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REVIEWS

GREAT PIANO QUINTETS - BRAHMS and SCHUMANN - ★★★★

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, 7 November 2020

 

Amid the pandemic storm clouds, one silver lining has been the opportunity to sample at close quarters the brilliance and versatility of Melbourne’s orchestral players. Awaiting the return of orchestral concerts, four key string players from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra put their considerable talents to excellent use by teaming up with pianist Kristian Chong to perform two monumental piano quintets.

These arch-romantic works by Schumann and Brahms are not for the faint-hearted, requiring stamina and self-confidence in large and equal measure. Violinists Tair Khisambeev and Matthew Tomkins, violist Christopher Moore and cellist Rachael Tobin willingly embraced the challenge, working collegially with Chong to establish finely honed ensemble, appealing tone colour and plenty of closely observed detail.

Schumann’s popular quintet, with its arresting opening and lean textures, particularly benefitted from the group’s attention to detail, which aptly characterised the work’s many memorable musical ideas. The central sections of the second and third movements were powered with glowing intensity. Even if awe occasionally seemed to outweigh excitement, the finale’s return to the work’s initial theme was admirably exultant, leaving no doubt of collective commitment.

Bringing more ardent abandon to Brahms’ epic and often sprawling quintet, the players balanced its episodic writing with a sense of the work’s overall structure. Rhythmic discipline brought alive the third movement’s martial fervour, while the finale crackled with energy and radiated the pleasure of friends finally reunited in pursuit of high artistic ideals. Such fine chamber music provided more of a gold than a silver lining.

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KRISTIAN CHONG SOLO RECITAL - ★★★★1/2

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Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, 24 October 2020
Lights Up Melbourne;  Mystique, Fantasy and Hope

Melbourne’s musical drought has broken. On the weekend local performances returned to the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall after nearly three months of silence, with concerts from pianist Kristian Chong and violin-piano duo Monica Curro and Stefan Cassomenos.

Chong’s programming perceptively tapped into the spirit of the times. The works echoed the anxiety and introspection of lockdown, tempered by a desire for beauty. Tension and release in Brahms’ Ballade, Op. 10, No. 1 were masterfully controlled, saluting the composer’s restless solemnity. A passionate account of Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue saw plenty of improvisatory flair in the fantasy, enhanced by the unashamed use of the pedal, and a fugue delivered with energy and determination.

Don Grant’s Dragonfly by Calvin Bowman provided a delicate preamble to three of Rachmaninoff’s Op. 32 Preludes, which enveloped the listener in their luxurious, romantic embrace. Showing great sensitivity to colour and mood, Chong unlocked the works’ emotional wellsprings, allowing an outpouring of hopeful yearning and nostalgic remembrance. Similarly, the bittersweet ruminations of Chopin’s F-minor Nocturne, Op. 55 were treated with nuance and flexibility, making the serene conclusion particularly effective.

With passages weaving between major and minor, Schubert’s F-minor Impromptu, D. 935 was a fitting final expression of sombre realities, Chong’s poetic pianism still offering rays of hope.

Coming after such a long hiatus, these rich programs were are a timely reminder of how artistically barren the city can become without classical concerts. MDCH is an oasis of musical life.

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KRISTIAN CHONG AND FRIENDS – QUARTET FOR THE END OF TIME ★★★★1/2

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Even in the most sympathetic environment, Messiaen’s deeply personal vision is a highly demanding work. Pianist Kristian Chong with violinist Sophie Rowell, cellist Josephine Vains and clarinettist Philip Arkinstall eagerly rose to its many challenges; their considerable nuance and passion made for a memorable, deeply engaging performance. Throughout the work’s 50-minute trajectory, the players were always alert to the score’s many subtleties of rhythm, dynamics, tempo and timbre, building up a brightly coloured soundscape.

