“I still remember the time when I played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concert No. 3 for the first time in London in 2001. After the concert, he gave me a hug with tears in his eyes, and said that he had high hopes for me. Master Fou was a great artist that I respected very much. I will never forget what he said about always staying kind and pure-hearted. His understanding of music was unique.” Lang Lang

Fou Ts’ong – Complete Westminster Recordings
Westminster Eloquence 484 3712

On 28 December 2020, pianist Fou Ts’ong died of Covid-19 in a London hospital at the age of 86. His passing unleashed a flood of loving tributes and reminiscences in the media from pianist colleagues and from generations of students who benefited from Fou’s guidance and mentorship. That a musician who weathered political oppression and family tragedy beyond his control would fall victim to pandemic that could have been controlled is nothing short of compounded cruelty. Yet as Fou rose above adversity, his artistry evolved, ripened and ultimately prevailed over the course of a long and rewarding career.

Four Ts’ong was born in Shanghai on 10 March 1934. He once explained to the London Independent that his name meant ‘good ear’. Fou’s father, Fu Lei, was a leading Chinese translator of French literature, an art critic and curator, and all-around intellectual and Renaissance man. His mother, Zhu Meifu, was a secretary to her husband. Fu Lei’s large classical record collection launched his son’s interest in music, introducing him to legendary performers of the past like Artur Schnabel, Alfred Cortot, Edwin Fischer and Wanda Landowska, whom he’d revere throughout his life. Under their father’s guidance, Fou and his brother, Fu Min, were educated to appreciate both Western and Chinese cultural influences. Fou recalled his father saying ‘first you must be a person, then an artist, and then a musician, and only then can you be a pianist’.

Fou began piano lessons at ten. His first teacher was a pupil of his father. In an interview with Jessica Duchen, Fou recalled that her loving and encouraging approach provided ‘the greatest joy in my life’. His next teacher was Mario Paci, a one-time assistant to Toscanini at La Scala, Milan, and the founder of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra, whose strict pedagogy ‘took all of the joy away’; apparently, he assigned Fou nothing but exercises for a whole year.

In any event, the chaotic conditions of wartime China thwarted the momentum of his musical education. After the family moved in 1948 to Kunming in Yunnan province, Fou went through a troubled period. He split with his family and flirted with communism. Speaking with Duchen, Fou described himself at that time as ‘making revolution all over the place, falling in and out of love all the time, drinking and playing bridge’.

‘He was a rebellious, difficult pupil – a boy of that age, after all, does not find it easy to stick to hours of practice,’ Fu Lei wrote in an essay. But Fou’s ‘love for music was so great that I found the severest punishment for slackness was to lock the piano and forbid him to play. He would look at the instrument and cry his eyes out.’

After a reconciliation, Fou’s father agreed to help him pursue his goal of becoming a concert pianist. ‘I studied by intuition, thinking and reading books,’ Fou told Duchen. ‘I studied on my own and made my debut one year later. In Shanghai that made such a stir that central government, who wanted to send someone abroad for a competition, came to Shanghai to search out for me as one of the candidates.’ He wound up winning third prize in a competition in Bucharest.

In 1954 Fou embarked on a cultural exchange visit to Poland with other Chinese musicians, singers and dancers. The Polish government sent composer Andrzej Panufnik to listen to Fou to determine if the young pianist was worthy of participating in the 1955 International Chopin Competition. Panufnik raved about Fou. ‘And soon everyone in Poland was raving: “Have you heard him play Mazurkas? Listen to those Mazurkas!” I became a sort of performing monkey, everyone was asking me to play Mazurkas all the time!’ Fou recalled with laughter. Even the revered German poet and novelist Herman Hesse gushed over Fou’s interpretations as ‘the real Chopin … the Chopin of Warsaw and Paris, the Paris of Heinrich Heine and the young Liszt’.

Fou ultimately placed third in the Chopin Competition, behind second prize winner Vladimir Ashkenazy and gold medalist Adam Harasiewicz, yet won a special award for his Mazurka interpretations. Fou’s success led him to accept a scholarship to study at the Warsaw Conservatory, where he worked with Zbigniew Drzewiecki, whom Fou later described as being his only serious teacher. After the competition, Drzewiecki pulled Fou aside and said, ‘Ts’ong, you are very special case – so individual. You have your own ideas and I don’t really want you to come to lessons that often. I am only here to guide you when you go out of your way, to ensure that you keep your individual approach to music.’

Fou explained to Duchen that he extended his stay in Poland as long as he could, for by then the anti-rightest movement had begun. His father had been targeted as a critic of the government, and the pianist knew that he’d most likely face persecution himself and be forced to condemn his father. The only solution was to seek political asylum in the West.

