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REVIEW: An-Ting Chang adds sparkle to her musical menagerie at St Peter's Church recital

An-Ting ChangAn-Ting ChangThe first of the fifth series of Brilliant Young Musicians in Saint Peter’s Church began in great style (Sunday, October 23) with a recital given by the young Taiwanese pianist An-Ting Chang.  

Chang graduated in 2007 from the National Taiwan University, majoring in chemistry. However she chose a career in music, studying in London at the Royal Academy of Music, where she is still a PhD student in performance practice. Not content with developing a career as a pianist, she has begun experimenting with music and multimedia, through the ‘Concert Theatre’ she has created.

With all the music in her programme relating to the natural world, Chang called her recital, ‘The Carnival of Animals’.  She began with Robert Schumann’s studies known as Papillons.  Written when Schumann was but twenty years old, this group of twelve delicate miniatures floats past us like butterflies on a hot summer day.

Some of the butterflies are brightly coloured, in major keys, while others are portrayed in more sombre minor keys. These were all played with the rich variety of mood which they deserve.

This was followed by the evening's first appearance of the cuckoo: Le Coucou written by the French baroque composer and harpsichordist, Louis-Claude Daquin. Originally a movement from a harpsichord suite, we heard the distinctive two-tone call of the cuckoo recur endlessly in a variety of keys. This was a very robust cuckoo, portrayed with real vigour and technical skill.

Chang followed the butterflies with a very different piece, The Maiden and the Nightingale, by the twentieth century Spanish composer, Enrique Granados. This describes a love-torn maiden singing mournfully to the sound of a nightingale.

Her plangent song, based on a folksong from Valencia, is replete with Spanish rhythms, and redolent of a sad event played out on a warm summer’s night in Granada, with the song of nightingales filling the air.

Played caressingly by Chang, it was a dramatic contrast to her next choice - the Flight of the Bumble Bee composed by Rimsky-Korsakov for orchestra.  This version for solo piano was transcribed by Sergei Rachmaninov.  It is a virtuoso display of semi-quavers played with huge enthusiasm and technical skill. This was an angry bumble bee, not to ignore!  

From an irritating and potentially malevolent insect Chang led us to the river bank with Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Die Forelle - The Trout - the introductory song in Schubert’s much loved song cycle. This version is surprisingly troubling.

Of course, there is the description of the trout lurking in a millstream on a summer’s evening, but Chang’s powerful playing made much of the blood-curdling battle between the fisherman and the trout, killed, inevitably in cold blood.  

What a contrast to Debussy’s Poisson d’Or, from his Images Book II.  This is a much more placid piece, perhaps inspired by the sight of a goldfish swimming monotonously in the security of its bowl - its gilded scales flashing in the light.

In reality it is claimed that the piece is inspired by two golden fish on a Japanese lacquer panel, which Debussy owned.  Even he was swept up in the huge interest in the Orient, which dominated early twentieth century taste. Two well-known Chopin waltzes followed.  

These may well have been familiar, and lacking a little in sensitivity.  However, I doubt whether anyone in the audience was aware that the first, the Minute Waltz, had been inspired George Sand’s dog, chasing its own tail, while the second was inspired by George Sand’s cat, Valdeck, the yearning long notes imitating the sound of cats.

The first half ended with Aaron Copland’s The Cat and Mouse, taking its cue from one of La Fontaine’s Fables.  There was much energetic playing as the turbulent relationship between the cat and mouse is played out. There were brilliant musical flourishes, and the final pleading chords of the mouse left much to the imagination.    May be the mouse did get away...

After the interval we were treated to the whole of Daquin’s Troisieme Suite, of which Le Coucou had been a taster.  This time though it was LA Coucou, the same music, but played with a gentle femininity - in contrast to the raucous mate heard in the first half. The suite ended with a lovely rondo, La Tendre Silvie, played with all the tenderness and love the work demanded.

The concert finished with Le Carnival des Animaux, undoubtedly Saint Saens’ most popular work. Originally written for a variety of instruments, this version was adapted for solo piano by Chang herself.  There was the familiar cast list including another cuckoo! This one, though, exhausted after performing so much this evening, is calling in a rather ‘tired’ minor mode. If only cuckoos were so commonly heard in rural Wiltshire!  

There was the heavy-footed elephant, the chattering hens and the ponderous tortoise, all vividly portrayed.  Perhaps The Swan, the best known of the movements, suffered from insufficient emphasis on the plangent lyrical line, lost as it was in the rippling waves.  

It was a lovely concert - one made all the more memorable by Chang’s introduction and explanation of the pieces. Not only did we learn so much about the pieces, but we were enveloped in her infectious enthusiasm. Perhaps it will not be so much the music, but An-Ting Chang’s infectious smile, humour and charm we shall remember from this evening.   Please come again!  

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