Review of Howard Na’s recital
061106 Sunday at De Anza College, A-11 Choral Hall
Piano: NY Steinway D
--as listed by thoughtful Beethoven:
The entire sonata had a wonderfully introspective quality to it, which really set up the roaring climax in the fourth movement. The opening in the first movement was simply rendered, without any unnecessary effort (and yet so beautiful!); this really set the tone for the rest of the piece.
Overall, an effortless and unforced rendition. Nothing was exaggerated or out of place.
I did feel that he is capable of much, much more. He seemed emotionally muted in the first half, somehow not fully engaged. It turns out he was suffering from allergies, and was distracted trying to not drip all over the keyboard! At one point, he grabbed the handkerchief and wiped his nose while the right had still rested on a chord. Right pedal to the rescue! His comment later: “It was hard to find the right timing to do that, as both hands are fully engaged most of the time, and there are hardly clear breaks between the movements!” Messiaen:
He played 2 preludes, first one mysterious and whimsically demented (?), the second one abrupt and with some fiendish technical passages. Buzzing notes and raging bass octaves, exploding then collapsing into a confused mass of light and darkness. First time I had heard Messiaen in recital, and I enjoyed the experience very much. Mr. Na did a great job keeping up with the mercurial character-shifts in these pieces. Prokofiev:
Undoubtedly the best performance of the night. His affinity with Russian music is very apparent, and he seemed very much at ease with this piece. The kaleidoscope of emotions in this sonata—from dreamy melancholy, alienation, fear, ecstasy, grating sarcasm, manic high, militant anger, depression, twisted patriotism—were all given their due. Also a technical showpiece, pianistic athleticism was observed in abundance, and it was awesome to hear! In contrast to the introverted Beethoven in the first half, this was a very extroverted and manic interpretation. Rhythmic tightness in the 4th movement was noteworthy.
Some specifics for people who care Piano-pianissimo range
One of the impressive things about his playing is the fantastic control in the ppp-p range; the sound is never thin or weak. He also possesses great TONAL control in this range, which was used to great effect throughout all the pieces, especially the Beethoven Sonata and the first Messiaen prelude. Use of the right pedal for various tonal effects
Another notable feature of his playing: a meticulous and judicious use of the right pedal. The basic use of the pedal—to bring out the richness in harmony with no muddying or abrupt breaks—was done to perfection. What interested me is what ELSE he was able to do with the pedal. (Examples specifically from Beethoven sonata)
1. In the development of the first movement, he quarter-pedaled with the phrases in the left hand, softening the edges of the wandering bass notes, giving them tonal “shadows”.
2. Another example is the transition to the final movement: he started with a rather short G major chord, depressing the pedal just a tad to allow a ghost of residual resonance; for each successive chord, he depressed the pedal more and more each time, to get an increasingly fuller and ringing sound.
3. Near the end of the piece, in the ascending chords leading to the triumphant A flat major arpeggios, he pedaled effectively to turn the bass into a roar, letting the sound feed and grow upon itself to the very end.
4. In the Prokofiev, he often made good use “blurred” fast passages in contrast to the insistent, percussive notes.
It’s a bit difficult to explain verbally what the effects were like, but they WORKED. Let me emphasize that he did nothing to call attention to purely the technique. Everything was done to serve the music, and in my opinion, he succeeded with flying colors. Voicing and balance
His capacity to voice well was evident in the fugue sections, where multiple voices were handled with ease; each entry had a particular “character” to it, which made it easy and interesting to follow the voices. The voices did not wimp out either. Also, there was a good overall balance between the high and low registers in all the pieces. One was never too much for the other. Whatever he intended to bring out was done so with out any effort, it seemed. Variety of touch
Another hallmark of his playing is the breadth of tonal palette. Some of that comes from effective use of the pedal, as mentioned above, but first and foremost, it’s due to the versatility of his touch: sound he produces can vary from soft and velvety to percussive and steel-cored. One strange thing that he does is to “break” the tip-most joint sometimes in soft sections, which I certainly wasn’t encouraged to do in my piano training. The advantage there might be that the meaty part of the finger is in contact with the key, rather than the very tip of the finger. He certainly has a round and soft quality to his p-pp sound, no doubt aided by this peculiar technique.
In addition, he is very good at creating layers of textures from runs of notes. Some of that was evident in the Messiaen. It would be very interesting to hear him in Ravel or Debussy.Economic, logical body usage
Hearing Mr. Na play was of course a wonderful experience, but watching him was a treat as well. It was fascinating to see him “solving” musical phrases with the most efficient movement he could devise. Repeated A’s in the middle of third movement: he used his wrist to group 2 notes at a time, without moving the fingers (either 4-3, or 3-2).
He also rolls his shoulders in certain passages, maybe to keep them loose and springy. Whatever he does, the intention is clearly to achieve a particular tonal effect. Nothing is done merely for show. In repeatedly percussive sections (esp. Prokofiev), his entire forearm become stabilized, spring-like without banging the keyboard. In summary:
Overall, a satisfying concert-going experience!
Granted, there weren’t those hair-raising moments like the time Mr. Na played the E flat Prelude or the Barcarolle at the 2005 International Chopin Competition. It would be interesting to hear him at a high-stake competition, he seems to rise to the occasion. I wasn’t there, but apparently there were people weeping in the audience when he played the Funeral March from Chopin Sonata No. 2 at Florianka Hall in Krakow. That’s the kind of experience I would like from a Howard Na recital. As stated before, he was not quite engaged today. The encores didn’t connect emotionally, although the technique was there without any doubt.
Lastly, I wish he had played some Chopin tonight; that’s where his tonal control and capacity for poetry would really shine. There will be many more opportunities to hear him in the future, I hope.