Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Fou Ts'ong (1934 - 2020)

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.



Monday, December 14, 2020

Thinking of John le Carré

The imaginary world of David Cornwell, better known by his pseudonym John le Carré, is decidedly grey.


Not only when he is writing about the autumnal mist over Hampstead Heath, but even with settings in Central America and the Caribbean (as in The Tailor of Panama) or Africa (as in The Mission Song and The Constant Gardener), nothing is really black and white. 


From his earliest works such as Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, le Carré sets himself apart from authors such as Ian Fleming, in that the former deals with battles of the mind and the intellect, without resorting to fast cars and fancy gadgets. I remember reading le Carré reference to James Bond, probably the world most famous fictional spy, as an “international gangster” and someone without a single shred of conscience. 


A recurring theme that runs through much of le Carré’s works is the morality, or lack thereof, of spying. George Smiley, the author’s most famous hero, does battle not only with the Soviet spymaster Karla, but also with the hypocrisy as well as the stupid, self-serving individuals that run the British secret service. Indeed, he seems to hold a very cynical view of the competence and intelligence of (oxymoron indeed) those who operate within the “intelligence” world. In The Tailor of Panama, le Carré’s homage to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, and probably his most entertaining novel, a MI-6 agent is sent to Panama to gather intelligence and protect British interest. He in turn recruits the services of a well-connected tailor, and his completely fabricated intelligence reports lead to a U.S. invasion of Panama at the end of the story.


With the fall of the Soviet bloc, the author turns his attention to the rest of the world, constantly reinventing himself. In The Little Drummer Girl, le Carré’s first non Cold War novel, an Israeli spymaster recruits a young actress to discover the whereabouts of a Palestinian terrorist. She succeeds, but not before suffering a mental breakdown due to contradiction of her divided sympathies. In The Constant Gardener, a mild-manner Foreign Service diplomat in Kenya investigates the murder of his activist wife, exposing a sinister conspiracy connected to an international pharmaceutical firm and corrupt British politicians. In much of le Carré’s writings, I detect a deep-seeded anger against the stupidity of men in power and men of power, and he uses his stories to lash out in anger against the selfishness and shortsightedness of humanity. 


As a rule, film adaptations of le Carré’s novels never really do them justice. There are simply too many layers in the stories that are literally lost in the transference from print to celluloid. The film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is simply a travesty. For me, the most successful adaptions of his novels have been in television, namely the BBC’s wonderful television adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. Television allows the luxury of time to tell the whole story, and the BBC captures the faded colour of the secret world and the tragic existence of men who operate in shadows. To top it off, there is the magisterial performance by Alec Guinness, who, in the author’s words, “Stole the character from me.”


Like any great writer, le Carré’s fiction is a mirror for the age we live in. Through his stories, he shines a bright light on the dark recess of our conscience and our soul, and presents a unique perspective into the moral conundrum we face in our own existence.


David Cornwell, may you rest in peace.