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  41:3 (01-02 /2018)
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Reviewer: Peter Burwasser

We are all told at an early age that one must not judge a book by its cover, but as we mature and come to appreciate nuance, that adage is often cast aside. Case in point: CD covers, specifically, photos of the artists. In this issue, I review piano recitals by Mona Asuka, who is depicted on her CD as fresh-faced and bright-eyed; her piano playing is similarly sunny and youthful. And then there is Anna Tsybuleva, photographed in profile, with a sculpted chin, slender neck, and careful coif conjuring the classic elegance of Audrey Hepburn. Her presentation of a program of fantasy music reflects that studied and thoughtful poise.

Here we have Zhu Xiao-Mei, a Chinese pianist of deep seriousness. The cover of the CD shows her peeking out from a long staircase. The eight photos of her in the booklet obscure her face, most completely. Her Bach playing is, correspondently, emotionally reticent at the same time as it is reverent and contemplative. Her life story must surely play a large part in the development of her artistic personality; she was a victim of Mao’s “re-education” policies during the Cultural Revolution, and spent five years away from her instrument, and another five years away from formal musical education. This may (or may not) explain the lack of easy joy in her playing, which is cool and even somewhat dour. Interestingly, this does not affect the power of the music, but merely presents it in a different light. Her technique is excellent, and she has a very natural sense for the dramatic pacing of the music. My highest compliment to Zhu Xiao-Mei is that as I was listening to her performance, my amazement at the beauty and profundity of Bach was constantly aroused.

My preference for Bach piano playing leans to the Slavic approach that tends to looser rhythms and colorful tonality, such as is heard from Horszowski, Feltsman, and Richter. “Purists” (in quotes because I really don’t know what these are) would condemn my tastes as inauthentic, but my retort is that what these artists connect to in their approach is the spiritual Bach that imbues his secular music. Horszowski, in particular, finds a vocal quality in his playing that is directly tied to the heaven storming music of the cantatas and even such massive works as the St. Matthew Passion. Zhu Xiao-Mei, I don’t think, looks for that connection, but she honors the greatness of Bach on her own terms. We should be grateful to have a variety of interpretations.

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