Recitals on the Fringe: Esmond Choi

Recitals on the Fringe Adelaide Fringe 2024

Recitals Australia. Esmond Choi, Piano. North Adelaide Baptist Church. 24 Feb 2024


A pair of stunning piano recitals by Adelaide pianist Esmond Choi has introduced Adelaide audiences to some quite incredible contemporary piano music.


The feature works in these recitals were George Crumb’s Metamorphoses Book I (2017), performed on 21 February, and Metamorphoses Book II (2019) on 24 February. Each book comprises ten short pieces totalling approximately 45 minutes’ duration.


Choi was inspired to perform Crumb’s Metamorphoses on hearing of the legendary American composer’s death, at age 93, in 2022. Choi is to be thanked for bringing Crumb’s unique and complex music to Adelaide, as it is so rarely heard.


Each book is subtitled Ten Fantasy-Pieces (after Celebrated Paintings) and each piece is intended to characterise a well-known painting by a significant artist, for example Paul Klee’s Landscape with Yellow Birds, Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, Marc Chagall’s Clowns at Night, and Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory.


The pieces might be expressionistic, meditative, or agitated, and Crumb provided the performer with instructions as to the mood of each piece. For example, No. 6 of Book II, which refers to Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (Lady in Gold), is to sound “metallic, glistening, iridescent”, and No. 7 of Book II, which references Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, is to sound “savage, apocalyptic”.


The performance is to be accompanied by projections of the paintings, and these were shown on a large screen. As well as the piano, the instrumentation includes various percussion instruments and a toy piano. The performer must sing or whistle at various moments, and the piano is at times prepared with various objects and its strings plucked or stroked — Metamorphoses draws upon a wide range of sonic effects to characterise the artworks.


These are immensely challenging compositions for the pianist, and Esmond Choi demonstrated prodigious technical skill, great concentration, and most of all, a deep appreciation of both Crumb’s music and the artists’ oeuvres.


In the first recital, Choi’s performance of Book I was preceded by insightful renditions of two pieces by Olivier Messiaen from his Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus (1944) and Galina Ustvolskaya’s Piano Sonata No. 3 (1952). Ustvolskaya, who was championed by Shostakovich, is little known now, and her unique music is dark and disturbing. It was worth attending this recital just to hear Choi’s finely nuanced performance of this sonata.


In the second recital, Choi’s performance of Book II was preceded by Franz Liszt’s brief, unusually quiet and ultimately haunting Nuages Gris (1881), Messiaen’s Je Dor, Mais Mon Coeur Vieille (from the Vingt Regards), Toru Takemitsu’s Litany – in Memory of Michael Vyner (1989), and the piano transcription of JS Bach’s Nun Komm her Heiden Heiland (BWV 61). This recital program honoured the passing of Crumb through these elegiac meditations on death.


Choi’s accomplished readings of these diverse and demanding works, combined with his thoughtful programming, made these recitals unforgettable.


These recitals were presented as part of Recitals Australia’s classical music festival within the Adelaide Fringe, comprising ten concerts by recipients awarded the Recitals Australia Elder Conservatorium Fellowship Program. As well as being a Fellowship recipient, Choi is a master’s candidate at the Elder Conservatorium in the University of Adelaide.


Recitals on the Fringe continues with performances from Haiwei Yang, Piano, Katelyn Crawford, mezzo-soprano/soprano, and Gemma Vice, flute, until the 9th of March.


Chris Reid


When: 24 Feb to 9 Mar

Where: North Adelaide Baptist Church