An event of considerable historical significance occurred in Raleigh's Fletcher Opera Theater on May 19. Sponsored by Zenph Studios as part of the "Masters Series" of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, Mei-Ting Sun, 2005 winner of the 7th National Chopin Piano Competition, demonstrated his splendid pianistic skills, giving great pleasure to a large audience. In addition, listeners heard live "re-performances" — not recorded performances, mind you — of Alfred Cortot, Glenn Gould, and Art Tatum. Thanks to the technological advancements and the spirited imagination of the engineers at Raleigh-based software company Zenph Studios and a Yamaha Disklavier Pro concert grand piano, the audience heard these virtuosos of yore acoustically recreated. The software decodes audio recordings and digitally turns them into a high-definition MIDI file that enables the Yamaha Disklavier Pro to reproduce enormous breadths of nuances with great precision.
Four preludes by Robert Cuckson, composition and theory faculty member at Mannes College of Music, began the program. Composed at Sun's request, these pieces are nutshells of delicacy and warmth interposed with raucous outbursts. A kaleidoscope of rich ambient colors pervades the work. Sun's reading exhibited many of these qualities as he demonstrated keen virtuosity and mastery of the keyboard. While his playing projected short melodic concepts with ease, and he exhibited an acute balance among musical ideas, the longer phrases would frequently fizzle and leave the listener unfulfilled. The reception by the audience was polite though lackluster.
John Q. Walker, president and one of four co-founders of Zenph Studios, came forward to demonstrate the technology produced at his company. The audience first listened to a 1926 Victor recording of Alfred Cortot playing the Chopin Prelude in G Major. As one would expect, hissing and crackling polluted the sound coming from the old record. Zenph Studios decoded this recording and manipulated it for acoustical "re-creation" by the Disklavier Pro. This "re-creation" seemingly lacked the subtlety known in Cortot's playing. However, by subsequently comparing the 1926 recording to the more familiar 1942 HMV release, this reviewer suddenly realized that Cortot played with more finesse in the latter recording. In retrospect, the "re-creation" thereafter seemed more convincing.
Following Cortot, Sun returned for his rendition of Chopin's Preludes, Op. 28. Regrettably, his rubato seemed a bit awkward at times and therefore counterintuitive to the harmonic and melodic goals of the works. Furthermore, Sun seemed to overlook some of the expressive qualities of melodic dissonances. In spite of that, his playing was simply exquisite — delicate when required, robust when demanded, and decisive when necessary. Due to Sun's meticulous control of the damper pedal, these preludes possessed the essential clarity. In this regard, it seemed peculiar when particular passages were blurred. It was on those occasions that Sun deliberately followed Chopin's pedal indications. It is prudent, for several reasons, to take guard regarding Chopin's pedaling. First, his pedal markings are not consistent between the 1839 London, Leipzig, and Paris editions and therefore are suspect. Second, Chopin favored the Viennese-built pianos of his day that yielded a more delicate palette of nuances than the contemporaneous English pianos, which embodied a richer sonority. Without fear of egregious blurring, these Viennese instruments could sustain more notes and accommodate more dissonances without the need to change the pedal. Therefore, pianists performing on modern pianos should treat Chopin's pedaling judiciously.
After intermission, John Q. Walker returned for a "re-creation" of a 1955 recording of a selection from Bach's Goldberg Variations performed by Glenn Gould. This particular demonstration was more persuasive than the previous Cortot "re-performance" had been. All that was lacking was Gould's humming.
Sun's performance of Scriabin's Sonata No. 3 in f-sharp minor, Op. 23 ensued. The program listed the movements out of order. The correct order is Dramatico, Allegretto, Andante, and finally Presto con fuoco. As previously noted, Sun is a formidable technician who is unarguably sensitive to his own sound and is able to master many thorny passages. His tyrannical control of the final movement of this sonata is evidence of that. This performance, however, lacked a sense of breadth, with many seemingly ungratified climaxes. He was able to capture many musical ideas on the local level but the overall phrase structures seemed unapparent as delivered. Nonetheless, one of the most rewarding experiences of the evening was hearing Sun's control of the subito piano ("suddenly quiet") moments.
The final two works were Chopin's Mazurkas, Op. 41, and Liszt's paraphrase of the Overture to Wagner's Tannhäuser. Though Sun's droll yet gauche comment regarding his weariness of playing Chopin seemed less than prudent, his propensity of creating a wide array of pianistic colors was always present in the mazurkas. He handled his phrasings delicately even though his anomalous rubato occasionally seemed to cause these mazurkas to sound more like waltzes. (Indeed, segments of the Op. 41 Mazurkas are more like waltzes than mazurkas.) Sun concluded the program with the paraphrase. This piece is definitely not for amateur pianists (or even for sagacious professionals). Notwithstanding its colossal technical impediments, Sun played superbly. His blazingly fast octaves seemed to flow effortlessly, and his acute sense of the instrumental timbres of Wagner's original orchestration permeated his playing. It was breathtaking!
The ultimate delectation of the evening emerged with the selection of encores. To begin, Sun performed the Scriabin Prélude for the Left Hand, Op. 9, No. 2, with exquisite beauty and utter mastership. His final souvenir of the evening came with a performance of the famous Horowitz/Sousa paraphrase of "Stars and Stripes Forever." Although too fast for control at times, Sun's performance was tremendously gratifying and completely satisfying. As the audience imperturbably walked out of the auditorium, the Disklavier took the final curtain call as it "re-performed" a recording of "Too Marvelous for Words" by jazz great Art Tatum — a fitting closure.
*We are pleased to welcome to these pages the distinguished pianist, accompanist, chamber musician and scholar Frank D. Pittman, a long-time member of the faculty of Meredith College, who is currently completing his D.M.A. at UNCG.