BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE – Published August 19, 2017
Hoang Pham is crazy for Chopin. And we’re not judging him. As Hoang puts it, the composer’s remarkable music for piano reflects “only what was deep in his heart”. The Melbourne pianist will bring this passion to life in his Mostly Chopin tour.
But before Hoang hits the stages of Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide, he tells us about the reason he’s working hard to bring you these works. So if you’ve ever wondered how a pianist approaches Chopin, or if you’re a pianist keen for some insight from a young pro, now’s your chance to learn.
Hoang is a Vietnamese-born Australian concert pianist named the 2013 ABC Symphony Australia Young Performer of the Year, and taking out the Best Australian Pianist title of the Sydney International Piano Competition, among other prestigious recognitions.
Mostly Chopin. Tell us about it. When did your relationship with the music of this composer begin?
I’ve always adored playing Chopin and this music was a natural part of my repertoire from an early age. I think it was one of the waltzes that my father first introduced to me around age five! In fact, the Ballade in G minor, which I will perform on this Mostly Chopin tour, was one of the first large-scale pieces I studied with my teacher of many years, Rita Reichman. I even remember her telling me to put it away because it was too difficult at first, but I kept at it!
As far as the title Mostly Chopin goes, this was somewhat practical. Last year, I had played an all-Chopin recital and the audience really wanted another Chopin recital. I really wanted to play some more Chopin but at the same time, really wanted to play some chamber music with my colleagues – hence Mostly Chopin!
What has Chopin meant to you in your life leading up to this concert?
Like many others in my position, Chopin was simply part of the standard repertoire that we all studied and performed. Of course, I listened to all the great recordings including those of Cortot and Rachmaninov, which I adore. Chopin left us a decent collection of endless masterpieces, both in the larger and smaller forms. In this sense, his music is musically nourishing on many levels both for the performer and the audience. There is something there for the newcomer and the more seasoned listener. I suppose my teacher Rita Reichman played plenty of Chopin herself and perhaps this added to my enthusiasm. Overall, Chopin has been integral to my repertoire over many years.
As a pianist, why is Chopin pleasing for you to play?
Chopin is perhaps the most pleasing composer to perform at the piano. It repays extremely well the investment of time and effort you put into learning the works and then when you revisit them; there is always something new to discover. Chopin’s music displays a romanticism that is natural and never forced or mannered. His music retains a unique flavour and personality and he transferred the beauty of bel canto from contemporary opera into the world of singing piano line.
Chopin’s music is also extremely economical and I feel there is rarely a wasted note, repeat, ornament or even accidental. His chromaticism, and the way he evolves his unique character throughout each work in whatever traditional structure (whether mazurka or sonata form), always retains a fine balance between individual flare and a nod to tradition. He was a master composer for the piano, who spoke only what was deep in his heart!
What are the biggest technical challenges that you find consistently appear in Chopin’s works?
There are many technical challenges in the many works that Chopin wrote for the piano. In his larger scale works, similar to other Romantic works of the period, the difficulty lies in the performer’s ability to make sense of the many elaborate details in the piano writing and to balance this against the pillars that make up the emotional structure of the work. There is much spontaneity required but one needs to have a sense of space, time and proportion in Chopin, even when the sparks, colour and virtuosity stretches the music to the limits of classical structure. Chopin always finds logic even in the most seemingly rhapsodic music – a great example is his Fantasie in F minor!
What was the best advice for playing Chopin that you’ve ever heard – from a teacher or friend – and how did it affect your performance?
I’m not sure if it’s from one person, but I believe I received some decent advice from the teachers I learned from and this was: to always maintain a sense of clarity in the structural argument of a piece of music. This doesn’t just apply to Chopin but every piece by any composer really. As I’ve gained more experience performing and listening to music, I realise that a sense of ‘direction’ in one’s playing is very important. You have to decide at some points whether a detail along the way is important enough to slow down and savour it, or to move on quickly towards that emotional structural point – perhaps the recapitulation of a sonata form.
The Sonata in B minor has the most rhapsodic recapitulation directly into the lyrical second theme. It is the high point of the movement. After so many years, I now appreciate what Rachmaninov called that important moment of arrival in a piece. There is one or two of these in every large work that one needs to get to. In Chopin, these moments are crucial in order to define the classical structure. Rachmaninov understood this in his performances of Chopin’s works!
Why do you connect with this music? What does it tell us about Hoang Pham – what do you express when you play?
I love Chopin’s music because I love simplicity of expression and music that is pianistically beautiful and pleasurable to play. Not all great music needs to be pleasurable, both in the feeling of playing and listening to it. Rachmaninov’s music is, at times, uncomfortable to play but it is highly sensual music, just like Chopin. But I think the latter is far more economical and while it looks so simple on the page – take the Etude Op. 25 No. 1 as an example – it is Chopin’s individuality in his piano writing that makes the difference. He does it with fewer notes than most other composers. And there is also a minimalism to his music that I love, although I do love music that is the opposite, too.
What I mean by minimalism is that Chopin is at his best in the typical character pieces of the Romantic period. Chopin never bothered to give his music titles like Liszt would and many others to follow. But his music spoke directly to the heart and the feeling you get from a piece like the Etude above is immediate and encompassing. Chopin’s unique sound floods your senses and heart like few other composers are able to.
You’re also playing Brahms in this event. What’s the programmatic connection mean to you here?
When I sit down and decide on programs, I must admit, I don’t subscribe to the modern trend of coming up with ideas, links and thematic connections between composers, sets of pieces, this and that. I only ever play what I love to play at one particular moment when I decide to commit a program to performance. I’m much in the crowd that enjoys a Busoni Bach transcription followed by a Beethoven sonata, followed by a second half of Liszt and Chopin! Having said all this, Brahms was similar to Chopin in the sort of compositions for piano that he left behind – a mixture of larger forms, a few sonatas and a lot of smaller scale pieces. Brahms didn’t write mazurkas and nocturnes but he wrote plenty of intermezzos, rhapsodies and even waltzes that displayed his unique brand of keyboard virtuosity, ethnic leanings and his obvious love for Liszt and quite possibly, Chopin too.
Also, a practical reason was that I wanted to have some chamber music in this concert and I’ve always wanted to learn and perform the gorgeous Brahms C Major Trio. I’m glad I will be joined by violinist Katherine Lukey and cellist Mee Na Lojewski. I enjoy working with both these superb musicians and the Brahms part of the recital was planned with them in mind!
What advice would you have to other pianists wanting to make the most of Chopin in their performances?
Of course, there never is one way of doing something. For me, personally, the world is there to explore. Listen to recordings, good ones, bad ones, new ones, old ones. Go to concerts, study the music, learn it, memorise it, perform it. You need to live with Chopin in order to fully appreciate the things that are unique in the music. The beauty is deep and nourishing to the soul for a long time; Chopin’s music greatly rewards repeated performances and repeated listening. All music does, really, and I would encourage pianists to simply commit to learning and performing Chopin and to revisit his music as often as possible.