A wealthy English music-lover named Auberon Herbert helped arrange an invitation for Fou to play in London, for which he could get a visa. Pianist Julius Katchen lent Fou money for an airfare for a flight from Warsaw to London on Christmas Eve, 1958. Soon Fou was granted asylum, and he remained based in London for the rest of his life. In 1966 Mao Tse-tung launched the Cultural Revolution, and his Militant Red Guards humiliated and tortured Fou’s parents for days until the couple were driven to suicide. Many months passed before Fou learned of his parents’ fate. After two decades and major political changes in China, Fou returned to his homeland in 1979. He made more frequent trips back in the later years of his life to teach and perform, and gave his final public recital in Shanghai at the age of 80.

After settling in London, Fou entered into a relationship with the Westminster label, for whom he would record nine albums, all newly remastered and gathered together for the first time in the present collection. They encompass a good range of his repertoire predilections, as well as the scope of his youthful artist maturity.

Fou’s recital of a dozen Scarlatti sonatas not only met with critical praise, but comfortably held its own among Westminster’s distinctive Scarlatti releases from pianists Clara Haskil and Nina Milkina, not to mention harpsichordist Fernando Valenti’s extensive Scarlatti series. ‘This young pianist shows no signs of contamination by the nineteenth century, or Tausig-Bülow approach to Scarlatti,’ wrote Nathan Broder. ‘His playing is crisp, with little or no pedal, and he certainly brings out the special traits of each sonata: the birdcalls and hunting horns of L.82, the poetry of L.256, the delicacy of L.82, the dissonant clashes of L.457, the charm of L.352.’ Fou’s Handel and Bach disc similarly reveals the intelligence, taste and inherent musicality which the pianist brought to this repertoire on the modern concert grand.

One wonders if Fou’s childhood exposure to his father’s record collection included Edwin Fischer’s classic Handel G-major Chaconne HWV 435, for Fou suffuses this work with similarly assiduous unity and tonal nuance. Notice, too, the wittily pointed three-note figurations in the Bach Capriccio’s final section, and the declamatory strength throughout the Chromatic Fantasia, followed by a clearly voiced fugue where the rhythmic momentum never lags, as it often does.

Having first encountered Fou’s Beethoven and Schubert Westminster LPs in my college library in the mid-1970s, revisiting these freshly restored interpretations confirms my youthful appreciation of the pianist’s finely honed trills in Op. 110’s first movement and the final variation in Op. 109’s third movement, his knack for hitting on just the right tempos, and even how Fou’s gift for melodic projection comes through in the thick of the Schubert A-minor Sonata finale’s rapid two-handed passagework.

Fou’s affinity for Mozart is not surprising, given that he imprinted on the performances of Artur Schnabel and Wanda Landowska. As it happens, the four Mozart concertos Fou recorded for Westminster are diverse in character and mood. Gramophone’s April 1962 review of the KV 503/595 coupling accurately cited the orchestra’s first and second violin sections’ separation and the uncommonly impactful woodwinds. Granted, KV 595’s first movement is given in its now-discredited text with seven bars of music missing, plus the wrong reading of the Larghetto’s measures 104-106. One can overlook these details in light of Fou’s sensitivity and authority elsewhere, such as his varied touch in the KV 271 finale’s repeated phrases, and the nuanced drama he brings throughout KV 503’s first movement.

The ‘bonus’ 1975 Decca Mozart recording of the Triple Concerto with Fou joining Vladimir Ashkenazy and Daniel Barenboim (who conducts from the keyboard) provides a welcome bonus and Gramophone’s Stephen Plaistow wrote ‘This is an intermittently pleasing record, conveying an atmosphere of good fellowship and relaxed music making which of course is appropriate to the music being made. I can sense how enjoyable the recording sessions must have been.’

Still, it’s possible that Fou will best remain known for his Chopin. ‘I feel very strongly about Chopin – I just love him,’ the pianist told writer Tim Stein. ‘But if you ask me my personal feelings about him, I wouldn’t say he is the greatest composer of all time. He is, however, the greatest “artist” of a composer, if you know what I mean. And in that sense I think he appeals very much to us Orientals. There is just that incredible quality of taste and subtlety.’

Although Fou recorded Mazurkas at different times throughout his career, the original group of eighteen issued by Westminster arguably represents his interpretations at their freshest and most creative. ‘Fou’s tone ranges from bright translucency to velvety suggestiveness,’ wrote Harris Goldsmith in High Fidelity. ‘He utilizes a hundred types of rubato and “snap” rhythms, but manages to preserve flow. There is admirable flexibility in the way this artist unfolds a melodic line. While the emotional temperature of his work remains low-keyed and cool, he confirms the impression … that he was born to play this music.’ Furthermore, in 1962, the hard-to-please Goldsmith also cited Fou’s Chopin Ballades as the cycle’s best recorded edition up to that time.

