PAINTING BY PIANO (2014): The art music of Henry Wong Doe

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Henry Wong Doe: This Liquid Drift of Light
PAINTING BY PIANO (2014): The art music of Henry Wong Doe

Rannoch House, on a leafy and secluded street in a central Auckland suburb, houses one of New Zealand's most extraordinary art collections.

Open to the public, the house contains works amassed by – there is no better description to convey the vast acquisition – the Rich Lister, arts patron and philanthropist Sir James Wallace.

From the turret to the basement of this home which was built in 1915 and inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, every corner, window ledge, nook and cranny – literally, every one – contains paintings, drawings, sculpture, installations, lightboxes, photographs and whatever other medium New Zealand artists have chosen to express themselves in.

From Toss Woollaston through Brent Wong to Judi Millar – with stop-offs at scores of famous and little known names – this collection is breathtaking in its breadth and almost numbing in its inclusiveness and number.

henrySo amidst the plethora of New Zealand art it was fitting that this week the place should have seen the launch of the album by New Zealand-born pianist Henry Wong Doe whose Landscapes Preludes is a collection of interpretations of music by New Zealand composers such as Gillian Whitehead, Jack Body, John Psathas, Ross Harris, Victoria Kelly, Gareth Farr and others..

The album is on the Rattle VUP imprint and the first with assistance from Sir James in the Wallace Art Series (to come soon the complete Beethoven piano sonatas by Michael Houston over 14 discs), and had already been given an extraordinary five star seal of approval by the New Zealand Herald’s classical critic William Dart who described it as “an iconic collection” and said “if you buy just one classical CD this year make it Landscape Preludes”.

Buoyed by such an early and unequivocal notice, Rattle’s Steve Garden and VUP’s Fergus Barrowman were in understandably good spirits. The relationship between VUP (Victoria University Press) has already been extremely fruitful with albums such as the works for contemporary gamelan on Naga, and jazz releases from Jonathan Crayford, Dog and The Jac (all reviewed at Elsewhere, see here).

VUP is also riding high on the success of Booker prize-winner Elizabeth Catton’s The Luminaries.

So Rattle VUP must have been feeling very good indeed on this night.

More so for this rare and beautiful recording which comes in packaging emblematic of the care and concern given to its albums.

wong_doeHoused in a hardback sleeve with liner notes and a cover image from a '68 painting The Drum by Philip Trusttum from the Wallace Art Trust collection, the album an elegant feel about it.

On the launch night Wong Doe only played two pieces, the first being Whitehead’s Arapatiki which evokes a tidal estuary, the ebb and flow of water, and bird song.

This piece, in the context of the paintings around the walls, conjured up the synaesthetic relationship between the musical and visual arts and how they evoke landscape.

Wong Doe – whose debut album Horizon was piano music by Gareth Farr on Trust Records two years ago – also brought a physicality to the performance. Steve Garden's wife Viky, a painter and sculptor, likened him to a cat pouncing on the keyboard which seemed apt. But the intensity of his playing in this brief recital and on the CD – focused on each individual note or cascades of melody – confirm why he has won so many awards and is an audience favourite here and overseas. Wong Doe currently lives in New York (he also teaches in Pennsylvania) and is committed to 20th and 21st century composers.

Ironically then, these pieces on Landscape Preludes were works he inherited, they had been commissioned by the New Zealand pianist Stephen De Pledge a little over a decade ago but in his liner notes to the disc Wong Doe says he made a conscious decision not to hear previous performances so he could more fully give his attention to his own interpretations of the notes.

And that is what makes these recordings something special: on Psathas' Sleepers he makes the repeated figure beneath the angular melodic line sound almost mischievous (a word Dart also uses, I note); Creswell's Chiaroscuro relays between vigorous darkness and shards of light; Eve De Castro-Robinson's wonderful This Liquid Drift of Light (it's lovely title from a poem by Denys Trussell) is given a reading of utmost delicacy . . .

henry2And this 12 piece collection closes with Victoria Kelly's wistfully nostalgic Goodnight Kiwi, a title alone evoking a bygone era which, for many, was probably more simple and innocent.

In interpretations of exceptional understanding and often understatement, Henry Wong Doe takes you back to that time and – across these works – to landscapes which perhaps seemed more full of promise and possibility than how we might see them now.

This is the magic of art.

For more on Rattle Records see here.

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Dee - Aug 11, 2014

Thanks for this review and recommendation Graham. It's interesting to learn the context to the album. Henry Wong Doe was the soloist at APO's Unwrap concert last week, performing Grieg's piano concerto. He was fantastic to see performing live and gave his new album a plug so will have to seek it out. Cheers. GRAHAM REPLIES: Classical piano doesn't often appear at Elsewhere so our recommendation is to draw attention to this exceptional album. Thanks for your comment Dee, Wong Doe is indeed fantastic.

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