2019 Advanced Piano Student Recital Review

Andrew Wu, Student of Mikhail Volchok: Friday, May 24, 2019, Levine Music Lang Hall
By Jason Solounias, Levine Piano Faculty
There was an unmistakable air of excitement in Lang Recital Hall on Friday May 24th as the audience waited to welcome Andrew Wu to the stage for his final advanced recital at Levine Music. In attendance were many familiar faces from the Levine Piano Department, Andrew’s teacher Dr. Mikhail Volchok, as well as family members and friends from Andrew’s senior class at St. Albans School. The palatable anticipation was justifiably present, as Wu boasts an impressive resume. He has participated in the Tanglewood Institute Young Artists Piano Program and the Interlochen Advanced Piano Program, and received prizes in the West Virginia International Piano Competition, National Chamber Ensemble Competition, David Dubois Competition, and Misbin Family Memorial Competition. He has also been in the Levine Honors Program for six years. All were there to witness the aspiring musician’s most forthcoming achievement.

Wu presented a formidable program of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, and Stravinsky. He opened the recital with a Prelude and Fugue in F-Sharp Minor from J. S. Bach’s second book of the Well Tempered Clavier. This prelude is a great example of Bach favoring a more dense and polyphonic style in his later preludes. Wu played the prelude’s thicket of intertwining voices with poise, calm focus, and with a sculpted tone. A few slips at the opening quickly dissipated into steady concentration. During the fugue, his thorough study of the piece commanded the attention of the audience to the rise and fall of each phrase and clearly projected each statement of the main theme amid a swirl of melodies.

Beethoven’s Sonata op.78 is an uncompromising brief work. Dedicated to Therese von Brunsvick, Beethoven’s supposed “immortal beloved,” this sonata in the unusual key of F-Sharp major bears no resemblance to its dramatic and more famous predecessor: the Appassionata Sonata Op.54. Op.78 was a deft choice for Wu’s program, in that there is clever key relationship between the F-Sharp Minor Prelude and Fugue of Bach and the F-Sharp Major Sonata of Beethoven. In only two movements Op.78 packs a lot of substance into its typical ten minute performance time. Wu invited us to listen with a warm tone and tender mood in the opening chords. The lyrical theme, unusual for Beethoven who typically favored terse and compact motives, was played with an appropriate Schubertian singing style. Wu was sensitive to harmonic changes, the backbone of this movement’s narrative thread, shading each sequence with a different inflection and tone color. Wu played the challenging second movement with clarity, but it lacked the cavalier quality that is inherent in the piece. Here the Beethovenian contrasts are in full force, and Wu, while communicating some of those moments, did not capture all of them.

Wu began to shine while playing the two Nocturnes of Chopin. He carried a beautiful singing line in the opening of the C minor Nocturne Op.48, and soared through the Liszt inspired octaves in the difficult middle section. Even the rarely achieved Doppio movimento in the return of the main theme was steadfast, and with skill he projected the melody over the dense texture underneath. Although, perhaps in the haste of this section, Wu did not have the grandiose passion in the climax of the finale, he gave a very confident and moving performance of Chopin’s most difficult Nocturne. The E Major Nocturne from Op. 62 was played with great contrast to the drama of the preceding piece. Wu had a tender approach to the lyricism, shading the winding melodies in the left hand, and brought out many elegant polyphonic moments.

The G minor Ballade of Chopin could be considered a rite of passage for piano players and Wu made a valiant attempt at this masterwork. After a bold introduction, his presentation of the main theme was straightforward and unaffected. Each phrase was thoughtfully shaped, and his narrative voice in the opening of the Ballade gave the sense that we were about to listen to a grand tale. There may be an infinite number of ways to play this opening, and Wu’s careful planning of this sentiment helped tie together his overall interpretation. The structure of the piece was understood and communicated to the audience. There is no doubt that Wu is an accomplished pianist, and this fact was no more evident than in his adroit presentation of the myriad treacherous passages within the Ballade. Wu’s clarity and confidence was most impressive. Even in fast playing he was thinking of those passages in a melodic way; nothing was just for show. Despite one electrifying moment at the very end of the coda, his cool approach didn’t make the most emotionally satisfying performance. The Ballades of Chopin, and pieces alike, are the type of work that take years of experience living with the music to really make a personal statement. Upon hearing the beginning of Wu’s journey with this piece, I am certain that as he grows, so will the strength and conviction of his interpretation.

The recital concluded with two duets with Junliang Li. There was musical chemistry between the two players from the very first note of the Brahms Hungarian Dance in G Minor. With a soulful tone, pleading melody, and sparkling passage work from Wu on the primo, and a rhythmic engine responding to the whims of the melody from Li on the secondo, Wu and Li let their proverbial hair down and had fun with the music. The Danse Russe from Stravisnky’s Petrouchka was no shy affair either. Both players showed their technical equipment. The performance had all the rhythmic vitality, brilliant sound, and bite that makes this music come to life. Whether confidence or adrenaline, they tip-toed to the edge and gave a very exciting performance of the piece. Formidable partners, Wu and Li concluded the recital with a bang.