Chiao-Ying Chang, together with her two colleagues who make up the Fournier Trio, has a residency at Wolfson College, meaning that they give there two or three recitals each year. On this occasion, Chiao-Ying was on her own for a recital of Beethoven, Schumann, Ravel and Chopin. My neighbours were Mr and Mrs Charlesworth from Witney, old acquaintances of hers from the days when they were members of North Fylde Music Circle, an active NW England musical society. It invited Chiao-Ying to come up from London to play more than one recital for them, and she actually stayed in their house on one occasion.
One of Chiao-Ying's great virtues, and one I'd noted on hearing her playing on previous occasions, is that she adheres closely to the marked tempos, thus preserving the basic intention of her composers. There seems always to have been an unwritten convention in classical music that the degree of fidelity shown by an interpreter to a composer's intention is in approximate inverse proportion to the prestige of that interpreter. Stephen Hough at St John the Evangelist on Saturday is at least arguably a case in point. Thus here for Beethoven's 'Pastoral' Sonata, one of his earlier ones, our soloist made the required swift changes of tempo in the first half of the 'allegro' while adhering to the overall marked speed in the form of a generally lilting rhythm. In the rondo she hammered down hard with the left hand in each of the component episodes, emphasizing the dominance of the lower register.
Then on to Schumann's Faschingsschwank aus Wien [Carnival Scenes from Vienna]. Chiao-Ying leapt into the head-on impact of the thundering octaves and impetuous rhythmic drive of the first movement, dishing out plenty of muscular power. I noticed that she then varied the pressure of her hands as a solution to the challenge of providing variety out of material that is unusually symmetrical and even repetitive. The Romance was taken slowly and quietly. Later I missed the supposed reference to La Marseillaise (note to self: must listen more carefully next time).
Ravel's Valses Nobles et Sentimentales is a sequence of seven waltzes after Franz Schubert, though I'd like to see the ballroom dancer who'd care to essay more than one or two of them, just as I'd be fascinated to see anyone dance the programme's last piece, Chopin's Polonaise in A flat. Indeed the excellent programme notes by Douglas Abraham comment playfully here: 'it would be a dreadful lack of taste to actually dance to this'. The waltzes' rhythms are choppy and in any case, the distinctive beat is sometimes all but absent. Chiao-Ying gave the opening waltz style and vigour, while the second had a probing, contemplative feel. The third was playful and teasing while the fourth had a mercurial quality. She conjured up all the glitter and glamour of the ballroom in the penultimate waltz. The epilogue with wisps of melody from the preceding seven pieces was woven together beautifully, and the ending which fades imperceptibly away into silence occasioned a long pause before the applause.
Chopin's Fantaisie in F minor has an opening that's a rousing but solemn march theme, followed by a passionate virtuoso section, with Chiao-Ying having to reach with both hands to the far ends of the keyboard. I observed that her hands are no larger than normal for a woman of her size, but she manages the long finger stretches with insouciant ease. Later a short lyrical section before the final, bold flourish demonstrated her ability to contrast brilliant virtuoso playing with both the more introspective and the rhetorical sections.
Wolfson College is a first-class venue for a musical soirée, having pin-sharp acoustics. The Leonard Wolfson Auditorium by Berman Guedes Stretton, a fairly new architectural practice that specializes in the higher education sector, in chestnut wood, and with a pyramidal roof, manages to be at once intimate but spacious, and every seat offers a full view. The Arts Administrator Jan Scriven and her colleagues offer a friendly welcome, there's free wine and soft drinks at the interval, ticket prices are very reasonable, and access by car and bus is dead easy. Yet as I came away, I reflected how I would gladly have stood outside for an hour and a half in the snow and biting wind, peering in at the windows in order to catch Chiao-Ying Chang's scintillating artistry.