Han-Na Chang & Finghin Collins
Wigmore Hall, London, 2012-04-28
2014-11-02 — Re-posting, with small addendum (WordPress)
2016-06-26 — Brushed up for better readability
2.5 weeks ago, when my wife and I visited our daughter Deborah in London, and for the day of our arrival, we had booked seats for a concert at Wigmore Hall:
Han-Na Chang and the Haydn Concerto in C
The motivation for us to pick that was because the timing was perfect. Plus, our daughter plays and likes the cello. On top of that, a couple weeks ago, Deborah and I were both stunned by Han-Na Chang‘s performance of the Haydn C major concerto (see here and here for movements 2 and 3).
That performance dates back some 7 years (2005) — but she had recorded both Haydn concertos already back in 1998, when she was 16. In that YouTube performance, it was amazing to see not only her enormous technical skills, but also her freedom of expression, and how much she has detached herself from technicalities. She is totally relaxed and appears to enjoy her own playing while visually communicating with the orchestra. And she rarely ever looks at her instrument.
Other Performances of this Concerto
I don’t want to rate her performance here, or compare it to others. Some YouTube commenters seem to prefer Wispelwey, and of course also Rostropovich and countless others perform the Haydn concerts very well. I have watched
- Pieter Wispelwey (with the Violons du Roi, uploaded 2006),
- Mstislav Rostropovich (with the Academy of St.Martin-in-the-Fields, see here and here for movements 2 and 3),
- Yo-Yo Ma (Boston Pops Orchestra, video no longer available), and
- Misha Maisky (a live recording from 2006) with the last and other movements of that concert.
Some may play even faster, smoother at times, some have better orchestras — but Han-Na Chang plays many passages clearer, lighter than most or all of the above, strong contenders. Particularly the last movement often ends up as a speed race, and in that, even top soloists tend to rush through rapid passages, making some of their playing sound superficial — not so Han-Na Chang: watching her play is such pure joy (she is often almost dancing on her chair!), even though she does not aim for the ultimate, polished perfection!
On a related note: the C major concerto was featured in one of the first concerts that I ever attended, in Olten, with Claus Heitz and the Festival Strings Lucerne; further, around 1980 I heard Rostropovich play both Haydn concerts in Zurich.
The Concert Program
Back to the concert at Wigmore Hall: don’t expect a detailed concert critique — I did not know (or not know well) any of the works that were played, and I hadn’t prepared myself, nor did I have a score at hand, etc.; we had very good seats right in the middle of the concert hall (closer to the podium, actually). Here’s the program that was played:
- Sergei Rachmaninoff: Vocalise, op. 34 No.14
- Sergei Rachmaninoff: Cello Sonata in G minor, op.19
- Manuel de Falla: Siete canciones populares españolas
- Astor Piazzolla: Le Grand Tango
Han-Na Chang’s partner at the piano was Finghin Collins. I had never come across that name — but he turned out to be an excellent pianist and accompanist — a very good match for Han-Na Chang’s playing!
Rachmaninoff: Vocalise op.34, No.14
So, how was the concert? I have heard Vocalise op.34, No.14 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) several times before — but never for cello and piano; still, it sounded very familiar immediately (this piece can easily turn into an “ear worm”, I think).
I had the impression that it took both artists about half a minute to “get into the piece”, i.e., familiarize themselves with the acoustics and the atmosphere of that concert hall. The coordination was not perfect initially, and also Han-Na Chang’s part was played rather soft, with lots of portamenti (I think that clear and simple articulation is much better for that piece!).
Fortunately, that only lasted less than a minute, thereafter the articulation was clearer, and also the coordination was much better. The first piece in a concert is always tricky, highly exposed — there’s the saying that the most the public remembers from a concert is the first and the last piece played; I think this is pure legend, and certainly not justified here. Nevertheless, I think the Vocalise would have profited from being played later in the program, maybe after the intermission?
Rachmaninoff: Cello Sonata in G minor, op. 19
For me, there is no doubt that the culmination of the program was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s big Cello Sonata in G minor, op.19. As this composition was new to me, I can’t make any statement about the relative quality of the interpretation, nor can I comment on whether the interpretation reflects Rachmaninoff’s intent / notation. What I can state, though, is that I was instantly caught, impressed, and carried away by this composition and its interpretation. It was very virtuosic and featured excellent coordination. The composition is technically very demanding, I think. The interpretation was also very emotional and expressive, and never “ex cathedra”.
I was really impressed both with the interpretation and the composition. My instant reaction was that among Rachmaninoff’s instrumental compositions that I know so far this was the one that left me with the deepest impression, certainly beating the piano concerts and the Paganini variations. Sure, those are excellent compositions, too, but for me their focus is more on piano virtuosity, they are more extroverted. Yes, they are also very passionate — but the Cello Sonata is more intimate, “warmer”, talks to me more directly.
I really like this composition — and I wish there was a recording with these artists! I listened to the first movement on YouTube, played by Mstislav Rostropovich — this may be more authentic, is maybe more “intellectual”, but it did not touch me nearly as much as Han-Na Chang and Finghin Collins in this concert! OK, the sound of that YouTube recording is not very good, so I may be unfair here — must check for available recordings!
de Falla: Siete canciones populares españolas
After the break, the concert continued with “Siete canciones populares españolas“ by Manuel de Falla (1876 – 1946), arranged for cello and piano by Emilio Colón. Well played, both the public and the artists seemed to enjoy this performance.
Piazzolla: Le Grand Tango
The official program ended with “Le Grand Tango” by Astor Piazzolla (1921 – 1992). Judging from their visual interaction prior to starting, both artists had fun and enjoyed playing this music — even though it is (probably) fairly demanding to play, and I don’t mean to say that they made fun out of this music — for me, a Tango (and also this one) is rather melancholic music.
The performance after the break was certainly as good as before the intermission. Both the de Falla and Piazzolla compositions are fascinating pieces of music. However, I must say that after the first half I was still “digesting” the Rachmaninoff sonata. To me none of the pieces after the break came even close to the sonata. Close in what sense? Quality? Musical content? Emotional complexity? Hard to say! Maybe I was just very much “in tune” with the sonata? Or maybe I perceived those pieces after the break as approaching popular / entertainment music? Or are they “approaching the fringes of my range of interest”?
In any case, the impression from the sonata was so strong that I had a hard time enjoying the three pieces after the break. These definitely are good music in their own right! My personal preference would very much have been to start the concert with de Falla and Piazzolla. Actually, why not even Piazzolla first, followed by de Falla?
Then, after the break would probably have been the ideal spot for the Vocalise, after which the public would be ready for the big sonata. For me personally, even the “Swan” would then have been too much after the sonata. I’d prefer leaving the concert with the strong impression that the sonata made on me!
A separate blog post features a detailed review of CD recordings with Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata op.19