The Despair of Schubert – an alluring title for a program of solo piano works – was a poignant and thought-provoking performance where we shared comparative depths of our COVID frustration with the human despair that overcame many composers. In the featured, final work by Schubert, we would share his time of uncertainty, frustration with political society, resignation, depression and his concern for illness and death among family and friends, while still seeking strength in the beauty and power of musical composition. We can relate to that. Having borne the brunt of having many national concerts and Festival performances cancelled, Kristian Chong aptly chose significant works of darkness and despair, with music reflecting our own lockdown emotional journey. This was a beautifully curated and presented performance. We know Chong presents ABC radio programs with an authoritative, warm and mellifluous tone, and we welcomed his opening presentation and post concert interview with Chris Howlett, that added to his warm and personal connection with the audience. Plus, we received an extra bonus of professional and concise programme notes.
Alexander Siloti (1863-1945), a most distinguished conductor and pianist, was part of the virtuosic piano age, writing over 200 arrangements and transcriptions of existing works, in particular the music of J. S. Bach. The Andante from Violin Sonata No 3 BWV 1003 perfectly allowed Chong to show much introspection and sensitivity for Bach’s refined, powerful, and quite lyrical melody. More like a vocal line, calm and sedate lines were given a prominent romantic voice supported by sensuous, almost modern chordal textures. Phrases were delicate and timeless, and we held our breath in the closing bar as a lingering fragile trill slowed, then paused to allow a single and profound bass note echo in the bottom of our hearts.
Chong described a favourite piece – Rachmaninoff’sPrelude in D, Op 23 No 4 – as “uncharacteristically unmelancholic”. The strong, soul-stirring melody, mostly in the inner and middle voice never faltered to lead with a confident, unquestioning forward pulse. A flowing regular tempo was calming, almost as a hypnotic lullaby, and we felt and shared the performer’s love for this piece. Surging passionate and expansive chords rose easily to the heights of fff dynamics, just as quickly and smoothly falling and rising again through shifting dynamics, diminishing to a final silence, then a pianissimo sigh. In quiet COVID moments, this piece summed up the beauty and resilience of music – a true “essential service”.
Completing this trio of opening works, significantly all written in the “bright” D major key, Chong performed Calvin Bowman’s Chorale Prelude No 7 (2021) – Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How Beautifully Shines the Morning Star) – the last of his set of seven pieces. Described by Chong as having “nostalgic tinges- of folk songs and Christmas festivities perhaps”, the piece allowed him to explore a breadth of dynamics and colourful, lightly percussive sounds across the full keyboard. Both hands took to the uppermost keys to express the opening bell-like theme over a rippling and iridescent accompaniment, expanding quickly into a more powerful chordal setting with rich cascading patterns. This assertiveness evaporated in the sunshine as the music eased, returning to the opening theme of celestial peace and harmony.
Through this pandemic, our optimistic plans are frequently short-lived. From major key to minor key. Traditionally known as the key of drama, passion, pathos and pain, C minor was chosen by Mozart for one of his darkest works – Fantasia in C minor, K475. Chong invited us to respond with our own fantasies, visions and dreams, and enjoy Mozart in possibly his least optimistic piano work. Always showing precise and fine technical execution, Chong contrasted key areas and mood changes with distinctive colours and precise detail.
Paradoxically, the featured work, which signalled the high point of this program, was the one to take us to the greatest depths – Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D784 – a most timely composition connecting us with the despair, desolation and frustration of Schubert’s resignation to illness and early end of life. Kristian Chong is remarkable for his honesty in recognising and expressing the extreme emotions of this rarely performed work, balancing stark and sombre moments with passionate and surprising key modulations with bursts of tension and frustration, leading to resignation, not resolution. Schubert’s score shows deceptively light scoring, yet in the closing exhausting statements, Chong produced a heightened sensitivity, feeling the wistful, almost breathless sighs of the last waltz, before abruptly exploding into a furious declamation of assertive scales and four angry chords of finality.
If it is true that in Mozart’s last years, the only audience was himself and silence, and Bach too played to himself in an empty church, how despairing it must be for Melbourne’s leading musicians to give their all in venues with no audience. How special it was to share this passionate recital, with wonderful livestream camera work capturing and connecting us with Kristian Chong’s highly expressive performance.
Julie McErlain reviewed Kristian Chong’s piano recital, The Despair of Schubert, live-streamed by Melbourne Digital Concert Hall from the Athenaeum Theatre on October 6, 2021.