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Force of nature: Fou Ts’ong (1934-2020)

Bryce Morrison

Remembering Chinese pianist Fou Ts’ong: a mesmeric artist with a unique gift for conveying Chopin’s greatness

2:43, 8th January 2021

With the death of Fou Ts’ong the world has lost an artist of a rare and distinctive eloquence. The first Chinese pianist to achieve international recognition, he came to attention at the 1955 Chopin Competition in Warsaw where he won third prize (the first went to Adam Harasiewicz, the second to Vladimir Ashkenazy). There was surprise at his idiomatic command of the Mazurkas, then seen as the exclusive province of Slavic pianists. Today, as training and performance become ever more international, such an assumption seems quaint, a damning with faint praise. Unsurprisingly, during his long and intensive career Fou Ts’ong became a specialist in Chopin and recorded most of the major genres, apart from the Waltzes and Impromptus which he viewed as salon alternatives to seriousness.

Settling in London he married into musical royalty, the Menuhin family, and his subsequent divorce was a blow to his early career prospects. His intellectual parents had both committed suicide, victims of China’s Cultural Revolution, and it is possible to hear in Ts’ong’s playing of Chopin – particularly in the later stages of his career – a vehemence, even anger, underlying that composer’s tormented genius. Ts’ong compelled you to rethink Chopin through playing of an intense, vivid and personal commitment. In his hands, Chopin was no drawing-room dreamer or dandy but a figure of formidable and challenging poetic strength.

But if Chopin was at the heart of Ts’ong’s repertoire, it was nonetheless extensive. His fleetness and compulsive brilliance made him born for Scarlatti, often in the lesser-known sonatas, and there were exceptional readings of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and especially Debussy. Few pianists have played a more evocative ‘La cathédrale engloutie’ or captured the thrumming guitars and sultry Spanish atmosphere of ‘La sérénade interrompue’ with sharper focus. Like all great pianists his playing invited controversy, but even when in later years you might object to a certain angularity and push-pull rubato, your attention was riveted by the force of personality.

Tributes to Ts’ong have poured in from many quarters, including pianists Yuliana Avdeeva, William Youn and Daniel Vnukowski. Warsaw’s Fryderyk Chopin Institute praised Ts’ong’s ‘unique gift for conveying Chopin’s greatness to the world both in words and, above all, through his playing.’

A special album marking Ts’ong’s 60th birthday was jointly issued in 1994 by Martha Argerich, Leon Fleisher and Radu Lupu. They wrote: ‘Fou Ts’ong became one of the great teachers of our time. We are obliged to Fou Ts’ong for all his new ideas and for opening new musical horizons for all of us.’

Fou Ts’ong was a force of nature, a mesmeric and irreplaceable artist.

Fou Ts’ong, pianist, born 10 March 1934, died 28 December 2020

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