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FRIENDS OF MUSIC: SYLVIA JEN (article first published : 2006-02-8)

The Friends of Music opened their 2006 series with a piano recital by Sylvia Jen, held as usual at the Durban Jewish Centre.

Sylvia Jen was born in Taiwan but has lived in South Africa for a long time. Judging by the fact that she matriculated in 2003 she must be about 19 or 20 but she looks much younger. And, like many young musicians from the East, she obviously has exceptional talent.

Nevertheless, there is still some distance for her to go. Her programme, ranging from the early seventeenth century to the mid-twentieth, covered a wide range of technical and interpretative problems, and the response of the pianist was, perhaps predictably, variable. She was at her best in the two Scarlatti sonatas which opened the programme, showing crisp, clear fingerwork and a fine sense of style and poise.

Domenico Scarlatti is, I think, a somewhat underrated master; his keyboard music (written originally for the harpsichord) is bold, tuneful, dramatic, poignant, and often startlingly modern. These qualities were admirably conveyed by the young pianist and might well have been an eye-opener for some members of the audience.

Mozart’s Sonata in C major KV 330 was another success for the performer, who again displayed an accomplished technique and a good grasp of style and form.

Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnet No 123, the third and best of the composer’s visions of three poems by Petrarch, was given a somewhat wayward performance, but Sylvia Jen did capture admirably the beautiful final phrases which match exactly the spirit of this fourteenth century Italian poetry: And heaven unto the music so inclined,/That not a leaf was seen to stir the shade,/Such melody had fraught the winds, the atmosphere.

Two Chopin works followed: the Nocturne in B major, Op. 62 No. 1, the essential fluidity of the piece rather marred by exaggerated “effects”, and the Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op 60, a big, romantic composition that poses many technical and interpretative problems, not all of them solved satisfactorily in this performance.

In striking contrast, the three Argentine Dances Op 2 by Alberto Ginastera provided some of the best playing of the evening. Here Sylvia Jen gave an entirely convincing performance in the driving rhythms of the first and third pieces and the melancholy and beautiful introspections of the second.

The Prelude Performer, funded by the National Lottery\Distribution Trust Fund, was Sarah Pudifin, a young violinist who has become well-known in Durban and who plays as an extra with the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra. In a 15-minute programme of familiar works by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Brahms she played with skill and confidence, and her stage presence was elegant and unaffected. - Michael Green




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