Hoang Pham: The Beautiful Blue Danube

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Published: 21st March, 2018

The Beautiful Blue Danube is certainly a title with appeal for a piano recital, but it does also conjure up a New Year’s Eve type program, conducted by the likes of Andre Rieu. Thankfully, Hoang Pham’s latest performance saw the mighty River kept in check until the end of the program.

What drama there was belonged largely to Beethoven, in the form of his Sonata in C minor Op. 13 “Pathetique”. According to Hoang, this work even provided the model for the second pillar of the concert: another sonata, this one D9585 by Franz Schubert. It was perhaps a broad hint (or acknowledgment?) on Schubert’s part that the two sonatas shared the same key of C minor. The Schubert was the central work around which the pianist conceived this program, but Beethoven’s mighty sonata had the honour of being the first to be played.

The opening chords of the Pathetique demand attention. They continue for several bars before the pianist is challenged by the speed and technical demands that follow. Those in the audience who think of Hoang Pham as a great exponent of Chopin would be correct, but he played the Beethoven with the authority that one expects from legendary Classical pianists like Gilels. Hoang appeared equally confident about the development that followed with chords, runs, trills and other technically demanding elements, much of it at speed. Such was his performance that there was spontaneous applause at the end of the first movement, with no glares or apparent disapproval from purists in the audience!

The pathos of this sonata, of course, comes with the second movement, adagio cantabile. Here Hoang’s fondness for the romantic repertoire comes into its own, the beauty of the movement resting on a simple melody and supported by harmony. This being Beethoven, the dramatic elements are accentuated.
Finally, a brisk rondo rounded off the work, allowing Hoang to show yet another aspect of his technique and satisfying the audience right to the final flourish.

Continuing the theme of works chosen because they are personal favourites, the pianist then played the Brahms Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118, “a piece I love.” In Hoang’s hands this came across as soft and gentle, yet within it, a strength. The melody was picked out unselfconsciously and the lovely second part of the work was enhanced by Hoang’s skilful pedalling (something that deserves particular praise).

Hoang returned to Beethoven with his Polonaise in C major Op. 89, clearly chosen for its virtuosity and played with lightness and not a little cheek! Hoang’s pauses and timing were used to great effect here. Staccato octaves in the right hand were showy, and the pianist had fun with the accidentals. Beethoven’s Bagatelle in B minor, Op. 126, could not be dismissed as a “mere bagatelle.” Hoang’s precise performance through to the graceful triplets and thoughtful, soft ending served to mask the degree of difficulty in this work.

After interval came the Schubert, and from the arresting chords of the first movement, its resemblance to the Beethoven was remarkable and obvious. Of course, the first passages employed different notes but the overall effect recalled the Beethoven, and was succeeded by a sparkling flow of notes. Schubert’s second movement, adagio as expected, was as satisfying as you would expect from a characteristically romantic composer.

The point of difference with this sonata was its extra movement (in this case, the third). A Menuetto and Trio, based on a simple theme, it also contained embellishments which the performer delighted in. As so often on this night, Hoang showcased his technical abilities, in this case rounding off the sonata with the brisk final movement, allegro.

At last it was the Blue Danube or, more accurately, Concert Arabesques on “The Beautiful Blue Danube,” arranged by Schulz-Evler. The audience was able to simply relax and enjoy this popular music, the title of which had drawn many of them to the concert.

The great success of the evening was to show how one of Melbourne’s most active pianists has a much wider repertoire than his regular audiences might have suspected. However, it was back to familiar territory with his generous performance of four encores:

Chopin Waltz in A-Flat, Op 69 No 1
Brahms Waltz in A-Flat, Op 3
Rachmaninoff Prelude in G minor, Op 23
Chopin Nocturne in E-Flat, Op 9

Even after the encores, the audience would happily have stayed for more, but, as Hoang is active in concert promotions in Melbourne, they may not have long to wait.

Suzanne Yanko reviewed Hoang Pham’s performance at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre, on March 17, 2018.