Virtuosic brilliance constantly served poignant expression. In Abyss of the Birds, the third-movement showpiece for solo clarinet, Arkinstall vividly realised the music’s struggle between time and eternity. Like the composer’s beloved birds, he negotiated the dizzying leaps between registers with consummate agility. Messiaen’s ecstatic view of eternal love is evoked with two long, sensuous melodies, one for cello and another for violin. Vains and Rowell delivered these with fearless, soaring tone, empathetically supported by Chong.

Like Messiaen’s mystical masterpiece, the vital work of MDCH reminds us of the uplifting power of music in what may seem like apocalyptic times.

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, 3 July  2020
 
Sophie Rowell (violin), Josephine Vains (cello), Philip Arkinstall (clarinet)
Good things can emerge from difficult times. The Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has scored an impressive century, notching up 100 broadcasts in just over 3 months of coronavirus lockdown and raising more than $420,000 for the musicians it hosted.
Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time was an apt choice to celebrate this milestone; not because of its apocalyptic associations, but because this seminal work was first performed in a German prisoner-of-war camp nearly 80 years ago.

Melbourne Digital Concert Hall, May 8 - Sophie Rowell (violin), Kristian Chong (piano)

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Melbourne’s three professional orchestras (Melbourne Symphony, Orchestra Victoria and Melbourne Chamber Orchestra) feature the elite athletesof the city’s classical music scene. After years of training they now struggle to make a living. But their evident talent has been reinforced by the week-long “Faces of Our Orchestras” series at MDCH.

In a distinguished finale, MSO concertmaster Sophie Rowell joined pianist Kristian Chong. Stravinsky’s neoclassical Suite Italienne t an elegant tone, both players bringing lightness of touch and rhythmic buoyancy to the score’s short but distinctive movements. Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata poses considerable technical challenges: it was a joy to have a performance that kept sight of the work’s overarching structure, balancing finely observed interior details with the broader emotional sweep.

FANTASY AND THE FIREBIRD - The Age, 11 March 2019

Under the baton of Benjamin Northey, this exploration of musical storytelling was bookended by two explicitly narrative works alongside a trio of evocative pieces sending each listener on their own imaginative flight of fancy. In addition to these orchestral fables, the evening also seemed to tell another story. At the heart of many a good yarn is the battle between good and evil.
 

Pianist Kristian Chong came to the rescue with technical brilliance in Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Next to more grandstanding artists, Chong may not be the most physically expressive performer, but with playing of this clarity and dramatic intent, there was little need for gesticulatory theatrics.

​Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,  Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, 8 March 2019

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GREAT PERFORMERS INDEED: A PROGRAM OF HEAVYWEIGHTS  ★★★★  The Age, 22 Feb 2019

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Great Performers: Satu Vanska and Kristian Chong, Melbourne Recital Centre

Satu Vänskä (violin, Kristian Chong (piano)

 

Violinist Satu Vänskä isn’t one to be pigeon-holed. The Finnish-born principal of the Australian Chamber Orchestra is a fearlessly liminal artist, who has often defied the rusted-on stereotypes of classical performance. Rejecting the tried and true tactic of leaning on crowd-pleasers and potboilers with an occasional tangential nod to more obscure repertoire, the selection for her Great Performers recital, alongside pianist Kristian Chong, avoided the obvious in favour of the surprising.

A program spanning more than 250 years, with four heavyweight masterworks by Bach, Beethoven and Ravel flanked by two modern marvels by Lutoslawski and Saariaho, offered a showcase for every facet of Vanska’s musical identity: technician, curator, innovator, virtuoso.

 

This dexterity seemed to operate on both the macro and micro scales, in the hopscotching variety of music and the fine detail of its execution. Vänskä proved capable of multiple displays of interpretive ingenuity in virtually every bar, while Chong’s understanding of the subtle inflections that shifted the piano’s presence from that of an equal partner to a supportive accompaniment tallied in perfect sync with Vanska’s meticulous approach.

