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A Pianistic Phenomenon

Qian Wu's recent London South Bank recital


Qian Wu's last appearance at the Purcell Room (where has she not been heard is more to the point) under the sponsorship of the Martin Musical Scholarship Fund, before a packed house [17 May 2006], fulfilled high hopes as well as expectations born of previous encounters with this rising star in the pianistic firmament. Previous appearances in this very hall had attracted unanimous praise in the national press in 2001 for her challenging contemporary programme of Ligeti Etudes, Elliott Carter and Malcolm Singer under the aegis of the Park Lane Group and, a year or two later, when she shook the rafters with some high-powered Liszt playing. On this occasion it was time to reconcile old and new corners of the repertoire, with Mozart rubbing shoulders with Janácek's Sonata 1.X.1905 and Liszt's Mephisto Waltz in the first half to prove her unrivalled mastery of both.

What was new was her infallible professionalism in grasping the acoustics of the hall, thus restraining her full-bodied tone in the Mozart, where scintillating passagework, crispness of delivery and well-nigh 18th century dynamics were the order of the day. Where once in the exposition, she might have landed on the arrival at the dominant with a bump, now under the vigilant ear of Christopher Elton (Royal Academy of Music) who was present, there was almost an understatement of these obvious structural points. Beside this pellucid Mozart, in which no detail was either lost nor exaggerated, the high drama and frequent descents into folksiness of the Janácek were compellingly conveyed. The 'feeling' element, which before had often taken second place to technical and structural considerations, had now become the shaping force in an interpretation of heroic poignancy. On the other hand, her Liszt left no doubt that on the sheerly virtuoso side she remains her matchless self -- never have I heard it taken at such a clip, as delirious as it was diabolical, though never casting aside the need for scrupulous accuracy and cleanness of execution -- two qualities which are as unmentionable as questions of personal hygiene for most critics but which are inestimable paving-stones on the road to any professional Parnassus.

The second half gave us the chance to catch our breath with an exquisitely nuanced account of the Arabesque, revelling in a sublime simplicity and unaffectedness of line which previously with Qian we too often had mistaken for indifference, before settling into an equally glowing Carnaval, which for all its exhilaration and variety of tone-colours, will be the better for having been 'played in' on the many occasions which await this pianistic phenomenon. Not that her 'Paganini' could ever be bettered, but she may one day take the 'March of the Davidsbündler' at a less lumbering gait, though there is no denying the electrifying contrast between this and her succeeding Animato, where she followed Schumann's injunction of stringendo sempre piu e piu to the letter in her sprint to the finish. If anyone can talk of 'old souls' in terms of precocious prodigies (despite the apparent contradiction in terms) this is one case where such a dichotomy applies, lighting up everything she touches with the energy released by this uncanny fusion -- as amazingly fully-blown now as when I first heard her, aged eleven, in the Shanghai Conservatory!

Copyright © 27 May 2006 Malcolm Troup, London UK




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