Pianist Steven Lin paints colorful Schumann and Ravel with a broad keyboard

By Truman C. Wang
Friday, March 18, 2016

BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 18 in Eb major, Op. 31, No. 3
CHUMANN Symphony Etudes, Op. 13
MENDELSSOHN Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14
HERTZBERG New Commissioned Work
RAVEL La Valse
Friday, March 11, 2016.  
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills

The Winter concert series at the Wallis concluded last Friday with a recital by 26-year-old pianist Steven Lin.  The Californian-born Taiwanese pianist did the eleventh-hour, wholesale reshuffling of the program, replacing an early Beethoven sonata with a middle-period one and dropping the Chopin G-Minor Ballade.  In Beverly Hills, where this concert took place, a draconian move like this would be akin to a feature film director scrambling multiple writers to salvage a screenplay that may not be worth salvaging.  In Mr. Lin’s case, the old program was a perfectly solid one, but the new program suited his extrovert pianism better.

The Beethoven Sonata No. 18 (Op.31 No. 3) that replaced the original No. 9 (Op. 14 No. 1) was more demanding with greater dynamic and temporal contrasts.  Mr. Lin exploited the work’s virtuosity with a big, heroic sound and stunning, note-perfect passagework (Beethoven by this time was already hard of hearing).  The Menuetto could be more lyrical and grazioso, but the surrounding Scherzo and Presto finale were a memorable feat of technical tour de force and fiery excitement.  

Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes (Op. 13) features alternating extrovert and introvert sections, reflecting the composer’s own double personality of Florestan-vs-Eusebius.  The twelve Etudes were played in the traditional order without the five posthumous sections.  Mr. Lin’s playing achieved a fine balance between thrilling bursts of energy and gentle episodes of poetry.   It was a rare treat to hear crystalline trills and arpeggios in a transparent texture at all tempi and dynamic levels.  

Following the intermission, we heard three smaller but no less demanding works.  Mendelssohn’s youthful “Rondo Capriccioso” starts out in a somber tune but soon scampers off capriciously and amusingly all over the keyboard, but Mr. Lin seemed hell-bent on raising the temperature with lots of staccatos and missed all the fun in the process.  David Hertzberg’s new work “Notturno incantato” received an extraordinarily colorful and scintillating reading from Mr. Lin, its dedicatee.   For the final showstopper “La Valse”, Mr. Lin seemed overly preoccupied with Ravel’s difficult transcription for the piano, which to his credit he played faultlessly, but showed little feeling for the romantic waltz.  

One encore, a thrill ride of a Chopin Scherzo No. 1, made up for the Ballade that was dropped. 

On the whole, not a shabby debut recital.  My advice for the young pianist is relax a little and allow the music to sing and breathe.  Also, more music from the very talented Mr. Hertzberg, please.

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.