CANDLELIGHT CONCERT: VALENTINE'S DAY SPECIAL / LI CHUREN, Piano / Review

Chang Tou Liang

15 February 2022

"Churen is an artist who would make a grocery list or tax report sound positively inviting. It should be noted that all the pop songs were transcribed by Churen herself, and were different in styles and tastefully done. Her versatility was matched by the virtuosity displayed in the Liszt cadenzas, which were tossed off effortlessly. Many people can play this Liebesträume, but only the best can overcome those scintillating finger-twisters."

CANDLELIGHT CONCERTS:
VALENTINE’S DAY SPECIAL
Li Churen, Piano
Chijmes Hall
Sunday (13 February 2022)

The chapel hall of CHIJMES (formerly the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus on Victoria Street) looks like an ideal venue for a Candlelight Concert. Its high ceiling, cloistered atmosphere and reverberant acoustics, and when filled with hundreds if not thousands of electronic candles, provide for a most evocative ambience for such a concert. One almost expects a procession of habit-wearing monks parading down the centre aisle and incanting Gregorian chants. But no, this was a piano recital by Li Churen, one of Singapore’s brightest young keyboard talents, in a programme of romantic music inspired by the story of Romeo and Juliet and the marketing hype that is Valentine’s Day.

A few caveats for starters, Chijmes Hall is not sound-proof and one gets to hear ambient traffic (including a police siren) and celebrating diners in the restaurants outside. The Yamaha 6-foot grand piano is clattery in timbre and not fully in tune, forcing the performer to make the best with other resources. Fortunately, Churen is an artist who would make a grocery list or tax report sound positively inviting.

The recital opened with Debussy’s Clair de lune from Suite Bergamasque, which received a clear and luminous reading, the right recipe for a romantic evening. Following that were popular songs juxtaposed with classical works in short suites. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s All I Ask Of You from Phantom of the Opera opened dramatically with orchestral textures well-transcribed for piano before revealing the lyricism of the song proper. This in turn segued seamlessly into Chopin’s glittering Fantaisie-Impromptu (Op.66), with the memorable cantabile (one of his most memorable melodies) at its heart. In a way, the Phantom served as a prelude to the Fantaisie, reliving an old tradition of preluding that was popular a century ago and almost lost to posterity.

Another suite included Hugo Peretti’s Can’t Help Falling In Love With You (popularised by Elvis Presley but originally based on Plaisir d’Amour by Jean-Paul Martini), two excerpts from Romeo and Juliet-inspired films (music by Nino Rota and Craig Armstrong) and Mandopop song Michael Wong’s Fairy Tale, which preluded Liszt’s evergreen nocturne Liebesträume No.3. It should be noted that all the pop songs were transcribed by Churen herself, and were different in styles and tastefully done. Her versatility was matched by the virtuosity displayed in the Liszt cadenzas, which were tossed off effortlessly. Many people can play this Liebesträume, but only the best can overcome those scintillating finger-twisters.

The final segment of the recital included two significant classical pieces, Tchaikovsky’s bittersweet Romance Op.5 and Chopin’s Ballade No.4 Op.52, incidentally both in F minor. Both works share a common spirit of introspection and underlying sadness. Tchaikovsky’s is more plain spoken, with a more animated dance-like central section, while Chopin’s is more complex and deeply felt, as its layers are successively peeled off. These two pieces were built up to terrific climaxes, notably in the Chopin and credit goes to the audience for holding its breath (and witholding applause) for the climactic pause leading to the tumultuous final coda. The ending was simply spectacular, as one would expect.

Alan Menken True Love’s Kiss from the animated movie Enchanted, arranged by a young Singaporean composer, was the gilded icing on the cake. Loud and prolonged applause ensured that the Chijming audience was gifted two encores, both written by Churen herself. Andante cantabile was a lovely improvisation on the slow movement from Schumann’s Piano Quartet (Op.47) while Llama’s Land a mini waltz-fantasy that closed the Valentine’s Day-inspired recital on a rapturous high.