To further explore Fou’s highly individual and internalized Chopin style, look no further than the F-minor Concerto slow movement’s anguished central minor key episode. In the Schumann Concerto, Fou’s impressively contoured first movement cadenza and deftly phrased cross-rhythmic passages in the finale leave one to wonder why he downplayed his abilities in print.

‘I was a great counterfeiter,’ Fou told Jessica Duchen, ‘because I managed to hide all my troubles by my unique way of fingering, by my imagination, somehow by hoping to produce the goods. I always wanted to realise whatever vision I had in my head – in what way I don’t know, I found it in my own way … In a way I am my own downfall because I camouflage so well. In some ways it’s also good because my way is original. But the struggle I have had with pianistic problems over the years is unbelievable, even to this day. I have to practise awfully hard; I envy pianists who have a great facility because I wish I had more time to play more music.’

Still, Fou Ts’ong’s Westminster recordings capture this artist’s organic fusion of sonority and content. ‘I don’t think of sound in isolation,’ he told Tim Stein. ‘For me, music has to express something. And whatever you express, whether sadness or joy, the sound you produce comes out of that.’

What the press said about these recordings:

“There is a great deal to enjoy on this record, and it is immensely refreshing to come across a Chopin pianist who thinks too much, if anything … I very much hope we shall be hearing more of Fou’s Chopin.” Gramophone, July 1961

“His technical equipment is marvellous, and his interpretive abilities are … ideally suited to the music here.” Stereo Review, January 1962 (Chopin: Ballades)

“Fou Ts’ong makes a notable impression with his clean and well-proportioned renditions of these two masterful concertos … recorded sound that is completely natural both in balance and warmth of tone.” Stereo Review, January 1962 (Mozart: Piano Concertos KV 503 & 595)

“The performances strike me as being within striking distance of ideal … he is a remarkably musical pianist.” Gramophone, April 1962 (Mozart: Piano Concertos KV 503 & 595)

“Fou Ts’ong is a brilliant technician and an inspired keyboard poet … His interpretations are as poetic and romantic as anyone’s, with singing melodic lines and considerable rhythmic license and tonal painting, but unlike the performances one hears so often these build cohesively… I would say that this is quite the best recorded edition of the Ballades.” High Fidelity, February 1962 (Chopin: Ballades, Préludes, Berceuse)

“The feeling for Beethoven’s musical vocabulary is spontaneous, the approach is wholly sympathetic, and all the difficult passages are carried by an unwavering sense of the style.” High Fidelity, June 1962 (Beethoven)

“A beautifully balanced, exquisitely shaped reading of subtle charm. It is now my favourite modern recording.” Stereo Review, June 1964 (Schumann: Piano Concerto)

“Fou Ts’ong’s deeply subjective yet rather severe interpretative outlook and his pointillistic fingerwork find an ideal outlet in this literature. While there is a ringing clarity and sharp linearity in a tonal approach at times suggestive of the harpsichord, Fou fully utilizes the coloristic potentialities of which the piano is capable.” High Fidelity, July 1964 (Bach)

“It is futile to attempt any explanation of the psychic alchemy by which a Chinese pianist has evolved such masterly readings of the most purely Polish and personal of all Chopin’s works. We can only accept such a gift with joy and a sense at fulfilment, as well as with the hope that this artist will one day commit the entire series of mazurkas to discs.” High Fidelity, February 1965 (Chopin: Mazurkas)

“Fou Ts’ong achieves a miraculous blend of the folk-dance, salon, and lyrical aspects of these works … His handling of the trills in Op. 68 No. 4, the last of Chopin’s completed works, makes of this tragic piece a quite shattering experience. The recorded sound is excellent all the way: this is an outstanding disc.” Stereo Review, February 1965 (Chopin: Mazurkas)

“I am very impressed with the vital and sensitive way Fou plays, and delighted that he should join the ranks of true Handelians … He is a pianist with unusually communicative fingers, and a fine control of line, and he is also admirable in Bach.” Gramophone, June 1965 (Bach/Handel)

“[Mozart] finds Fou Ts’ong on good terms with the music, probing deeply into the sadly expressive Andantino with as much intensity as taste. The outer movements tend towards youthful élan” High Fidelity, February 1968 (Mozart: Piano Concertos KV 271 & 414)

Fou Ts’ong – Complete Westminster Recordings
Westminster Eloquence 484 3712