Thursday, 17 July 2008

Wednesday 16 July / John Chen's Piano Recital

Each cycle of SIPCA begins with an opening piano recital at the York Theatre of Sydney University’s Seymour Centre, usually given by a past winner of the competition. The 2004 victor John Chen thus returned to the scene of his past triumph, with a recital programme that does not resemble one usually offered by competition winners. Lots more music, less flashy display seemed to be his message.

The very dry acoustics of the hall is unforgiving for the less than note-perfect. This does not trouble Chen who is as immaculate in his delivery as can be hoped. Mozart’s Sonata in F major (K.280) is crisply delivered, ever so sparing with the use of sustaining pedal that one would have hoped for a little more “gravy”. The slow movement’s lament sang with a plaintive quality while the humour of the Presto finale shone through with its share of cheeky winks.

Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin proved an ever bigger challenge, but Chen’s limpid fingering won the day, particularly in the treacherous Prelude and the rapid repeated notes of the closing Toccata. What could have sounded hard and desiccated (and worse still percussive) came out musical and convincing. The Fugue was a model of clarity while the Forlane could have done with more of a lilt. The romping Rigaudon was distinguished by its lovely central oboe melody, lovingly crafted, while the directness and simplicity in the Menuet proved that less is more.

Henri Dutilleux’s Third Prelude (Le jeu des contraires) from 1988 is not a piece one would take to a competition. Its atonal, almost random configurations does not lend to easy listening or interpretation. Chen made a persuasive case of its “game of contrasts”, sweeping through the entire span of the keyboard and revelling in its pianissimos and fortissimos, and pretty much everything else in between.

More obvious virtuoso fare came in Brahms’ Handel Variations which got a magisterial performance, bringing out all the tricks of the trade that a pianist is often called upon to conjure up. Chen coaxed from the Shigeru Kawai grand piano everything it could offer, as each variation gave way to the next, more challenging as the work wore on till the mighty final fugue. Refusing to pummel the instrument to submission, he allowed for brief moments of repose and reflection, as if drawing a few well-earned breaths before delivering the final knockout blow. Such sound choices could only come from someone who truly understands the psychology of music, living and loving it with a passion.

Vociferous applause drew two encores from Chen, a pair of varied Etudes-tableaux by Rachmaninov (C minor and E flat minor, from Op.33) which closed the evening on a satisfactory high.

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