blend of talent and experience – there are few who spring like Athena fully-formed out of the head of Zeus, even though the critic goes to hear new performers precisely in that hope. For those at the start of their careers, therefore, authenticity often means too little ego (as today) or too much (Igor Tchetuev, two weeks before), or a cultural stereotype (the retiring Oriental girl, the all-Slavonic would-be hero on horseback; too many encores from him, none at all for her).

In both these recitals the magic in the room remained with the incomparable paintings on the gallery’s walls, not in the sound washing against them. Indeed, when new artists exceed expectations, as with Jill Crossland’s recent Bach recital, a personal investment in the programme was the greatest asset. Miss Foo’s playing is as yet more civilised than distinctive, but I believe she has real promise and I look forward to hearing her again.

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