John Chen at Upper Hutt’s Expressions

JOHN CHEN – PIano Recital



Genesis Energy Theatre, Upper Hutt,  Monday 27th July 2009

Malaysian-born naturalised New Zealander John Chen, now just twenty-three years old, first achieved international prominence by winning the Sydney International Piano Competition in 2004 at the age of eighteen, the youngest-ever winner of this competition. Since then his career has taken him to appearances with all the major Australasian orchestras, and to numerous chamber music and solo recital engagements, all to critical acclaim. He has recorded discs of French music for Naxos, in particular the complete solo piano works of Henri Dutilleux, and is an advocate of contemporary New Zealand music, with premieres of music by Jenny McLeod, Ross Harris, Claire Cowan and Tony Lin to his credit. This year in New Zealand he’s been on tour with the NZSO National Youth Orchestra, and is about to embark on a series of concerts with the T’ang Quartet of Singapore featuring a work by Gao Ping. At present he’s coming to the end of a 10-centre tour of the country with two solo recital programmes, each of which contains a new work by Christchurch-based composer Tony Lin. On Monday evening at the Expressions Genesis Energy Theatre in Upper Hutt he gave one of these programmes, a first half consisting of French music, and after the interval works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to go with Tony Lin’s new piece.


John Chen began the recital with a piece by Francis Poulenc entitled Melancolie, concerning which the composer was overheard remarking that the French “realise that sombreness and good humour are not mutually exclusive”. It was apparent from the outset that the young pianist felt completely at home in this repertoire, his playing at once elegant, liquid, rich and warm, with the deftest of detailing enabling the ebb and flow of the music to cast an effusive glow all around the auditorium. The sounds evoked an aura and personality of a composer whose charm and wry manner must have endeared him to the friends and colleagues in whose honour he wrote a good deal of his piano music.


From Poulenc we moved on to Debussy, and the latter’s Second Book of Images, composed in 1907. Chen’s ability to colour sounds and create liquid flow was given full scope in these sensitive realisations, the first (“Bells Through the Leaves”) suggesting an interplay between substance and dissolution, the notes delivered with the utmost delicacy, conjuring up worlds where familiar sounds are enveloped in mystery. Debussy wrote the music on three staves, implying a certain “terracing” of sounds, which Chen evoked superbly throughout, drawing from a gorgeous but evanescent sound-palatte. The second piece, “And the Moon Descends on the Temple that Was” emerged in Chen’s hands as an evocation of columns of sound shrouded in deep mists, rich, resonant chording set against finely-etched detailings, as if a visitor to an old house had stumbled upon a forgotten room filled with ancient clocks, the chimings and tickings imagined rather than real, and the memory of the experience seeming like one recalled in old age. The third piece “Goldfish” brought a more mercurial quality to the sounds, with runs of pure gossamer over the keys set against other scintillations of movement whose ripples sparkled and splashed. John Chen’s differentiations of these specific impulses were quite miraculously evoked, set in contrasting motion to the episodes of more forthright gesture, moments of rhetoric that passed quickly, returning the sounds to the world of suggestiveness and fleeting impressions.


More sharply-etched and crystalline, though equally as suggestive, Ravel’s vivid evocation of Ondine, the water-sprite and temptress of man, forms the first part of the composer’s musical triptych “Gaspard de la Nuit”. Again, Chen’s ultra-sensitivity and beautifully-honed delicacy brought out all of the music’s liquid tintinnabulations, the textures at once cleanly-drawn and ambiently glowing. And the pianist’s fingerwork performed miracles of articulation as the river waters rose in response to the nymph’s gesturings, suffusing everything with watery hues – but just as scintillating was the piece’s final flourish, the poem’s words – “…abashed and vexed she dissolved into tears and laughter; vanished in a scatter of rain….” vividly conveyed by Chen’s brilliant pianistic flurries and the charged silences that followed. Of a different order of expression was the middle piece, “Le Gibet”, a somewhat grisly depiction of a hanged man left on the gallows in the sunset, the music tolling a ghostly bell-sound throughout, around which eerie crepuscular ambiences gradually close in, mourning fragmented chorales and skeletal descending cluster-harmonies representing the pity, horror and nonchalance of the scene. John Chen controlled it all beautifully, though I have heard those ghoulish descending chords played with more “point” as to make one’s flesh creep – here they were deftly brushed in, but a tad anonymous-sounding.


