Friday 14 February 2014

Mei Yi Foo - lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall

Mei Yi Foo - photo John Millar/BBC
Mei Yi Foo - photo John Millar/BBC
Messiaen, Ravel, Bartok Balakirev: Mei Yi Foo: The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 13 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Technical brilliance and fine control in this brilliant lunchtime showcase

Malaysian born, London-based pianist Mei Yi Foo won the BBC Best Newcomer of the Year award at the 2013 BBC Music Magazine Awards. Mei Yi gave a lunch-time recital yesterday, 14 February 2014, as part of Lisa Peacock's series of Lunchtime Showcase Recitals at the Wigmore Hall. She performed a fascinating and challenging of music by Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Ravel and Bela Bartok, finishing with Balakirev's outrageously demanding Islamey.

She started with the tenth of Olivier Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur l'enfant Jesus, the movement entitled Regard de l'Esprit de joie (Contemplation of the Spirit of Joy).  Messiaen described the movement as a 'plainchantesque oriental dance' and embedded in the elaborate and lush textures there is indeed a dance and one of the virtues of Mei Yi's performance was the way she articulated this. Whilst she rendered Messiaen's technical demands with admirable facility, her Spirit of Joy also danced with infectious abandon in a highly rhythmic dance, which Mei Yi surrounded by a delicate wash of colours and chords with a swirl of notes which culminated in the brilliantly glorious final pages.

Maurice Ravel's Ma Mere L'Oie required control of a different style. Ravel wrote the piece for piano duet, and later orchestrated it. In 1911, a year after the piano duet premiere Jacques Charlot arranged the suite for solo piano and this is the version which Mei Yi performed from memory. Compressing the four pianist's hands onto two doesn't so much require a technical feat as demand of the pianist the control to articulate the various different layers of the music giving each line individual life. This Mei Yi did superbly, in all the pieces in the programme she showed a brilliant feel for giving different layers of the music different colours and tones. Pavane de la belle au bois dorman was notable for the clear tone and clarity of timbre Mei Yi brought to it. Petit poucet was very evocative, with a singing melody of even quaver passages with a surprising depth of timbre. Laideronnette was all charm and delight, with infectious rhythmic moments. Overall Mei Yi displayed fine control of the complex textures. Les entretiens de la belle et de la bete combined graceful movement and melodic charm with atmospheric, dark and sonorous moments. The different piano textures giving us a clear exposition of the story. Finally, the warm toned and gentle Le jardin feerique which grew in power to a wonderfully transparent climax.

Bela Bartok's Out of Doors (Szabadban) was written in 1926, the same year as his First Piano Concerto. The five movements of the suite explore a variety of contrasting piano textures. With Drums and Pipeswas all pounding rhythms in the bass, the crisp rhythmic sections providing a framework for more lyrical moments. Mei Yi brought impressive power and accuracy to the movement. Barcarolla had a flowing and rocking left hand rhythm which evoked the Venetian barcarolle, but Bartok rarely used the conventional 6/8 timing, instead giving us something more complex. Mei Yi allowed the fascinating right hand melody to develop into something a bit eerie. Musettes was all about texture again with an exploration of insistent drones, but all given a lovely transparent texture by Mei Yi. Musique Nocturnes saw Bartok returning to the night music style for which he is well known. Mei Yi played the atmospheric clusters and wisps of notes with a quiet, stunning intensity but bringing a subtly threatening hint to the movement too. Finally The Chase, here we had more driving rhythms in the bass in a fast, incessant movement which was almost filmic in its exciting vividness.

Finally Mei Yi Foo played Mily Balakirev's outrageous oriental fantasy Islamey, playing the piece from memory. Written in 1869 the work is essentially a bravura Lisztian fantasy on themes from the Caucasus. Balakirev was inspired to write the piece after a trip to the Caucasus and the piece has challenged pianists ever since. She brought a delicate but firm tone to the opening Allegro, giving the fantastic web of sound an infectious rhythmic undertow. She brought a lovely long slow sense of line to the lovely exotic oriental theme in the middle Tranquillo section, whilst the concluding Allegro vivo had a furious brilliance, but there was delicacy too. She built the conclusion up into an outrageous Lisztian climax which was a brilliant tour de force.

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