There is something disarming about Han-Na Chang, the 26-year-old Korean-American cellist whose audacious solo recital Tuesday at the Ordway Center in St. Paul capped this season's Schubert Club International Artist Series. Dispensing with a pianist (read: conversation partner), she plunged headlong into a technically demanding, fluff-free, Bach-amid-Hungarians program that would scare off many more-seasoned cellists. And she came up smiling.
At first the contest looked hopelessly lopsided. Entering in a coral-colored gown, Chang was immediately engulfed by the Ordway's opera-sized stage. She lacks the conquering charisma of Mstislav Rostropovich, her late mentor, who seemed to overflow the space around him. (At the tender age of 11, still too short to play a full-sized cello, Chang won the Rostropovich International Competition in Paris.) But her playing achieves what her physical presence does not. Her sound is commanding and, when she chooses, enormous. She attacks her remarkable instrument -- a 1757 Guadagnini, especially potent in its low register -- with a feral energy that ought to give her insurance carrier second thoughts. (She spent the pauses between movements pulling shredded horsehair from her bow.) Playing from memory, often with eyes closed, Chang and cello were one.
Linguists tell us that the Korean and Hungarian tongues are distantly related. Perhaps this helps explain Chang's fiery, idiomatic accounts of the folk music-infused solo sonatas by Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967) and György Ligeti (1923-2006).
To listeners who know Kodaly only for his music pedagogy, his half-hour sonata, written a year into World War I, will come as a revelation. A landmark in the cello literature, it was in Chang's hands an unstoppable tour de force, its technical novelties treated not as tricks but as music. The driving, earthy final movement sounded more gripping than ever.
Ligeti's sonata, completed in 1953 and banned by the Hungarian regime, was abandoned in Budapest three years later, when the composer slipped across the Austrian border in a freight train to begin a new life in the West. Haunted by a Kodaly-esque theme, the piece waited 30 years for its premiere, but now finds in Chang a consummate champion.
To my ear, Chang's account of Bach's Suite No. 1 in G Major wasn't consistently on this level. The prelude felt too regular rhythmically; the courante was a bit brusque. But the sarabande was a meditation -- one of those glorious moments when Bach collapses the distinction between dance and divinity.
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.