MUSIC REVIEW Michael White
ong before there was Lang Lang there was Fou Ts’ong. And for years, decades even, he was the Chinese pianist: the one and only known to western audiences with anything approximating to an international reputation. Born in 1934, he made his debut in the 1950s, married into musical aristocracy (Zamira Menuhin, daughter of Yehudi, though it didn’t last) and built a platform for himself around performances of the core Austro-German classics.
But it was with Chopin, in the 1953 Chopin Competition, Warsaw, that he first hit the headlines. And it was playing Chopin 57 years later that he made an extraordinary impression in this year’s Oxford International Piano Festival (OIPF). The OIPF is something I’ve written about before on this page, and it’s an extraordinary event in its own right: a synthesis of festival and summer academy in which the eminent pianists who come to perform stay on to give public masterclasses with promising youngsters. This year’s roster included András Schiff, Olli Mustonen, Michael Roll and Cristina Ortiz as well as Mr Fou, which is quite a line up.
But the special interest of Fou was that he’s not a very visible figure these days on the circuit: more a legend than a live experience. And hearing his allChopin recital in the intimacy of Oxford’s Holywell Music Room (said to be the oldest functioning concert venue in Europe, though that always strikes me as a tall claim) was one of the most engaging concerts I’ve heard in ages – totally apart from the relentless turnover of Chopin programmes I’ve sat through since the start of the composer’s anniversary year. From Fou Ts’ong, Chopin has dimension, drama and a strong, incisive edge. It isn’t blowsy or evasive, but it is poetic (in a muscular as well as thoughtful way) and full of fantasy: a serious, probing kind of fantasy emerging from some deep reserve of wisdom. There were smudged notes (I’ve heard cleaner playing) but it hardly mattered. Music-making of such stature isn’t undermined by finger-slips.
Above all, Fou projected meaning and significance – which was one of the issues that arose repeatedly during the festival masterclasses. Time and again, young pianists went onto the platform, played with technical assurance and musicanship, but lacked any obvious ability to negotiate a relationship with their audience. It was practice rather than performance, and with no communication. Fou Ts’ong gave an object lesson in communication; and he gave it without any of the overstatement or vulgarity or vacuous mannerisms of that current hero of the Chinese piano world whose name I scarcely need repeat. It was a privilege to witness what he did and how he did it.
Scarcely less outstanding a communicator was the South American Cristina Ortiz who gave a brilliantly direct, engaged and spirited performance of Chopin’s 2nd Piano Concerto at Oxford Town Hall with the Oxford Philomusica under its chief conductor (and founding director of the OIPF) Marios Papadopoulos. Quite apart from what she sounds like, Ortiz is a joy to watch: I know few pianists who project more obvious pleasure in performance, and her animation (though extreme and running to ecstatic, smiling commentaries on how the orchestra is doing) isn’t phoney. All her vigour seems to come out of the music (and get given back to it) with what appears to be enormous generosity of soul. And despite the extravagance of gesture she remains a sharply focused player: keen, alert and with exact articulation. Nothing sloppy, everything in place. And so it was, astonishingly, with the Philomusica.
Oxford Town Hall is an ugly, overdecorated building with a horrible acoustic: smothering and boomy, turning every sound into big noise. But in this Chopin, as in the Beethoven Eroica Symphony that followed, the big noise came with discipline and rhythmic strength – thanks largely to the pareddown economy of gesture in Marios Papadopoulos’s conducting. From the depths of sonic chaos came real impact. But one still longs for the day when Oxford gets itself a decent largescale concert hall. For a city that in most other respects sets the agenda for western civility, it’s a serious omission.