by Angela Sutton
Few composers after World War I have shown much interest in the singing piano lines or melodic hooks favored in the nineteenth century. Consequently, their works are difficult to read, difficult to conceptualize, and difficult to present. In particular, they often require a lot of physical power and stamina, which pianist Jenny Q Chai impressively served up Thursday night at Zankel Hall.
The first half of the program featured first performances of recent works by Inhyun Kim (Parallel Lines), Ashley Fu-Tsun Wang (Current), and Marco Stroppa (Innige Cavatina, US premiere.) Stroppa's Cavatina was perhaps the most theatrical, asking the pianist to reach inside the piano and wedge the pedals in place, creating a host of unusual sounds. The striking ending of this work sounded like distant funeral bells as it faded away. Messiaen’s Canteyodjaya, another large work, closed the first half like a cock-eyed Rachmaninoff. Ms. Chai played with conviction, providing the necessary insight for these difficult works.
The second half opened with excerpts from Gyorgy Kurtag’s Jatekok. In contrast with the first half's sound world, Ms. Chai spun out a quiet web of sound in the second of these, “Les Adieux.”
Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana followed, which seemed at first like a mismatch on this contemporary-heavy program. Schumann, however, was more forward-looking than many of his contemporaries, including Chopin, and may be the flat-out weirdest writer for the piano before Debussy. Naked piano overtones, unplayable notations, and strange part-writing all appear in his works, lurking beneath the Romantic surface. But, while Chai's playing was sharply detailed, sensitive to countermelodies, and intellectually satisfying, it steered away from quiet reflection and missed the sense of fantasy that Schumann pulls off so well.