A vibrant and eclectic blend of two contrasting cultures to create a unique and exhilarating concert. Limelight Magazine, Dr Gemma Regan 17 February 2019

Lunar New Year: Memories from Childhood (Southern Cross Soloists) Queensland Performing Arts Centre

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Southern Corss Soloists, Li Wei Qin (cello), George Gao (erhu), Kristian Chong (piano)

 

Lunar New Year: Memories from Childhood is the first of the three-concert program for 2019 by the Southern Cross Soloists and was an eclectic fusion, featuring animal-inspired Western music with selections from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Chinese folk songs, and the world premiere of Carnival of the Chinese Animals, by Lyle Chan exploring the Chinese Zodiac. Special guest soloists included cellist Li-Wei Qin, pianist Kristian Chong and international erhu master George Gao. This daring program of Chinese folksongs interspersed with Carnival of the Animals in the first half was exciting and delightful, blending two contrasting cultures to create a unique and exhilarating concert.

A highlight was the world premiere of Chan’s Carnival of the Chinese Animals, narrated by Jordan Schulte. Inspired by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, it tells the Chinese folk tale of how each animal was placed by Buddha in their positions of the zodiac based on a race between the animals to cross a river. The intelligent, yet cunning rat came first by hitching a ride on the oxen’s back and pushing the cat into the water, whereas the pig was last as it ate and napped before wading across the river.​

 

After such an incredible collection of compositions, the finale highlighted excerpts of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. The Southern Cross Soloists presented a sensational, energetic concert showcasing the diversity of musical styles from the Orient and Europe interspersed with poignant childhood memories of the Lunar New Year celebrations.

KRISTIAN CHONG & FRIENDS - BRAHMS and TCHAIKOVSKY, 18 May 2018, Classic Melbourne

Brahms and Tchaikovsky - 16 May 2018, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre

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Li Wei Qin (cello), Natsuko Yoshimoto (violin), Imants Larsens (viola), Kristian Chong

Kristian Chong, well known to Australian audiences as piano recitalist, concerto soloist and chamber musician has, not surprisingly, gathered a stellar cast of collaborators for his Kristian Chong and Friends concerts to be held at the Melbourne Recital Centre in 2018. This season’s concerts kicked off with one of Australia’s most international artists, Singapore-based cellist Li-Wei Qin headlining a formidable quartet in a program of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Li-Wei and Kristian were joined by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s Concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto and the ASO’s Associate Principal Viola Imants Larsens.
 

In the first half, Brahms’ Piano Quartet No 3 in C minor was presented with persuasive authority from the outset. With the cellist centrally placed amongst the string protagonists, Qin’s innate musicianship and humanely rich tone projected effortlessly into the auditorium, most penetratingly at the beginning of the third movement Andante, which subsequently unfolded as if it were a genial conversation between long-standing intimates. Throughout, Chong was a model of tonal restraint, always providing resonant harmonic support while never swamping his colleagues in what can, in less expert hands, become overly dense textures. The fourth movement in particular was notable for the delicacy of Chong’s gossamer-like touch.
 

But it was the vast canvas that is Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor that was the great success of the evening. Its prevailing pathos was convincingly captured in the opening movement Pezzo elegiaco, Qin’s plaintive cello featuring prominently. Throughout his career Tchaikovsky was intrigued by variation form and the second movement of this trio – a theme and twelve distinctly characterized variations revealed Tchaikovsky’s capacity to highlight the three instrumentalists both individually and collectively. With the more transparent textures and often more soloistic writing available in the trio format, Yoshimoto’s unerring pitch and well-directed vibrato shone through effortlessly.

 

Complemented by Qin’s languidly expressive bowing and equally deft left hand, this was a performance in equal parts rapturous, beguiling and humorous. Chong’s unfailing technical command of what is a dauntingly difficult piano part served the trio well, ever-sensitive as it was to the continually shifting roles between supportive background, interlocutory middle-ground and texture-leading fore-ground. This was a thoroughly engaging reading by three equal partners each reveling in the opportunity to come together to share their collective musical conception of this most challenging and intriguing of chamber masterpieces.

