Ke Ma (piano)
February 20 2022
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
Review: William Ruff
Exhilarating, highly virtuosic playing of some highly disturbing repertoire
Young Chinese pianist Ke Ma finished her Sunday morning recital with such a vastly demanding Prokofiev sonata that it seemed almost indecent to expect an encore. However, she was happy to oblige, charmingly suggesting that the audience would all need cheering up after her programme. It’s true that she started with the Piano Sonata written by Mozart shortly after the death of his mother and ended with one of Prokofiev’s so-called War Sonatas – but after an hour of exhilarating music-making it’s highly unlikely that anyone listening would have been remotely depressed. Still, her own exuberantly virtuosic arrangement of the song Mejito was very welcome.
It’s true that Ke Ma chose to begin and end her recital with works born in darkness. Whether or not the Piano Sonata in A minor reflects Mozart’s grief at the loss of his mother, there’s no doubting the driven, turbulent nature of the piece. The third movement in particular is breathless right up to the very end. The music never rests, rather it keeps circling round itself as if mentally disturbed. Ke Ma’s edgy, relentless approach was very well-judged.
Luckily there was a still centre to her programme: two movements from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque. In Clair de Lune Ke Ma let the music breathe and shine before the lively, dance-like Passepied which accompanied it.
By far the longest piece on the programme was Prokofiev’s 6th Sonata, written before Russia entered World War 2 but an overwhelmingly violent work nevertheless. I was glad I was sitting with a good view of Ke Ma’s hands because this was a performance you had to see to have any idea of what unreasonable demands the composer makes of ten human fingers. The dominant sound was dissonant and embattled (at one point a cluster of notes has to be thumped with the fist…) rising to a terrifying climax in the finale in which some have seen a musical portrait of Stalin and more than a suggestion of the purges through which Prokofiev lived before the war began. The playing throughout was firm, focused and jaw-droppingly virtuosic.
Ke Ma’s recital may have been from dark to darker (with a spot of moonlight in between) but her playing showed that she has a mastery of tonal colour. Besides the hard-hitting anguish there was poetry too. And many in the audience will have left the Hall feeling more alive than when they entered.
Ke Ma playing in Nottingham Classics’ Sunday Morning Piano Series