When Angela Cheng was here for the 1984 Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, some were inclined to dismiss her as "that little girl who plays everything too fast," an impression her final-round performance of the Brahms D minor Piano Concerto did little to dispel.
I wouldn't have said that about her Shostakovich First Piano Concerto Friday at Abravanel Hall, however. Especially the Satie-like second movement, in which the piano often stands alone. This was playing of remarkable sensitivity and polish, though she did bear down a bit heavily toward the end.Elsewhere, though, this is the kind of piece in which her tendencies of a decade ago can pay substantial dividends, and she did not disappoint here either.
Take the glint of the opening movement, its tone as deep as it was percussive. Or the aggressive thrust of the finale, here wonderfully kinetic, its Beethoven-inspired cadenza becoming almost a "Rage Over a Lost Kopek."
In short here was all the wit, bite and occasional sadness of which this music is capable, further enchanced by associate conductor Robert Henderson's underlining of its more lyrical, sometimes dirgelike qualities and the sardonic edge Nick Norton brought to the important trumpet solos.
Nor was this the evening's only highlight, Henderson choosing to bracket the edgy modernism of the Shostakovich with the music of those bastions of the 19th century, Schumann and Brahms - who also happened to be close friends.
Perhaps that was why he opted for the unusual seating arrangement for the orchestra, with violins left and right and double basses to the very rear - not unheard of in Europe, but a first in all my years at Utah Symphony concerts.
Whatever the reason, it also paid dividends, in both the low-string pizzicati of the opening chorale in Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn and nearly all of the Schumann Second Symphony (where I especially liked the violin exchanges in the Scherzo).
From his first concerts here in 1979, Henderson has enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as a technician - i.e., he knows what he wants and knows how to get it. Just as much a strength, however, is his direct and unfussy interpretive style. Which is to say I've heard more individual accounts of these pieces but none that conveyed their structure more stimulatingly.
Thus the Haydn Variations were not only well played but I found myself noticing more than ever before how the first six, and to a lesser extent the seventh and eighth, are more or less paired, building in tandem to the final statement of the chorale, here possessed of a virile grandeur.
Similarly in the Schumann one became aware of the various strands in the earlier movements that foreshadow their reappearance in the finale.
This was particularly true of the theme in the second trio of the Scherzo that will ultimately lead the symphony to its conclusion. But in fact this entire movement was outstanding, its quickness bridging the troubled striving of the first movement and the yearning melancholy of the third. After which the fourth strode on the scene manfully before building to a grandly sonorous finish.