Friday, June 4, 2021

Living up to his medal-winning manner, Luke Hsu puts a personal stamp on an IVCI recital

Making an individual impression on listeners can't guarantee thorough satisfaction, but what Luke Hsu showed in the 2018 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis had the merit of not sinking into a competition-friendly style that wouldn't allow him to stand out. His technical aplomb was linked to a surging expressiveness that compelled notice and won for him the contest's bronze medal.

2018 bronze medalist Luke Hsu put together a winning program.
What I remember from how he played there, as well as from a return recital of medalists in 2019, seems to have been slightly chastened and given more focus, to judge from the Laureate Series recital Hsu presented Thursday evening at Indiana Landmarks, with  Chih-Yi Chen at the piano. 

Perhaps the enforced idleness of the pandemic has lent him perspective without neutralizing his personal engagement with the repertoire. And the elimination of "contest nerves" presumably has helped in lending mellowness and plasticity to his playing. It may also have tempted him to be a little long-winded in oral program notes from the stage, however.

I found only the opening of the program's most familiar piece, Brahms' Violin Sonata in D minor, to sound slightly bland at the start. The performance quickly took on  personality and put across the music's ingratiating vigor, calming down effectively near the end of the movement without losing the main point.

In the second movement, Hsu displayed through his phrasing and winsome tempo adjustments how much the North German composer had absorbed of his adopted hometown of Vienna. That brought this repertoire favorite fully into the program's theme: the atmosphere of the Austrian capital at the turn of the 20th century. The explosive outbursts of the finale got whole-hearted commitment without losing a whit of clarity.

Two influential figures of Vienna in the late stage of romanticism were represented before the Brahms. The first was Alexander Zemlinsky, whose 1896 Serenade in A major opened the program, and then a prodigy later known, after emigration, for his Hollywood scores, Erich Korngold. 

A certain amount of affectation suits the music of fin-de-siecle Vienna, and Hsu provided that, with idiomatic concurrence from the pianist. In a suite from his incidental music to "Much Ado About Nothing," op. 11, Korngold exercised the pictorial verve and representation of fleeting emotions that were to serve him well in his movie career. Abrupt changes of direction in "The Maiden in the Bridal Chamber" and "Scene in the Garden" were linked suavely in the duo's performance. When the music to Shakespeare's comedy called for a narrower range, as in a dogged march's satirical thrust at the officiousness of Dogberry and Verges, Hsu and Chen sounded fully engaged with the Korngold wit. The suite ended brightly in a nimble "Masquerade: Hornpipe."

The Zemlinsky Serenade featured an especially attractive slow movement, with a bit of showiness in the violin melody that suggested inspiration from opera or the florid type of art song. At leisure in putting forth the music's expressiveness, Hsu even simulated the vocal technique of messa di voce, where the singer expressively raises and lowers the volume on a single held note. The rhythmic trickiness in the finale, with its recurrent pauses and charging forward, found the duo fully in accord.

The spooky Nocturne and headlong Tarantella (op. 28) of Karol Szymanowski (whose Viennese experience was the least of the four composers, concentrated in several years before the outbreak of the First World War) concluded the program. The color palette was broad, and the energy generated and sustained in the bulk of the piece swept all before it. The resulting big ovation drew from violinist and pianist a tasty bonbon by Fritz Kreisler, "Schön Rosmarin."

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