Rachel Cheung
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Review: PianoTexas International Academy & Festival 2019 | PianoTexas International Academy and Festival | PepsiCo Recital Hall

French, and Then Some

Rachel Cheung enchanted with a mostly French program at the PianoTexas Festival at Texas Christian University.

published Saturday, June 22, 2019

Rachel Cheung

Fort Worth — It was a return for pianist Rachael Cheung when she presented a recital as part of the PianoTexas International Academy and Festival on June 15. She was a finalist at the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2017; she just missed the top three awards but won an even more important accolade — the Audience Award winner as voted by more than 20,000 online votes as well as those in attendance. She earned our votes all over again.

I was prevented from making the trip from Dallas to Fort Worth so as to attend in person because of the extreme weather that descended on the Metroplex, complete with tornado sightings and warnings. I was still able to attend via an online live streaming portal. In fact, you can attend all of the events past, present and future. As I am writing this, I am also watching a program of a masterclass.

Back to Rachael Cheung.

For a festival featuring French pianists, the Hong Kong-born and raised pianist seemed like an odd choice. Her program was certainly French enough, except for the major work which ended the program, Schubert’s magnificent Sonata in B-flat Major.

Once she started, it was obvious why she was chosen. While she was not trained in France and doesn’t list any French pedagogues in her résumé, her approach to the music was unique yet well within the French traditions.

When you think of French piano music, the impressionists immediately come to mind. While she played some of the expected Debussy, Fauré, and Ravel, she opened with some much earlier music: Selections from Pièces de Clavecin by the French Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. Music originally written for the harpsicord presents many problems for playing on a modern-day piano. Because the string is plucked rather than struck with a hammer, the earlier instrument was incapable of dynamic expression and it also lacked the sustaining pedal.

So, this question is whether to use all the capabilities of the piano or to limit your performance to what was available when the piece was written. Cheung took the former approach and delivered a highly romantic performance full of rubato and dynamic range applying minimal pedal. The result was to give Rameau’s music an almost Chopinistic feel.

It was impeccably played and with flights of both beauty and virtuosity that should send listeners to discover Rameau’s complete output.

Debussy’s seminal Estampes followed. This is a series of three evocative pieces that define impressionism with its beautifully painted soundscapes. The first, “Pagodes, introduced the western world to the Asian harmonies, such as pentatonic scales he heard played by the Javanese gamelan orchestra at the Paris World Fair in 1889. The second, "La soirée dans Grenade," creates the feeling of Spanish music by using the Arabic scale and imitating the strumming of the guitar. The last piece, "Jardins sous la pluie (Gardens in the Rain),” describes an intense rainstorm in a garden in Normandy. Debussy incorporates some French folk songs and utilizes whole tone scales.

Cheung gave us a nearly perfect performance with all of the images realized vividly. She took lots of interpretive freedoms but never once distorted Debussy’s intent. The final piece displayed her mastery of technique without being showy.

Gabriel Fauré’s Nocturne No. 6 in D-flat Major, Op. 63 and his Impromptu No. 2 in F-minor, Op. 31, followed. Obviously patterned on the nocturnes of Chopin, Fauré moves the form into another harmonic and formal realm. Cheung lavished some passion on the opening theme and accented the syncopation. When a version of the first theme returned with a short development, she built the musical tension to allow the final statement of the opening to give the piece a nostalgic conclusion.

After intermission, Cheung played the massive Schubert sonata. It was hardly French and, as such, stuck out from the previous program as well as the overarching theme of the entire festival. However, it is hard to complain about such a definitive performance of one of Schubert’s masterpieces.


PianoTexas Schedule:

PianoTexas Distinguished Artist Recital Series

  • 7:30pm June 29: Vincent Larderet

PianoTexas Young Artist Recital Series

  • 7:30pm June 26
  • 7:30pm June 28
  • 7:30pm June 30
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French, and Then Some
Rachel Cheung enchanted with a mostly French program at the PianoTexas Festival at Texas Christian University.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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