John Chen’s highly rewarding detour for piano recital at Waikanae

(Waikanae Music Society)

Mozart: Piano Sonata No 15 in F, K 533 and K 494; Enescu: Piano Sonata No 1 in F sharp minor, Op 24 No 1; Dorothy Buchanan: From the Mountain to the River; Schumann: Fantasie in C, Op 17

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 2 September, 2.30pm

John Chen paid a flying visit from Auckland to play this one concert for the Waikanae Music Society after which he returned to Auckland to pick up his flight the same evening, to Hamburg. The good citizens of Kapiti could well feel privileged.

The Waikanae hall which is basically an indoor sports arena has not been an ideal music venue, particularly for chamber music, has been cleverly adapted so that sound projects more strongly and cleanly. A recessed stage was created a few years ago which acts as a kind of amplifier, and this has recently been improved with a hard-surfaced ceiling at 45 degrees which further enhances the sound.

Chen cultivates a reputation for looking out for unusual music, and it is music that generally rewards his risk-taking. That was certainly the case here with two rather unfamiliar pieces. Mozart’s Sonata No 15 is not unfamiliar, but it is just not so often played as half a dozen other sonatas that are more popular.

It was composed in two separate parts. In June 1786 he had written a Rondo (or Rondeau in one account), to which Köchel gave the number 494, and some months later he wrote an Allegro and Andante.  At his publisher Hoffmeister’s request, he joined those two movements with the earlier Rondo, adding a twenty-seven measure cadenza to it, to form a three-movement sonata.`

Chen’s playing introduced it unpretentiously, light and confident, yet betraying its sophisticated, contrapuntal character and the interesting inner voices seemed to gain particular point.  His articulation was precise, with lively staccato, all of which commanded attention.

Each movement contains musical ideas that are both attractive and arresting and which lend themselves to imaginative development; the themes are not especially catchy, but they soon take on the nature of a thinking person’s sonata. The meaningful pauses in the Andante movement are not characteristic of a late 17th century work; : each note, in Chen’s hands, seemed to be in the inevitably right place, and it was as if Mozart was responding to an instinct that was taking him rather wide of the conventions of his day.

It was the next piece that was the real discovery: Enescu’s first piano sonata. He wrote three, but the second has been lost; in the light of this one, that is very sad. Everyone has expectations of Enescu through the two wonderful Romanian Rhapsodies (the second, much less played, is quieter but just as infectious); the reality of the other music that he’s written is quite different however, and his opera Oedipe is ranked by many among the great operas of the 20th century. I have long regretted having to opt out of booked seats to see it in Bucharest about eight years ago.

The opening is very plain, single notes, but slowly complexity gathers, rhythms and tonalities shift to create an air of unease or instability; it place in the march of music history is defined by an occasional subtle bluesy harmony, but its ancestry can only be heard as coming from the eastern side of the Atlantic. If there are traces of Romanian folk music, they merely go to show that my acquaintance with that music is uncultivated. The general impression is of a work rich in melody of a fleeting kind, that makes its points obliquely and modestly. I Googled the work (as one does almost routinely these days – my set of the New Grove Dictionary of Music gets consulted much less) and found a review of a performance which made excellent general remarks about the music:

“Perhaps one reason why not a lot of pianists have paid attention to Enescu is because, while it is fiendishly difficult to play, the music rarely offers virtuosic thrills that bring concert audiences to their feet. To be sure, playing Enescu is just as difficult as playing Bartok, Ravel, Prokofiev or Rachmaninov, but Enescu requires a selfless kind of virtuosity, one that goes far beyond absolute control of the instrument.”

I thought there were weaknesses, not in the playing, but in passages that struck me as prolonged by needless passagework or repetition of mere decoration; and, particularly in the second movement, the promise of an interesting development that was tantalisingly unfulfilled. However, Chen’s achievement was to invest such moments with interest and liveliness, and the last movement slowly created a ravishing and magical landscape by which all minor misgivings were forgotten.

A short impressionistic piece by Wellington composer Dorothy Buchanan opened the second half, imaginative, unpretentious, and Chen gave it a gentle, careful reading.

The big draw-card was of course Schumann’s Fantaisie in C, widely loved even by those poor souls who don’t love Schumann’s music unreservedly.  Though it is allowable to regret that he did not quite find this glorious vein of composition again. Chen revealed a real affection for it through playing that was both hugely capable (it’s not for amateurs, I say sadly), but poetic and restrained, and in the powerful central movement giving full vent to all of the composer’s wonderful impulsiveness, never mind a couple of unimportant smudges, and expressed so rapturously, the composer’s ecstatic hopes for a future with his beloved Clara.

And so, after rather clamorous applause, he played the Prelude to Bach’s 4th English Suite in F, BWV 809.



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