There are concerts one simply enjoys. And there are those rare occasions that will remain unforgettable.
I experienced one of the latter back in the 1970s, a recital that included Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata in A minor, played then by Emanuel Ax and Radu Lupu. By coincidence, that was the opening work in this recital by Chiao-Ying Chang (piano) and Pei-Jee Ng (cello), an occasion which is likely to join that pantheon of exceptional performances remaining always in the memory. Chang and Ng, members of the renowned Fournier Trio, showed not only complete technical mastery of their instruments but a totally compelling range of emotion that held the audience in the packed auditorium spellbound.
This sonata, composed in 1824 four years before Schubert’s early death aged 31, was not published until 1871. Written for the once popular arpeggione, a sort of bowed guitar, this sonata is now fortunately a regular feature of the repertoire for cello and piano, to which it is ideally suited. Chang’s sweetly meditative introduction and the beautifully poised dance-like joy once Ng’s cello entered the conversation were judged to perfection, sensitive contrasts that ran like a leitmotif through the recital. These were exemplified already in the first movement, the coda – desolate, sad, wistful before the final arpeggio climax – taking over from the exuberant playfulness that characterised their playing of the earlier sections. The middle Adagio was intimately played (Mendelssohn, though born twelve years after Schubert, might have called it a Song without Words), the cello sighing and singing with calm beauty. The mood lightened in the bouncy final movement, in which the duo played with impish enthusiasm. Chang proved the perfect, restrained but tightly rhythmical accompanist to Ng’s warm, expansive tone, before drawing her own lyrical tone from the piano when the melody fell to her.
Unsurprisingly, Beethoven’s Sonata in C major opus 102 no 1 which followed was full of drama, composed in 1815 during the period when his deafness was becoming more profound. Ng and Chang brought all their virtuoso strengths to the challenging dialogue of the opening movement, a musical argument, characterised by the recurring motif of four semiquavers followed by a sustained single higher note. Brilliant passage-work from both players flowed seamlessly into quieter contrasting moods, before the explosive conclusion. Their majestic, choral-like opening to the second movement had a wonderful nobility before the fugal allegro vivace in which both cello and piano alternated with great clarity in their relentless exchange of thematic material, now complex, now mellifluous, before the monumental climax.
Chang and Ng took us further in to the Romantic era with their interpretation of Chopin’s Sonata in G minor op 65. The opening movement, of almost mini-symphonic proportions in itself, was handled with consummate artistry. The moderato marking clearly applied only to the tempo, certainly not to the range of expressive moods they conveyed, harmonies always pure and delicate. Each player accompanied in turn with a lightness that supported the other as soloist, together driving the music with tempestuous flourishes towards its stormy conclusion. Though scherzo movements are generally jocular in character, as the term implies, this one is dark, full of paradoxes, the haunting cello melody eloquently sung by Ng over Chang’s rippling piano, at times almost like a danse macabre. The short largo third movement was a highlight in itself. Each player brought a heart-breaking intensity to the beautiful, sustained melody, luscious and distant, full of longing, even of unrequited love, leading to a moment of absolute silence at the end. As for the final tarantella, an Italian dance thought to be a cure for the poisonous venom of the eponymous spider, well, Chang and Ng simply whirled us energetically around, nervy and breathless, a perpetuum mobile partnership of equals, ending after a headlong chase and a final flourish.
Of course, nobody wanted Chang and Ng to leave the stage, and they obliged. This magnificent recital ended with an encore: two of Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies in English Folk Song. The first had the incongruous but enchanting hint of a Chinese melody; the second was almost like an elegiac Irish love song – utterly beautiful playing, and the most sensitive end imaginable.