As for the final “Scarbo”, Chen’s dwarf emerged from the shadows as a brilliantly mischievous imp, rather than as an out-and-out malevolent creature of the night – which is to say that the characterisations were touched in more lightly and suggestively than is usually the case, the necessary “glint” in the playing having an elfin incandescence rather than a diabolical “bite”. Again, Chen’s control of detail was astonishing, bringing out a Puckishness in the characterisation, more so than the spectral quality favoured by some interpreters, and actually more, I think, in line with the descriptions in the verses by Aloysius Bertrand. As with all of John Chen’s work, it’s about the music rather than the interpreter, which I greatly appreciated.


Beginning the second half was a composition by one of Chen’s pianistic contemporaries, Tony Lin, whom I’d seen and heard play last year in Kerikeri, when he came within a whisker of winning the final of the International Piano Competition, but was edged into second place by young Jun Bouterey-Ishido. On that occasion Lin played one of his own compositions, a work called “Impression”, to great effect. For his present tour John Chen commissioned a new work by Tony Lin, called “In veils concealed….”, the music, like the earlier piece, making a distinct and deeply-considered impact. Lin’s idea was to characterise fragments of thought or memory as being concealed in bright veils but partly revealed by the play of light, suggesting their nature or origin. The work began with a Ravelian delicacy, exploring treble-keyboard sonorities, and using a repeated ascending figure, now insistent, now distant, augmenting these gestures with birdsong-like figurations. John Chen brought out the music’s wondrously layered effect, skilfully terracing his dynamics and voicing the fragments in sequences that seemed to cohere and advance the argument. As the piece progressed the details seemed to become more elongated, increasingly sinuous and extended, all the while punctuated by exquisite harmonic clusters at the top end of the keyboard. Chen occasionally used the pedal to wondrously enrich the textures and extend the piece’s layered character further, before reducing the dynamics to a whisper and allowing the figures and motifs to become remembrances and echoes. A deeper note, the piece’s only excursion into territories below Middle C, then brought a lovely work to a thoughtful conclusion.


Beethoven’s contemporaries probably had similar reactions to the above when encountering some of the composer’s late, more transcendentally-conceived works, one such being the A Major Piano Sonata Op.101. The very opening of the work sets lyricism against forward movement in an enticingly equivocal manner, with Chen catching that delicate balance to perfection, bringing to mind thoughts such as “letting things unfold” and “moving and being moved” with his playing. The succeeding march brought a touch of steel to the tone, with the rhythm perhaps calling for a bit more “spike” and rather less speed – but this, of course was an energetic young man’s performance. I thought the trio section also needed to take a little more with it, moving forward, but carrying just a bit more circumspection, so as to not hurry, but letting the distant music of the march gradually re-materialise. And I’m sure it was heat-of-the-moment exuberance that caused Chen to nearly overplay the last triumphant chords, a forgiveable piece of impulsiveness!


The slow movement unfolded quite gorgeously, Chen nicely capturing the wonderment of where the music was taking him, creating a strong sense of expectation which the reprise of the work’s opening nicely teases, before those sudden “call-to-attention” chords release the pent-up energies of the finale, the pianist spinning the jog-trot rhythms engagingly, and launching the fugue with mordant wit and beautifully-weighted voicings – the whole a truly living organism, here, underpinned by the pianist’s finely-tuned awareness of the creative play of different elements within the music’s structure.


To finish the programme we were given Tchaikovsky’s infrequently-performed Theme and Variations in F, a work that made me wonder why we don’t hear more of the composer’s solo piano music – despite its occasional unevennesses, the collection of twelve pieces known as “The Months” for one would surely make an attractive and unusual recital item. So it proved with this work, Tchaikovsky’s individual approach to theme-and-variation form creating a number of distinctive and worthwhile pieces. Highlights were the Schumannesque No.4, whose song-like character brought out a melancholy characteristic of the composer, the waltz-like No.8, alternatively piquant and demonstrative, and the innovative No.11, whose rhythm derived from the previous dance-like piece, but with an altered time-signature and a completely new and different-natured melody – very clever composing! John Chen made the most of these pieces, bringing the work to a brilliant and satisfying conclusion with the scamperingly virtuosic final variation. As if to return our emotional states to normal, John Chen played the first of Brahms’ Op.119 Piano Pieces as an encore, bringing out the music’s Janus-faced combination of world-weary experience and fresh wonderment. Naturally, we were a most appreciative audience, and lost no time in enthusiastically demonstrating our approval.

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