It had been many years since Dang Thai-Son performed in Vancouver, and so there was a keen sense of anticipation before he walked onto the stage of the Playhouse last Sunday.
Looking every bit like the seasoned artist that he is, very different from the photograph that graced the cover of his debut album some 43 years ago, Dang began his performance with Faure’s Nocturne in E-flat minor, Op. 33, No. 1 and Barcarolle No. 1 in A minor, Op. 26. Right from the first notes, he caught my ears with the depth and beauty of his sound, as well as the beautiful flow of the music. In both works, but especially in the Nocturne, still so heavily indebted to Chopin, but with Faure’s own unique harmonic progressions, every note from Dang’s hands seemed to project like an arrow straight to the last row of the auditorium.
In the Arabesques by Debussy, pieces that are technically within reach of many competent pianists, Dang showed his mastery by the colours he evoked from the beautiful Steinway piano, as well as his impeccable sense of timing. His affinity for the music of Debussy continued to show in his interpretation of both books of Images. In these masterpieces, the composer takes us into the world of the Orient, not in the cheap stereotypical picture postcard version promulgated by Hollywood, but into the true aesthetics of the art of the Orient. Pianist Fou Ts’ong once commented that Debussy’s soul as an artist is that of the Orient. Dang struck a perfect balance between the mixing of the colours, so much like a Chinese ink painting, and maintaining an absolute clarity of texture. In Mouvement, Debussy’s study in line, Dang played this music with a bracing and stunning virtuosity. As well, he presented the most vivid and colourful Poisson d’Or I can remember. In Hommage a Rameau, he brought to the music an eerie stillness, and a feeling of bleakness and desolation.
After the intermission, Dang gave us an exploration of the many dance forms used by Chopin as vehicles for his creativity. The Polonaise in C minor, Op. 40, No. 2 was played with great feeling as well as a palpable depth of sound. Dang evoked a sound from the lower register of the piano was nothing less than astounding. In his very stylish playing of the Three Ecossaises, Op. 72, No. 3, he highlighted the charm, the brimming high spirits as well as the youthfulness conveyed in this music. Dang went on to give characterful readings of three of the composer’s waltzes. The Waltz in A minor, Op. posth., was played with such profound feeling that it elevated this relatively simple work, so often relegated to young students as an “easy” Chopin piece, into a miniature tragic tone poem. The Waltz in F minor, Op. 70, No. 2 as well as the Waltz in A-flat Major, Op. 34, No. 1, were given readings that were stylistically impeccable, reminding the listener that these miniature masterpieces are really dances of the soul.
The performance continued with a delightful romp through Chopin’s rarely-played Tarantelle in A-flat Major, Op. 43, which makes one wonder why not more pianists would incorporate this work into their active repertoire. The set of four Mazurkas, Op. 24, demonstrated Dang’s absolute identification with these elusive miniatures, compositions representing the composer at his most profound and original. He invested into each of these pieces, none lasting more than a few minutes long, with great profundity and depth of feeling, as well as an acute stylistic awareness. The great Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, played to the manner born, rightly brought the audience to its feet.
After the thrilling performance of the Polonaise, and at the behest of the enthusiastic audience, the artist graciously granted us an encore – Bach/Busoni’s great Adagio, from Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Toccata in C Major. Dang’s performance of this great work served as a fitting close to this very special afternoon, almost as a form of a benediction. I felt that everyone in the audience knew that they were sharing something very rare and special.
In his playing of Chopin, Dang Thai Son reminded me so much of Arthur Rubinstein – and I can think of no higher compliment. There was the same lack of affectation, the same simplicity, the same directness in his music making that makes the interpreter a perfect conduit between composer and listener, and the results are both disarming and moving. It is playing that strives to move, not just to impress, for me the highest form of music making.
I am grateful that Vancouver had the opportunity to experience the artistry and musicality of this sovereign artist, at the heights of his maturity. One could only hope for many more opportunities for him to share his art with us in the very nearest future.