Melbourne is, as we are so often reminded, the sporting capital of the world. And as such this often has an unintended impact beyond those who are interested in actual sports – be it traffic congestion, saturation-level news coverage, (oh that the arts had such coverage!), inevitable water cooler and barbecue conversations etc. On this occasion, Sunday’s Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park Lake necessitated the last minute shifting of venues for Chinese pianist Ming Xie’s piano recital – originally set down for ANAM in South Melbourne. When it was realised that the roar of the cars, not to mention the accompanying RAAF fighter jets, would most likely impede a pleasant Sunday afternoon with Beethoven, Brahms et al the venue was shifted to a more genteel Genazzano College in far enough away Kew. We can be thankful that a suitable venue was indeed found, for this was a recital that all who were present – it was a small, mostly young, audience – would have regretted missing.
Presented under the auspices of the Sydney International Piano Competition – this year celebrating 40 years since the memorable Irina Plotnikova secured first prize in the first iteration of this quadrennial event – this was the first of a series of piano recitals that will feature recent prize-winners. In 2016, Ming Xie secured the highly valued Audience Prize, despite not being one of the six pianists selected for the Final Round. Yet Ming Xie has form – he then again secured the Audience Prize at a similarly prestigious competition in Panama a few months later, though on that occasion he impressed the jury enough to be awarded First Prize as well. It was a delight to be able to hear Ming Xie again, with fresh repertoire this time and he did not disappoint.
The recital commenced with two Schubert/Liszt song transcriptions. The first, Liebesbotschaft – which opens the song cycle Schwanengesang – highlighted Xie’s considerable ability to convey a long cantabile line, moreover in a pianissimo context that requires a finely nuanced touch. The second song – the notoriously difficult Erlkönig, a genuine masterpiece that Schubert composed aged only 18 – features rapid-fire repeated octaves that depict a charging horse. Difficult enough on an instrument from Schubert’s time, on a modern concert grand it is too easily strain- and fear-inducing, but given the dramatic text of the song, this is arguably apposite. This is musical fare that is perhaps better suited to the end of a program once a performer is thoroughly warmed up. Xie however elected to throw caution to the wind, establishing his virtuoso credentials in the opening minutes of his recital. But more than cope with Schubert/Liszt’s bravura octaves, Xie captured the essential drama of this powerful ballad, carrying the audience along with him throughout the detailed musical narrative.
Then followed Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, Opus 2 No 2, one of three sonatas that Beethoven dedicated to his teacher Josef Haydn. Once again Xie conveyed the internal drama of the opening movement with aplomb, displaying an impressive clarity of texture and articulation as well as well-co-ordinated dexterity – it has some of Beethoven’s most “awkward” piano writing – yet Xie always maintained a clear sense of momentum. The lyrical slow movement that followed impressed for its orchestral-like delineation of the various musical strands, while never sacrificing the long-arched arioso melodies that characterize this movement. This was all-the-more-impressive given the dry acoustic of the auditorium. Then came the bucolic Scherzo – and Xie captured its nimble playfulness convincingly. The deceptively simple grazioso finale, characterised by lyrical expansive arpeggio figuration, represents Beethoven at his most joyous, and here Xie gave a suitably well-paced reading. The taut rhythms of the staccato minor-key episodes provided contrast in this most Haydn-esque of Beethoven’s 32 keyboard sonatas.
To close the generous first half, having shed his jacket as if he meant to get down to the business part of the program, Xie offered up both books of Brahms’ Variations on a theme of Paganini, based, as so many other composers have likewise done, on the Italian violinist’s Caprice No 24. The variations hold a singular place in Brahms’ oeuvre in being the only work that reflect a preoccupation with piano technique per se, and though a virtuoso pianist himself, Brahms nevertheless sought advice from celebrated super-virtuoso Carl Tausig in composing them. A daunting work, most performers are content to present either Book One or Two of the Variations yet there is sufficient musical variety to justify the juxtaposition of both books together in recital, though from a technical perspective it is not for the faint-hearted. Each variation is more like a mini-transcendental study, and Xie fully justified presenting both books, delineating the individual character of each variation with nuanced care and surety of expression in what was a well-paced, insightful interpretation.
In his short life the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin composed 10 sonatas, as well as Nocturnes, Waltzes, Etudes and Preludes for solo piano. The earlier works reflect the influence of Chopin, before Scriabin gradually found his own distinctive voice that led him down new harmonic and structural pathways. The bi-partite Sonata No 2 in G# minor (1897) comes from this earlier period. Wearing a new burgundy coloured jacket for the second half, Xie captured the ecstatic lyricism of the extended first movement, always maintaining clarity of line amongst the dense textures and complex polyrhythms. The whirlwind perpetuum mobile Presto that followed was notable for its technical assurance, articulatory precision and deft pedalling.
Interestingly Xie then progressed ‘attacca’ into the next work Albéniz’s Evocación – the opening movement of the monumental suite Iberia. In a suitably flowing reading, Xie captured the impressionistic voluptuousness of the Spanish-tinted melodies and luxuriant harmonies. Here he was aided by a suitably elastic and tasteful rubato, one that allowed for spaciousness, while never allowing the line to flag. Then followed El Albaicín, the seventh movement of the suite. Here the Moorish scale is employed to depict the old exotic gypsy quarter in Grenada. Flamenco guitars are heard and one can almost smell the sun-drenched orange groves. All the while amid textures where in typical gymnastic Albeniz fashion you would swear the pianist had three arms.
Xie concluded the recital with the well-known Schulz-Evler transcription of ‘Waltz King’ Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube, but in a less familiar transcription of the transcription by Jan Smeterlin. Here the audience truly felt transported to Vienna. It was as if sachertorte and hot chocolate beckoned.
As a welcome encore, Xie gave a nuanced reading of Percy Grainger’s transcription of the George Gershwin song Love Walked In.
Ming Xie is an engaging artist, one who is clearly fully committed to every note that he plays. Sure of technique, the greatest attraction of his playing however perhaps lies in the richness and variety of his finely nuanced tonal palette and it is easy to hear why he captured the Audience prize at the Sydney International Piano Competition last year. Hopefully he will return again soon – it would be wonderful to hear him as a chamber musician or in concerto guise, as I’m sure he’d make an insightful and sympathetic collaborative artist.
This is a review of Ming Xie’s Piano Recital of March 26, 2017 at Genazzano College, Kew.