In the first few moments of a concert you can often tell whether the next hour and a half is going to be enthralling or simply pleasant. With Jasmine Choi’s opening notes of Debussy’s Syrinx, you knew it was going to be the former.
Being an item for solo flute, the lights could be dimmed – no pianist needing to see the keyboard – and Choi stood in semi-darkness as she prepared to weave her spell. She was in a simple full-length dress which you could imagine an ancient Greek goddess wearing (though in Choi’s case the cut was more figure-hugging than the generous drapes of a chiton). Given that the theme of the concert was mythology in music, the choice of outfit was appropriate.
With a certain theatricality she took her time before breathing the first phrase. Choi’s Syrinx set the tone for the recital – virtuosity worn lightly, the sort of flexibility of tempo which is only possible when one has mastered the work “straight”, magical pianissimos where required, and a set of lungs which enabled the final note to be held far beyond all expectation. Choi’s control was absolute, but rather than leading to rigidity it enabled the music to breathe with freedom.
The Debussy was followed by Reinecke’s Undine sonata, an appealing work which continued the mythological theme. Skillfully composed, the opening bars announce that there’s a story to be told, and invite the listener to come on a journey. Choi was an authoritative and beguiling guide, ably narrating the tale of the sea-nymph whose love of a sailor was unrequited, and mastering the different moods of seductiveness, rage and regret.
With any chamber music recital you expect the musicians to be communicating with each other. Sometimes the music-making is private, a dialogue between the performers, and the audience feels they are listening in on an intimate conversation or meditation; other times the performers try to engage with the audience, and invite them in to a three-way conversation. Choi’s style is the latter, which is helpful when playing music which may be unfamiliar to the listener.
The toughest work for the audience was the Yun Isang Garak, written during his 12-tone period (1963), but the music is not as uncompromising as some of the works of the second Viennese school. Things to appreciate were the interesting elements introduced from Korean music: the variations in pitch familiar in daegeum music; a vibrato which started narrow, became wider until it morphed imperceptibly into a conventional trill; a repeated note which becomes ever more quickly flutter-tongued until it becomes like the buzz of a daegeum’s membrane. The music certainly had an awful lot of notes at times, but also contained moments of stillness, and with Choi’s communicative style it left the audience wanting to explore the music further.
The Bartok’s Suite Paysanne Hongroise contained brief dance movements of contrasting styles, ably pointed by Choi, while the programme finished with the exotic Jolivet Chant de Linos, returning to the theme of classical myths and legends. An encore of a slow jazz number nicely rounded off the evening after the drama which came earlier.
The spotlight was on Choi, but Ashley Wass was the ideal accompanist, never dominating but being authoritative where required and enjoying the interplay with the soloist. This was their first recital together, and it is to be hoped that it will be the first of many.