I was about twelve when I was taken to my first piano recital. The pianist was Fou Ts’ong. I don’t know why, but I remember the programme – Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511, Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, and Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960. After that initial encounter, I had opportunities to hear the pianist on several occasions, and I still treasure the half dozen or so recordings of his in my library.
Fou lived through tumultuous times in China’s history – growing up in pre-revolutionary China, he witnessed the tragedies of the Sino-Japanese war, the Chinese Civil War, and the greatest tragedy of Mao Tse-Tung’s so-called “liberation” of the country. He had the opportunity to study in Poland, winning third prize at the Fifth International Chopin Competition and the special prize for his playing of the mazurkas. He remained highly regarded in Poland, and served as jury member at the Chopin Competition on many occasions. He concertized extensively throughout the Soviet Bloc countries, but managed to escape to England (that in itself is a story worthy of a movie), narrowly avoiding what would have been humiliation and certain death had he returned to China. His own parents committed suicide in the 1960’s, unable to bear the shame and dehumanization of the person during that time. Fou quickly established himself, first in England, and then throughout the world of music with the sensitivity and poetry of his playing, and had been performing and teaching throughout the world.
Somehow, critics (except on rare occasions) had refused to acknowledge him as a truly great pianist and musician. But he certainly had his friends and admirers among his musical colleagues – Martha Argerich, Radu Lupu, Leon Fleisher, Sviastolav Richter, Daniel Barenboim, and Vladimir Ashkenazy, to name just a few. He performed with some legendary artists – Yehudi Menuhin (his one-time father-in-law), Benjamin Britten, Hugh Maguire, Jacqueline du Pre, Kyung Wah Chung, and the aforementioned Argerich, one of his closest musical friends.
Although known for his poetic interpretations of Chopin, Fou was equally at home with Mozart, Scarlatti, Schubert, and Debussy – composers whose music made up the core of his concert and recorded repertoire. His deep knowledge and appreciation of Chinese classical literature and poetry gave him a unique window to look at the canon of western musical literature with fresh perspectives.
Fou had never been a barnstorming virtuoso. A relatively late starter at the piano, Fou himself freely admitted to be technically inferior to the many young pianists he taught, and struggled with pianistic technique his entire life. Some of his performances could be technically disastrous – this was true of many pianists in the last century – Schnabel and Cortot were notable examples. I remember a Vancouver recital where he sounded distinctly uncomfortable in Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 110. On another visit, his all-Chopin recital at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts was memorable, especially his performance of the Préludes, Op. 28. And yes, his playing of Chopin’s very elusive mazurkas is truly magical, capturing the rhythmic and musical essence of these dances of the soul. What Fou Ts’ong always had to offer was the originality of his interpretation, the poetry, the soul, of his playing, and his ability to reach the emotional core of the composer’s sound world.
Fou Ts’ong did not have a large discography, but he did make some fine recordings. Among his recordings, I treasure his set of Chopin Nocturnes (Sony Classical), playing that is pure poetry. There is also some wonderful playing in his recording of the Chopin Mazurkas, but the record suffers from an overly resonant and bright-sounding piano. He also recorded a beautiful disc of 32 Scarlatti Sonatas, playing that captures the humour, romance and quirkiness of the composer’s keyboard writing. In his Debussy albums, one on Collins of the Images and Estampes, another of Book I of the Préludes and Book I of the Études, recorded in the studios of Polish Radio (Ermitage Concerto) we hear the almost Oriental aesthetics of the composer’s creativity. He had always been a very fine Schubert interpreter, as is evident in a live 1998 recording of the composer’s autumnal Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960, recorded at London’s St. John’s Smith Square (Meridian).
In an age where originality is often sacrificed for technical polish and, sometimes, clinical perfection, Fou Ts’ong will remain in my mind an artist whose imagination, poetry and sensitivity animate that music that he played. I shall cherish in my mind the many fine performances I witnessed over the years.
During his life, Fou Ts’ong had suffered many setbacks as well as personal tragedies. At the end of this long journey, may he now finally Rest in Peace.