A most satisfying evening of collaborative music-making.

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KRISTIAN CHONG & FRIENDS - MOZART + BRAHMS - 20 November 2017 - Classic Melbourne, Glenn Riddle.

Melbourne Recital Centre, Primrose Potter Salon

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Rebecca Chan (violin, Christopher Moore (viola). Rachael Tobin Cello, Kristian Chong (piano)

Kristian Chong is not only one of Australia’s busiest and most versatile pianists, he is also one of its finest, so it was no surprise that he was able to assemble a stellar cast of friends and colleagues to present the latest recital in his popular chamber music series held at the Melbourne Recital Centre. On this occasion it was a packed Salon on November 20, 2017, a balmy Monday night to hear works by Mozart and Brahms. This space provides the perfect environs to experience the intimacy of chamber music, and on this occasion no one left disappointed.
 

For the opening work, Chong was joined by The Philharmonia’s Assistant Concertmaster Rebecca Chan. Mozart’s unusually structured two-movement Sonata in G major for Piano and Violin K379 was composed in just under an hour. The first movement opens with a broad, majestic Adagio in G major, which segues unexpectedly into a more virile G minor Allegro. This is followed by the second and final movement – a delicate, light-hearted set of variations. Unlike many of the earlier sonatas where the violin has almost an incidental role, the violin is very much an equal partner in the musical discourse of the G major Sonata and Chan’s warm tone and tastefully restrained vibrato was perfectly suited to the opening Adagio. Her nuanced lyricism was matched by Chong, who provided eloquent support throughout. Chong’s rippling scales and perfectly judged articulation were a highlight of the ensuing Allegro. Chan and Chong then proved to be well-matched duettists in the variations, each respectfully taking their turn in the musical dialog, leading and answering as the music dictated, in what was a dynamically well-proportioned, lyrical finale. Variation 1, with its tacet violin, and Variation 5, where the violin accompanies pizzicato, revealed Chong’s effortless gift for understated cantabile.
 

Brahms’ Piano Quartet No 1 in G minor was premiered by the composer’s great friend and putative muse, Clara Schumann in 1861. Here Chong was joined by violinist Chan, MSO violist Christopher Moore and MSO cellist Rachael Tobin. Much of the writing pits the piano against the strings but the musical protagonists were well matched as they euphoniously explored the turbulent passion of the opening movement. The welcome prominence of Moore’s viola lent a vivid richness to the texture. Throughout, phrases dovetailed seamlessly, and where the strings played in rhythmic unison, as was often the case, dynamic gradations were as one.

But it was perhaps in the Rondo alla Zingarese finale that the four players best revealed their chamber chops. The densely textured finale that so often seems to strive for symphonic dimensions was masterfully handled, perfectly capturing the Hungarian Czardas style in what was a well-paced Presto. Exciting, yet never in danger of losing control, (as is too often the case in live performances of this movement), this was chamber music making at its finest, four distinctive musical voices coming together, seemingly relishing their new roles, and the urgency of the unfolding musical argument. It brought the concert to a stirring conclusion.
 

“Celebrity soloist and friends” concerts often have a certain frisson as individual players, notwithstanding their respective talents and collegial goodwill, may or may not be accustomed to playing with each other in a chamber context. Moreover, they are often brought together with limited rehearsal time in an effort to develop a unified voice. On this occasion however, this quartet of friends and colleagues played as though they were a seasoned ensemble, minus the ennui, and indeed appeared to enjoy the experience as much as their appreciative audience did.

