Monday, 14 July 2008

John Chen's Dutilleux CD on Naxos

This was a review I wrote on John Chen's début recording: the complete piano works of Henri Dutilleux on the Naxos label. It first appeared in the pages of The Flying Inkpot in 2007. Grab it if you can!

John Chen, Piano / Naxos 8.557823 / Budget-price

A great French pianist once told me he wasn’t going to record the piano works of Henri Dutilleux (born 1916) because the composer had regarded these as mostly early works and unrepresentative of his oeuvre. In truth, this is a mixed bag of non-homogeneous pieces spanning some thirty years, of which only two – the Sonata and Three Préludes – would be considered major works.

Dutilleux’s only piano sonata is a beloved of piano competition participants. There is much scope for digital dexterity and its tonal (and often jazzy) post-Debussyan palette is also a crowd pleaser. The final movement’s Choral and Variations is often played on its own; it has “showpiece” written all over. When performed with a coherent and intelligent grasp of the work’s three-movement architecture and a freewheeling disregard for its complexities, a compelling reading is assured.

John Chen, winner of the 2004 Sydney International Piano Competition, does exactly that. Over and above the requisite virtuosity, there is colour and nuance in his playing, with little hint of caution or the fear of being overawed. This is ever more remarkable when one considers that this recording was made when he was only 19. The Three Préludes – of three decades later and almost atonal in idiom - are made of much sterner material. I heard one pianist perform these in another competition. Despite his obvious affinity for the music, all he did was to bore off the socks of the audience – a no-no. When placed after the Sonata, the contrast is stark. However on a recording, Chen is able to “switch channels” comfortably and he delivers with aplomb. In Au gré des ondes, a suite of six short pieces conceived as radio interludes, a simpler tonal idiom returns and is easy on the ear. The other short pieces are by no means inconsequential and are accorded the same care and respect.

Dutilleux’s piano music on disc is a relative rarity. One might want to seek out Anne Queffelec’s very fine selection (on Virgin Classics), which has a marginally better sound and includes Figures de Resonances for two pianos not found here. John Ogdon’s mighty but sometimes wild recording of the Sonata (EMI Classics) may have been deleted, while Maria-Josephe Jude’s scintillating reading (Harmonia Mundi), taken at a faster clip, is not easily available these days. On this count alone, John Chen’s recording is the one to have and cherish. It is a very successful and much welcome addition to the catalogue.

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