How many performances of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 110 must we witness before we feel we’ve heard it all before? How many versions of Haydn’s Hob. XVI/50 before the surprise accents in the third movement no longer make us smile? The answer, if you haven’t seen Angela Cheng perform these works, is at least one more. Angela Cheng’s recital on Tuesday night, the second in the “Great Canadian Pianists” series of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, featured a potentially intimidating quartet of sonatas by the Viennese masters, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven. But under her hands the music was anything but intimidating. Light, fresh and invigorating are some of the words that jump to mind, but also profound, tragic and spiritual. Cheng took us through the entire range of humours and affects so beautifully expressed in these scores yet so often overlooked in favour of rigid interpretational dictums that seem to come with the territory.

Angela Cheng © Lisa Kohler
Angela Cheng
© Lisa Kohler

The Haydn sonata bubbled over with humour from the very first notes. Cheng’s vivacity of articulation is communicative above all. She seems to have a never-ending variety of staccati, and at least as many ways of slurring. Her touch is light and her virtuosity extreme; but it almost seems crass to describe her playing in terms of technique, since her approach to the keyboard is through the music, the execution of the notes a natural fallout of her total immersion and commitment to the gesture. The first movement fairly whipped by, Cheng somehow imparting a meta-level of rhythm to the large sections and making the tripartite sonata structure seem altogether organic. Clarity is the rule, but she showed herself unafraid of the sustain pedal, applied as an effective device in moments of tragedy and harmonic searching in the manner of early fortepiano practice. The slow second movement expressed constant motion even within its subdued pace, and trills were as fast and even as they were graceful, elegant and soft.  

In the manner of some of his greatest music (Sonata D.960 in B flat, for instance)  Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A major, Op.120 started as if it had already been playing in some other inaudible realm unbeknownst to us. Cheng’s minute sensitivity to tone and pacing made the characteristic variations, repeated notes and sections seem inevitable, each return a welcome recognition of the familiar. The coda to the first movement was luxuriously slow and meltingly bittersweet. In the second movement, moments of dangerously soft playing stood on the threshold of inaudibility but never quite crossed over, while a gracious waltz in the third movement was executed in that charmingly stilted Viennese style in which the first two beats rush and the last two float.  

The Mozart Piano Sonata in D major, K.576 was robust and exhilarating. Cheng played with beautiful clarity through dense counterpoint and did not shy away from tackling tempos on the fast side of their markings, though the phrases always managed to breathe. Fast figuration in the third movement was almost always ahead of the beat, having the effect of pushing and prodding with unrepressed energy. Cheng verbally expressed her own excitement frequently, with a little burst or grunt at the initiation of an exciting phrase for instance - an eccentricity which only seemed to add to the performance.  

But the real work of the evening, and the one on which the entire recital could have rested had it needed to, was Beethoven’s great Piano Sonata in A flat major, Op.110. Cheng approached the music with serene reverence. In the piercing intensity of the musical phrase and subtle nuance of tone she showed herself very much a pupil of Menahem Pressler; but even more so, a real profound and unique voice in her own right. The first movement shared moments of pure carefree happiness with a sense of striving and struggle, expressed through chains of trills and the accumulated sound of insistently repeated chords. The broad ranging final movement is the voice of Beethoven-as-prophet. The sublime homage to Bach in the form of a fugue seemed to grow quite naturally out of Cheng’s Adagio. Melting away again into the Tempo di Arioso, the two measures of repeated G major chords evoked the ringing of a great bell and hailed a return from the land of spirits, the last two pages expressing unadulterated Beethoven at his heroic finest.  

The rather subdued audience must have been humbled by this tremendous performance. An encore of Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat Op. 9 was lyrical simplicity itself, the audience almost preferring not to clap.