Brilliant and vibrant exuberance from John Chen

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
JOHN CHEN (piano)

BARBER – Piano Sonata in E-flat Op 26
BEETHOVEN – Piano Sonata in C Minor Op.111
MENDELSSOHN – 7 Character Pieces Op.7 – Nos 3 and 5
HINDEMITH – Piano Sonata No.3 in B-flat Major (1936)

St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 18th May 2014

This was in many respects a masterly recital, a most interesting and, indeed, challenging programme, delivered by John Chen with piano-playing whose seismic performance energies in places would have given the foundations of St Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace a particularly singular workout. It was music that seemed to bristle with challenges for the pianist, though a different kind of challenge for both player and audience was due, I thought to the running order of the music that was chosen. I did know beforehand, for example, that both Beethoven’s Op.111 Sonata and Samuel Barber’s 1949 Piano Sonata were being performed, but not that they would be put right next to one another.

At the point when John Chen finished his blistering traversal of the Barber, which opened the program, I was ready for strong coffee, or something of an even more restorative nature! This was by way of my feeling somewhat drained of listening energy through close proximity to such supercharged music-making. What I really didn’t want to happen at that particular moment in time was to then be confronted with the alarming incongruity of encountering nothing less than Beethoven’s Op.111.

But here was this young pianist, having thrown off one of the great keyboard masterworks of the twentieth century with huge aplomb and complete commitment to the cause, ready to climb a different kind of Everest, with what seemed scarcely a pause for breath. It seemed a fraction – well, excessive……Perhaps if someone had appeared and said something like, “There will be a short break before the programme’s next item….” we would have been able to better realign our sensibilities for what was to follow.

Once Chen began the Beethoven, certain things about his playing of the music compounded the incongruity. With the Barber work he seemed to have both understood and fully entered into the music’s free-wheeling spirit of fearless creative ferment. However, his playing throughout the opening of the Beethoven work seemed somewhat constrained, the rough-hewn, elemental piano-writing I thought a shade too moderated in effect, to convey a sense of the music’s composer hurling his message outwards and upwards towards the heavens.

So much about his reading was to be admired – its pacing, timing, clarity of fingerwork and overall structuring all seemed clearly thought-out, and skilfully brought into play – and perhaps, in a different context it would all have convey more of the music’s intrinsic character. But after that performance of the Barber work it seemed to me as though Chen had with the Beethoven become too intent on conveying the music’s different “style”, instead of trying to directly get to grips with the work’s physical, emotional and spiritual content.

Symptomatic of this approach to the music was Chen’s omission of the first-movement repeat, as if for the pianist some structural logic was best served by its excision. I find its inclusion a significant intensification of the music’s character, a fleshing-out of the composer’s own dictum that “the idea counts more than its execution”. Removing the passage might serve some abstracted formal symmetry, but surely detracts from the range and scope of Beethoven’s emotional and spiritual architecture. It’s not quite a stylistic matter, but again it raises the question of priorities, this time regarding form and content and their relative importance. Of course, as with so many things musical, opinions will vary.

Going back to the issue of which piece should have followed which, my preference would have been for the pianist to have re-aligned the program, beginning with either the Hindemith Sonata or the Mendelssohn Character Pieces instead of the Barber Sonata, and playing the latter as a barnstorming finale  – after which, of course, the coffee would go down REALLY well!  But one day, I hope Chen will choose another alternative solution when programming Op.111, which will be to bring more of his own particular kind of creative abandonment to his playing and interpreting of the work. I don’t mean he should be riding roughshod over the music’s stylistic elements, but nor should they inhibit or be treated as ends in themselves – they’re a starting-point, a springboard from which to express Beethoven’s idea as the player sees fit and feels the music.

The remainder of the program seemed admirably suited to John Chen’s skills and sensibilities. Mendelssohn’s two Character Pieces (Op.7 Nos. 3 and 5) in places literally bubbled with enjoyment in the pianist’s hands. These were both fugal, and were from a set of seven, which the composer called “Character Pieces”, in line with how fugues were regarded by the Romantics, responding to the moods and intensities created by the interplay of different voices. In No.3 I enjoyed both the “ring” of the pianist’s right-hand work and the lovely singing quality he brought out from the lines, while the following, more devotional-sounding opening of No.5 gradually grew in warmth and momentum here, towards a wonderful and celebratory conclusion.

Paul Hindemith’s music is often a puzzlement for listeners mindful of reputation and prevailing attitudes. Contrary to the “dry and academic” labels which my early encounters with descriptions of his music seemed to repeatedly turn up, his music seems to me as deeply-felt as any, and in some instances, great fun to listen to. There is a certain rigour at times – but while I wouldn’t characterize the composer’s Third and last Piano Sonata as a barrel of laughs, it’s as readily approachable as any of the composer’s trio of works in this genre. Central to this accessibility is the first movement which uses a beautiful, slightly folksy melody that for me recalled a tune in Gustav Holst’s Brook Green Suite. Here Chen confidently and whole-heartedly brought out all the composer’s variants and developments of the theme in various “adventures” culminating in a kind of “laying-to-rest” ritual amid chordal progressions whose delicacies of dynamics were unerringly shaped, before the melody’s final winsome statement.

Then came a garrulous scherzo whose bumptious angular manner contrasted beautifully with a skitterish and sometimes gossamer-sounding trio (beautiful pianism, here), followed by a third movement March, grand and stately at the outset, but replete with lovely, mock-serious touches, Chen’s colourful playing by turns excitingly orchestral and atmospherically withdrawn. The fugal finale was a glorious undertaking, strong and assertive in places, more circumspect and playful in others – shades of the composer’s glorious Weber Symphonic Metamorphosis breaking though – Chen’s performance doing rich and whole-hearted justice to Hindemith’s rigorously-organised but fascinatingly-varied world of sound.

At the recital’s end I couldn’t help recalling the words of Sir John Barbirolli in an interview I once heard, during which the conductor talked about ‘cellist Jacqueline de Pre’s wholehearted approach to music and performance, and the reaction from various commentators to her allegedly over-fulsome style – “I love it!” grunted the maestro – “When you’re young you should have an excess of everything – otherwise, what are you going to pare off as you mature and refine your approach?” Which is not to characterize John Chen’s playing as excessive and fulsome – but that “excess of everything” referred to by Barbirolli is, I think, part of the essence of being a young performer, and wanting to encompass the full range of what music has to offer.

John Chen certainly exuded that essential quality in places throughout this recital – and we can count ourselves as fortunate that we’re able to share those moments, those transportings of delight when music combines with performance to produce something unique and memorable.









Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *