In 1980, a skinny, long-haired Vietnamese kid in a baggy grey suit won the gold medal at the 1980 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, beating the Soviet and European pianists at their own game. Thirty-seven years later, Dang Thai Son has less hair, more girth, wears impeccably tailored Mao jackets, and is still one of the finest Chopin interpreters alive, with the power to delight, surprise, and astonish.
It’s often said that Dang is the greatest pianist you’ve never heard of. While other Chopin winners went on to jet-setting touring careers and multi-year recording contracts, Dang chose a quieter, more contemplative life of teaching, adjudicating and occasional performing. Some of his students are already more accustomed to the spotlight, including Charles Richard-Hamelin and the young Toronto pianist Tony Yang, at the time of writing one of 12 semi-finalists and the only remaining Canadian at the 2017 Van Cliburn Competition.
Just how retiring is Dang? Although he has lived in Montreal since 1989, Friday night was first Ottawa concert in many years. Presented by Roland Graham’s Master Piano Recital Series at Southminster United, he played an all-Romantic program of Schubert, Liszt, and of course Chopin.
The first thing you notice is Dang’s peculiar stance at the concert grand. Although he’s rather short, he pushes the bench as far back as possible and sits at the very edge, back straight, arms and legs extended. From a distance, the image reminds you of a little old lady driving an enormous Cadillac.
But hey, whatever works, and clearly this unorthodox position has no negative effects. Dang’s virtuosity is free and fluid, his sound solid gold, his musicianship consummate. Even if I didn’t agree with all his interpretive choices, the pianism was faultless.
Chopin is Dang’s spiritual home, and he opened with the C-sharp minor Prelude Op.45. This was Chopin of the rarest vintage. Satiny phrases billowed out one after the other like waves lapping at a shore, unhurried, veiled in luminous, introspective sentiment.
Three Mazurkas followed and showed Dang’s exceptional instinct for rubato and suspension as an expressive device, creating a sense of translucent space between the notes. The Scherzo No. 3 had acres of dynamic sweep and heroic control, with thundering cascades of octaves and a truly apocalyptic coda.
Les Cloches de Genève, an excerpt from the Switzerland book of Liszt’s Années de Pélerinage, was cloaked in serene piety, although the effect of bells echoing across the water was not quite there. The blame may lie with the church’s restored Heintzman, which sounded duller and less responsive than usual. Still, Dang had turbo-charged fun with Liszt’s Norma Reminiscences, that fantastic, ridiculous avalanche of pianistic swagger and showboating written for Marie Pleyel. Dang beat it into a pulp and left it begging for mercy.
Disappointingly, Schubert’s last piano sonata, D960, missed the mark for me. I felt this was old-school Schubert à la Russe: thickly pedalled, puffed u, excessively flashy, and devoid of the simplicity, nostalgia, and heartbreaking melancholy this sonata calls for. The last movement especially was too quick and aggressive, with Dang roaring through the coda post-haste like he was finishing off the Emperor Concerto. Fortunately, an encore of Chopin’s dreamy, trilling C-sharp minor Prelude ended the recital back in the warm glow of Dang’s specialty.
Ottawa’s Vietnamese community turned out in force for the concert, with many of the women and young girls wearing elegant ao dai national ress.