Photo Credit: Royal Academy of Music
Portland Chamber Orchestra (PCO) presented a solo piano recital featuring Mei-Ting Sun, a globally acclaimed performer who has garnered first prize awards at numerous competitions, including the 7th National Chopin Piano Competition in the U.S., Bartok-Kabalevsky-Prokofiev International Piano Competition, and the Morocco International Piano Competition. He has recorded extensively and has released a nine-disc recording of the complete solo piano works by Chopin. His recital at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Portland was one of multiple performances in the northeast Oregon area within the upcoming year.
In Stravinsky’s Sonate (1924), the composer’s primary interest was not to explore the expressive depths of the piano. On the contrary, the piece took an almost mechanistic lens on the neoclassical style, and Sun’s meticulous precision worked well with the demands of this Sonata. He decoded the sea of triplets in the first movement with clarity and confidence, revealing the underlying logic of the initially overwhelming passages. Sun’s march-like interpretation of the descending two-note accompaniment figure in the second movement emphasized the foreboding nature of this figure, and he never allowed it to fade into the background behind the melodic line. The third and final movement was a modern take on Bach inventions, replete with counterpoint and syncopation, and Sun brought an unsettled urgency to this movement, charging headfirst into two almost anticlimactic ending chords. Sun especially shone in passages that showcase his assertive and gripping execution.
PCO requested a Beethoven piece in this recital’s program as a teaser for the upcoming Beethoven concerto marathon with the orchestra in March 2024 featuring Sun. He chose “Variations on an Original Theme in F major, Op. 34” because it is rarely performed, and he pointed out that each variation is in a different key, starting in F major in the theme and descending by a third for each variation. He took the original theme at a stately pace and infused the simple melody with a generous splash of grandeur that almost bordered on impunity. Variation 2 oscillated between dainty phrases and muscular ones, Variation 5 was percussive and darkly tumultuous, and the final variation was playful with a touch of thrill.
Scriabin initially described his Sonata No. 3 in F-sharp minor as evoking the image of a gothic castle. The opening theme in “Drammatico” immediately lived up to this description, and Sun punctuated every recurrence of this theme while taking this movement at a brisk pace. The Allegretto galloped along with tasteful restraint in the ascending phrases, but the busier descending passages were frantic and lost the rhythmic anchoring. In the atmospheric third movement, Sun demonstrated that he is just as capable of treating the more introspective passages with tenderness, but he doesn’t quite relish these passages in the same way he does with the more virtuosic ones.
The final piece on the printed program was Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-flat Major, D.960. This was Schubert’s last sonata before his death in 1828, and the piece traversed nostalgic tenderness, tragic beauty, and spirited gaiety. Sun saw the whole sonata, but especially the third and fourth movements, as Schubert’s joyous defiance in the face of death. Underneath the cheery veneer is a brooding tension that can be smoothed over but not fully erased, and Sun drew out the tension between the song-like melodic passages and the undercurrent of foreboding throughout the piece. Sun emphasized the contrast between the forceful sections and the sonorous melodies in the first movement, creating a touch of suspense between each of the transitions. Sun kept the lighter sections like the bouncy third movement and the beginning of the fourth intriguing by deftly controlling the momentum and emphasizing the pauses. For the most part, it was an exhilarating ride, but there were occasional bouts of disorientation. The triumphant ending brought the audience to their feet, and Sun treated the audience to an energetic reading of Brahm’s Intermezzo in C major from 4 Klavierstücke, Op. 119.