Monday, 31 October 2016

Ray Chen. Virtuoso

In the right hands, the members of the woodwind family such as the oboe, flute, clarinet and bassoon make lovely sounds. The piano and the organ, of course, have a far wider range of sound and a much bigger palette of colours. But the relatively limited range of nice sounds from the woodwind is part of the reason why so few solo or concertante works feature major parts for woodwind members; lovely though the oboe may sound, 79 minutes of lovely oboe playing tend to pall.

In the right hands, the violin has a wide range of colour, from relatively harsh sounds, to silky smooth. In the hands of a folk violinist (gypsy, folk, klezmer) in the old Central European lands, the violin could express rage, love, tenderness or belligerence. To some extent, the violin has now joined hands with the woodwind, with the modern emphasis on an all-over beautiful sound and smooth legato playing, with seamless bow strokes rivalling the breath control of clarinettists or oboe players.

This was my reaction to much of the 79 minutes of violin playing by the young violinist Ray Chen on a recital CD given the title “Virtuoso”. Mr Chen is certainly an impeccable technician, and a tasteful musician. Be it Tartini's “Devil's Trill” or Bach's chaconne from the second solo violin suite, the music sounds effortless and beautiful under Mr Chen's able fingers. What did I miss? The stream of lovely sound risked becoming boring, and works such as Wieniawski's Légende had me wishing for the individuality that an Elman, Heifetz, Busch, Neveu, Schneiderhan or Kulenkampff would have brought to the music. Mr Chen is an excellent modern violinist and probably plays in a way demanded by most modern audiences.

César Franck's sonata for violin and piano is not a virtuoso work; even I used to play it on either violin or viola, at one time, and the piano part is arguably more difficult than that of the violin. The performance here is not great. The piano partner (Noreen Polera) is relegated to second place, and the violin over-indulges in smooth legato and “beautiful” sound. As I have said before many times, in sonatas such as the Franck sonata, the playing of the violinist and the pianist should be of equal interest. Ms Polera does not have much hope.

Not a great performances of the Franck sonata, and far too much “listen to my beautiful violin sound”. Much more impressive is Mr Chen's rendition of the chaconne from the second solo violin suite by Bach. Although not technically a “virtuoso” work, the chaconne demands an extremely high level of violin technique (I never attempted it) and an immense variety of bowing, dynamics and sound production. It does not lend itself to sleek, smooth violin playing, nor to excessive legato. I enjoyed Ray Chen's performance here, so at least 15 minutes of the CD were salvaged for me for frequent future listening.

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