Dale Barltrop and Kristian Chong make a dream team on sonatas by Schubert and Corigliano. - Adelaide Advertiser, Rodney Smith 6 October 2017

Dale Barltrop and Kristian Chong - Elder Hall Lunch Hour Series, Elder Hall, University of Adelaide

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Dale Barltrop (violin), Kristian Chong (piano)
 

This short lunch hour recital of sonatas by Schubert and Corigliano benefited from their shared musical vision and performance style that cut through challenges with confidence, precision and nuanced musical colourations in perfect harmony together. The tensile strength and polish they bring to their interpretations especially suited Corigliano’s Sonata, a big, bold outdoorsy piece of 1960s Americana with more than the occasional touch of Bernstein and Stravinsky in its pounding rhythmical ostinatos and edgy melodic shapes. Both players were on song every inch of the way, the white heat drama of its two inner movements balanced by the lyricism and high-octane velocity of the outer movements with no-holds-barred virtuosity.

There was always much to admire en route as this talented duo showed how blended intentions and polished playing can make a violin and piano duo sound totally natural.

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MSO: Benjamin Northey conducts Enigma Variations. 27/28 July 2017, Classic Melbourne, Glenn Riddle

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Melbourne Symphony Orchestra - Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No.2, Melbourne Town Hall

It is always a joy to return to the Melbourne Town Hall to hear the Melbourne Symphony, especially to hear such a late nineteenth-century focused program that seem so concordant with the Town Hall’s imposing Victorian architecture. Whatever the acoustic foibles of our grand Swanston Street dame, there is always a sense of splendor and occasion whenever the MSO returns to its former home base...

 

​Then came Saint-Saens’ Piano Concerto No 2 with guest soloist Kristian Chong. Saint-Saens himself was a mightily gifted pianist and this is evident in the unrelenting virtuosity in each of his five piano concertos. The Second Concerto, the most popular, is somewhat unusually structured opening with what is essentially a slow movement, before settling into a brisk Mendelssohnian scherzo-like second movement, finally culminating in a whirlwind tarantella finale.
 

Kristian Chong has established a solid reputation as one of Australia’s leading pianists with a performance portfolio that embraces an enormous range of chamber repertoire, virtuoso concertos, as well as distinctive solo recitals that have taken him around the world. Chong quickly established why this is such a well-deserved reputation with the Bach-inspired solo cadenza that opens the concerto. His rich tone filled the Town Hall, realizing the broad quasi-improvised lines with an assured sense of soloistic élan that augured well for what was to follow. Chong brought an appropriately Gallic refinement to the remainder of the movement highlighting its elegance and lyricism. Light-fingered dexterity served Saint-Saens well in the second movement. Impeccable clarity enabled the nimble elfin-like textures to emerge effortlessly, and these contrasted well with the rambunctious swing of the second theme. The thrilling Presto finale was taken at break-neck speed, yet never threatened to fray at the edges, as both soloist and orchestra, each displaying technical assurance and rhythmic tautness, worked together in perfect unanimity of purpose, exploring the movement’s shifting moods and textures.
 

Chong gave a masterful reading of this popular concerto, and his complete control of the expressive and technical demands of this style leads one to hope to hear him at some later date in Saint-Saens’ Fourth Piano Concerto, a too-little-heard masterpiece. As a welcome encore, Chong gave a translucent reading of Rachmaninoff’s wistfully lyrical Prelude in G major.

This was a performance to savour, perfectly suited to the environs, and the almost capacity audience responded accordingly, with enthusiasm and perhaps with a tinge of nostalgia.

'Soloist Kristian Chong… nothing short of brilliant' 6 November 2016, Clinton White, Canberra Times

Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini - Canberra Symphony Orchestra, 2 & 3 November 2016, Llewellyn Hall

It was time to open the piano for a performance of Rachmaninoff and 24 variations for piano and orchestra, based on Paganini’s diabolically difficult “Caprice No 24” for solo violin, itself a theme followed by a set of 11 variations and a finale.

The soloist, Kristian Chong, was nothing short of brilliant, giving a heartfelt performance of extraordinary beauty and sensitivity with finely controlled expression, tempi and touch. The famous 18th variation was especially moving, played with deep thoughtfulness holding the capacity audience totally silent.  

Two encores were demanded and featured another Rachmaninov work and a piece for left hand by Australian composer Miriam Hyde, arranged for Chong when he broke his right arm at the age of nine years.

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