Hoang Pham: Mostly Chopin

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Published: 30th August, 2017

Barely into his thirties, Hoang Pham has already established himself as one of Australia’s finest concert pianists. His achievements include Best Australian Pianist at the Sydney International Piano Competition, and ABC Symphony Australia Young Performer of the Year in 2013. Besides these and many other competition successes, Hoang has also performed many solo recitals in Australia and overseas, and has attracted a very solid following among discerning Melbourne concert-goers.

On Melbourne’s coldest Sunday afternoon of the year, a large crowd flocked to Elisabeth Murdoch Hall to hear Mostly Chopin – a full 2-hour recital, the first half entirely solo Chopin, and after interval transitioning to Brahms, concluding with a Brahms piano trio.

The concert opened with a bonus  – the unprogrammed Etude Op 25 No 1, described by Robert Schumann as a poem rather than a study. He called it the “Aeolian Harp”, and its sextuplet semiquaver arpeggios demand dexterity and great skill in weighting to allow the inner-voice counter melodies to shine through, techniques that Hoang demonstrated throughout the concert. It proved a gentle way to ease into Chopin’s world, in the same key as the Waltz in A Flat Major Op 34 No 1, which followed, with its fanfare-like opening propelling us into the whole range of Chopin’s colours. The delicacy of the closing pianissimo was breathtaking.

Chopin’s Ballade in G minor is a substantial work, and Hoang spoke briefly about it before playing. He is very comfortable speaking to the audience, and creates an atmosphere of generous sharing of the musical experience, rather that lecturing, demonstrating or impressing. “This is for you Dad”, he told us.

The Ballade, well known for its prominence in the Polanski film The Pianist, was another favourite of Schumann, and of Chopin himself. The spontaneity in Hoang’s approach to this great work reminded me of the Renaissance attitudes to performance – decoro (the careful studying and learning of the work) and sprezzatura (the noble negligence, wherein feeling completely comfortable with the notes, one can allow the music to take over). Hoang was at ease with the technical side, and was thus able to exercise the Noble Negligence. In Renaissance thinking, the music can then occasionally hover in mid-air, linking the audience and the musician in grazia (grace).

Hoang spoke again after the Ballade, describing the way the Coda (full of double octave scale runs) can either be treated cautiously, or you can “jump off the cliff”. The audience loved the way he jumped!

Hoang chose to perform Two Nocturnes Op 27 as a pair. Often heard separately, they nevertheless work well that way and share key centres, the first in a darker melancholic C sharp minor, giving way to and the more popular luminescent second in D flat major. Again, Hoang’s skilled delicacy of touch allowed the light to shine brightly.

The first half concluded with the fabulous Fantasie in F minor, Op 49. Demanding virtuosic technique, this extended piece begins with a simple march-like theme, but ventures into extremes of character and emotion.

Hoang’s approach permitted the rhapsodic feel to unfold, but he was also able to make musical sense of the work, highlighting the structural landmarks.

After interval, our hard-working pianist gave us another Chopin unprogrammed bonus, Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op 63 No 3, before Brahms’ Rhapsody in B minor, Op79 No 1 changed the musical direction. While requiring the technical proficiency of very rapid scale passages and double octaves, ability to balance melody and harmony in each hand, and the dynamic range of the Chopin works, fistfuls of large chords sometimes in contrary motion changed the architecture. Hoang’s pedalling had made good sense in Chopin, and the changes required for Brahms were also successful.

Katherine Lukey (violin) and Mee Na Lojewski (cello), and a very young page-turner joined Hoang Pham on stage for the final scheduled work, Johannes Brahms’ Piano Trio No 2 in C Major, Op 87. In her introduction to this work, composed between 1880 and 1882 as Brahms was becoming better known for his compositions than his work as a pianist, Lukey told the story of Clara Schumann describing Brahms’ piano playing as becoming “more and more abominable: it is now nothing but bump, bang and scrabble”.

This performance of the trio demonstrated that Hoang Pham should not be compared in any way with that of Brahms! The violin and cello parts in the whole work, but particularly in the opening Allegro Moderato, are often paired – playing in octaves, or imitating one another, separately from the piano. At one point an exquisite descending passage began in the violin, and at some imperceptible moment continued its descent in the cello part.

The first movement ended with such a flourish that many in the audience applauded enthusiastically. Applause followed the subsequent Andante Con Moto and Scherzo movements too, with the Hall divided firmly into one camp or other. Brahms famously thought his first piano concerto was a failure because there was no applause between movements, so perhaps he would not have objected.

The applause following the Finale was unanimous, and when Pham’s young (and accomplished) page-turner returned to the stage with the trio, we knew we were guaranteed an encore! Schubert’s Marche Militaire No 1, originally a work for piano (4 hands) proved to be a wonderfully playful encore, allowing the performers to demonstrate a little more animation between each other than we had seen in the Brahms.

As a music lover, I would have been satisfied with the Chopin works alone, played, as they were, so sensitively and musically by Hoang Pham. The addition of the Brahms and the inclusion of the piano trio certainly demonstrated the diversity of his skills, and his guests, wonderful soloists in their own rights, clearly enjoyed the opportunity to play in ensemble.

It is heart-warming to see audiences supporting homegrown artists like Hoang Pham, and independent ventures such as this. Snatches of conversation that I heard at interval and after the performance indicate that many of these people are enthusiastic pianists who have played some of these works. I heard one of them telling friends “I played that in 1970 for my A. Mus. I’m going to get the music out again when I get home.” What a wonderful endorsement of a concert!

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Reviewer Margaret Arnold heard the performance of Mostly Chopin at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre, on Sunday, August 27, 2017.

Pianist Hoang Pham was joined after interval by guests Mee Na Lojewski, cello, and Katherine Lukey, violin.