Mike Lee’s superlative recital brought out things in Mozart sometimes suspected but rarely heard.

Sitsky Recital Room, ANU School of Music, Canberra
October 23, 2017

A prediction: Canberra could become a world centre in Mozart studies. It is already well on the way with the recent appointment of the American-Chinese pianist and early music specialist Mike Lee to its newly rejuvenated faculty at the Australian National University’s School of Music.

Mike Cheng-Yu Lee. Photograph © Peter Hislop

Mike Cheng-Yu Lee arrived in Canberra in mid-July to take up positions as Lecturer in Piano/Keyboard Studies and Director of ANU’s Keyboard Institute.  He came to Canberra with his wife, Ji Young Kim, also a pianist-scholar, who is an Associate Lecturer at the ANU.

Before this, Lee served as Visiting Assistant Professor on the staff of the largest music school in North America, at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington. He has an impressive and lustrous resumé. He studied at Yale and was a lecturer in music theory there. He holds a PhD in Musicology from Cornell University where he was awarded the Donald J.Grout Memorial Dissertation Prize. His teachers have included Malcolm Bilson, Boris Berman and the renowned Haydn scholar James Webster.

In 2011, Lee was awarded Second Prize and the Audience Prize at the International Fortepiano Competition of the Westfield Center for Historical Keyboard Studies at Cornell. (The first prize-winner that year went to the Australian keyboard player Anthony Romaniuk.) Lee’s performances have been described as “portraying integrity, purity, complexity and truth… with balance and control that are breathtaking.” Writing in the Bloomington Herald Times, Peter Jacobi praised Lee as “a major talent, no doubt about it…[his] Mozart was absolutely radiant, a lesson in refinement mixed with deep devotion.”

All those qualities were abundantly transmitted in my first experience of Lee’s playing a fortnight ago. On October 6, as part of ANU’s Classical Gala concert (reviewed here), he performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.14 in E Flat, K.449. And now he has embarked upon a multi-concert survey of many of the 18 Mozart sonatas for solo keyboard.

Mike Cheng-Yu Lee. Photograph © Peter Hislop

In the first of these concerts (a series still to be scheduled), Lee performed from memory sonatas in C Major, K.330, in B Flat Major, K.281, and in C minor, K.457. As before, he played on a recreation of an Anton Waller piano (Vienna, ca.1796) by Paul McNulty, an American instrument builder now living in the Czech Republic. It was commissioned by the School in 2005. Lee had tuned the instrument himself, he explained, and it soon became clear that this was not the conventional equal-tempered tuning, but one more suited to period style and key relationships. Even so, after torrents and cascades of notes, the poor keyboard was clearly tiring by the end of its work-out.

In his opening remarks, Lee graciously paid tribute to his ANU predecessor Geoffrey Lancaster, now a Professor at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in Perth. He also praised the university for maintaining and expanding its keyboard instruments in a collection that accrues fame and importance throughout the world. Even more decisively, he reflected on the importance of students playing Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, even Tchaikovsky and the Romantics, on keyboards built or re-created from their period. This is also an approach that will animate future curriculum at ANU: music theory and musicology will be applied ‘from the keyboard and the score,’ not just from text-books, Professor Ken Lampl maintains as a signature feature of his new ‘21st century school of music’.

From that very first, deceptively innocuous phrase of the K.330, it was obvious that this was not going to be the customary, hum-drum, dutiful rendition of Mozart’s music, memorably demeaned by Patrick White’s one-time neighbour as “a stream of lemonade”.

Lee drew out the contrasts and surprises in this music, often suspected but rarely experienced in performance. No slave to the relentless ticking of a metronome, Lee dissolved that infernal machine into an elastic coil, rather like those melting clocks of Salvador Dali. Within a single phrase there was elegance, nobility and full-blooded muscularity.

For me, the most memorable moments occurred in those andante movements marked amoroso and cantabile, where operatic arias seem to be floating through Mozart’s aural imagination (and erotic fantasies?). Lee phrased such moments with exquisite poise and undulating flow. At times he seemed to be channelling Mozart and his singers, even to the point of emitting a few vocal sounds of his own, though nothing approaching the histrionic vocalising of Glenn Gould.

In his illuminating remarks between items, Lee introduced Mozart the gambler (images of Tom Hulce in Milos Forman’s 1984 movie Amadeus sprang to mind immediately), to explain the unexpected mash-ups of conventional architecture in the rondeau finale of K.281.  He explained the application of ‘variants’ (quasi-improvised fragments which enabled Mozart to show off in performances) in the magisterial K.457 – “Mozart’s greatest work for the piano,” he maintained, “one that had a critical influence over Beethoven” – and certainly he made the work sound like Beethoven, with hearty lashings of C minor sturm und drang and yet more drang.

There were cheers and a sustained (seated) ovation at the conclusion of this 90-minute presentation. Try as one might, it was hard to avoid cliché responses like ‘stunning’, even ‘electrifying’.  I don’t think I have heard a Mozart recital quite like this. I heard things in Mozart’s music I had never thought possible and certainly had never encountered before.

So, where does all this lead? Ideally, to more students at the revivified ANU School of Music. Of the audience of around 70 at this recital, about half were of student age. Beyond this promising statistic, there is another educational dimension here.

It would be good to see ANU Music revive its own CD label. I have not seen anything since the multi-CD set of Australian compositions released to coincide with the Bicentenary three decades ago. A complete set of Mozart piano sonatas and trios, with violinist Tor Fromyr and cellist David Prereira, both members of the newly reformed ANU trio, would surely be an attractive market proposition. The piano-four hands music with Sonja Lifschitz, and Mozart from the ANU’s acclaimed Jazz School too.

Lee is an engaging presenter, emerging as an educator in the Bernstein mould, a star who will attract students and audiences. ANU Music already has the recording and post-production resources. It could do well to produce a DVD series as well as CDs. A special research grant could kick-start a budget for production, publicity and distribution.

For the moment, Lee is planning to present these lecture-recitals at various venues across Canberra and the ACT to the end of 2019. With sixteen sonatas in the series, that constitutes a cycle of six concerts, each of three sonatas. This may be stretching ACT audiences to the limit. Sounds like an Adelaide Festival cycle, if ever I heard one.