Hoang Pham in Recital

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Published: 9th April, 2019

After nine years of giving regular piano recitals in the Melbourne Recital Centre, Hoang Pham draws a capacity audience into Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. There is clearly much respect and enthusiasm for this young pianist’s choice of technically challenging repertoire which today was an impressive program of lofty works. There was breathtaking silence and attention through every piece played, making this recital, in Hoang’s words, “a dream.”

Ballade No 1 in Gm, considered to be among the best of Chopin’s creations, presents a challenge in both technical difficulty and interpretation. This was a dramatic opening work, played with strength and power, virtuosic and crystal clear determination. Frequently the opening theme is played with shadowy introspection, even a sense of questioning, but Hoang delivered the theme as a slow, bold and assertive statement, which gained more movement with each reappearance. He showed great fluidity in chromatic runs, masterly control and excitement in dramatic fortissimo chords. A strong feature of Hoang’s style, for me, was the clear, almost over-emphasised voices, melodies and motifs, which enabled the listener to experience the composer’s intentions with ease. This was a grand opening.

The Prelude in G Op 32 No 5 by Rachmaninoff followed, showing a contrasting sweetness and almost pastoral flow, a virtuosic demonstration of extended trills, which were as colourful as butterfly wings.  Hoang enjoys speaking to the audience about his attachment to Rachmaninov the man, the cheeky personality, whose wit and music he is so fond of. This adds immensely to his popularity as a performer who takes time to connect with the audience and share his personal reflections on music. Today his choice of repertoire was not for the faint-hearted – listener or piano player!

Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli was the highlight for me. The twenty variations provide rich contrasts, from the delightful warm and sensitively played opening theme to settings with stronger chordal punctuations, quirky “modern” interjections of sarabande dance rhythms with glissando fragments of humour, stealthy minor keys, hymn-like settings, pianissimo trills or strong marching chords and grandiose powerful octaves. These variations are not just variations on structure and technique, but are a rich source of expressive contrasting musical elements of all kinds. Hoang balanced the changing climate of each variation with precision and balance, with many dynamic contrasts and textures, while always highlighting his choice of important voices and melody lines.

Completing the first half of the recital, an arrangement by Rachmaninoff of Fritz Kreisler’s Liebeslied was elegant and pleasing repertoire, and was played with a confident pulse, with lightness, colourful and clean textures, sensitivity and joy.

When we see Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the program, do we personally each go down memory lane and recall our first hearing of this work, and reminisce about our favourite definitive performances or recordings? When Hoang began to play this popular work, we were at first surprised by his radical forward flowing tempo, and lovely sunlight rather than darkness at moonlight reached us. This first movement felt surprisingly short, but was a refreshingly new approach, and Hoang still produced a warm and colourful tone, again giving prominence to those well-known melodic motifs. Similarly, the Allegretto was played with a more serious and broader outlook than usual. I felt that a respectful smooth sonority and grace, almost a heavy footfall, was added today for this quasi Minuet.  Hoang released the passion and excitement we expect in the 3rd Movement with power and passion, masterly technical control, and some very touching pianissimo contrasting melodic themes. The audience responded loudly with their applause.

La Leggierezza from Three Concert Etudes by Liszt allowed Hoang to play with more lyricism and less power, and revel in the rapid and lighter material, with delicate freedom, lightness and sparkle. The final cadence was quite beautiful, quite soul-touching.

The final work, Overture from Tannhauser Wagner arranged by Liszt, was a grand marathon which paid homage to Romantic virtuosic traditions. With many notes, many colours, a showpiece of extreme registers on the piano, this could be seen as a “wild ride” – a breathtaking and impressive undertaking for any pianist’s memory and technique. I will have to admit that I prefer the orchestral colours and instrumental roles to these piano transcriptions, and in a few scary moments was wondering “Liszt, why did you do this?”, and it was almost as Hoang described this transcription: impossible to play, brings the house down, and is absolutely worth it”.

Encores were delightful – Valley of Rocks, Miriam Hyde’s grand and popular work, with its wide range of technical difficulty and dynamics, was played with absolute sensitivity and richness. Strong right-hand melodies were again in the foreground, almost over-stated, the left hand accompaniment always mindful, sonorous and earthy. There were rich explosions of chords; this satisfying work was played with heart and soul. A second encore, the popular evergreen Chopin Waltz in C sharp minor, allowed the man and the performer Hoang Pham to continue sharing his dreams and reflections with us.

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Julie McErlain reviewed Hoang Pham in Recital in Melbourne Recital Centre’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on Saturday, March 30, 2019.