Review: Petronel Malan

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She was not going to compete with the bellowing of a car alarm, and nor did the audience want her to. So we sat. And we waited… with patient anticipation… until the car alarm, together with a few final coughs and sneezes, had been completely smothered. It was evident that the audience in the near capacity Hugo Lambrechts Auditorium was not going to allow even one single note of this solo performance to escape their ears and senses. And rightly so, because it is not often that we have a multiple Grammy award nominee and international competition gold medalist of in our midst.

Petronel Malan may be residing in the United States, but she definitely still has strong support and a large fan base here in South Africa, the land of her birth. For weeks now the South African media has been abuzz about her concert tour in South Africa, which includes a performance at the very popular Klein Karoo Klassique in Oudtshoorn on 10 August, as well as two concerts in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. And, while she is particularly renowned for her transcription recordings of the great masters’ works under the Hänssler Classic label, the audience at the Hugo Lambrechts Auditorium was elated to see that Malan also included two warhorses from the standard repertoire in her solo programme.

With assured confidence Malan sounded the opening motive of the Haydn Piano Sonata in A-flat major Hob XVI/46. Her touch was light and sensitive and the balance between harmony and melody, sublime perfection. With agile fingers we sped through the first movement only to pause momentarily as she sat with head bowed and her right hand on the piano stool, as if not only supporting herself but the weight of the sombre opening notes of the Adagio second movement. The Presto finale can only be described as a slice of exquisite exhilaration, a perfect example of the lighthearted and playful articulation so typical of the humour in Haydn’s music.

Yet, proving just how versatile she is as both performer and interpreter, Malan swiftly and skillfully swept the audience from the serenity of Haydn’s Piano Sonata to the dark and brooding opening chords – described as carrying the weight of worldly sadness – of Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13. Malan played with extraordinary power and passion and the audience’s surprise and delight was made audible by the sharp intakes of their breath as Malan steered her way, with resolute commitment and unwavering stamina, through each of the etudes and variations.

Together, we explored one of Schumann’s most laboured efforts; a composition that underwent 18 years of evolution, and which have left many pianists over the last 18 decades to grapple with complex performance practice choices. Malan’s performance was nothing short of superb, from the short staccato notes and chords frolicking over the keyboard, through the virtuoso runs which took us to new heights, swaying us back and forth, to the heavy chords sinking us to the deep depths below. Malan created the perfect storm and then steered our ship to safe shores with a quick brush of her hands against the frills of her violet dress, as she prepared for the triumphant finale based on Marschner’s theme.

After the interval, Malan performed a number of transcriptions for which she has become so well known. Her first recording ‘Transfigured Bach’ was nominated for three Grammy Awards including Best Instrumental Album in 2004, and her subsequent recordings of Mozart and Beethoven transcriptions, and most recently also Tchaikovsky transcriptions, have been met with equal acclaim and enthusiasm. (The fifth ‘Transfigured Album’ featuring Brahms, will be recorded in Leipzig in 2014.) The audience thoroughly enjoyed listening to a live performance of a number of Ignaz Friedman’s piano transcriptions – popularized in South Africa through Malan’s recordings.

A fitting end to a thrilling afternoon of ‘musicking’ was the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 19, S. 244 by Franz Liszt, as transcribed by Ferruccio Busoni, and further transcribed by pianist Vladimir Horowitz and Petronel Malan herself. With Malan’s extensive knowledge and experience on piano transcriptions, honed by intensive coaching from American virtuoso and transcription legend Earl Wild, one can only hope that Petronel Malan will try her hand at more transcribing herself, and bring the results back to these shores very soon.

by Andra le Roux-Kemp

Petronel Malan performed at the Hugo Lambrechts Auditorium on 4 August as part of the Hugo Concert Series 2013.
Petronel Malan will also be performing with the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra on Thursday 8 August in Cape Town City Hall, and on Saturday 10 August in Oudtshoorn at the Klein Karoo Klassique.

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