Pianist Sean Chen — Blazing Virtuosity Carries the Day

Sean Chen 2-14-16

Like a Valentine’a Day gift to the community, the Carmel Music Society presented pianist Sean Chen in a recital yesterday afternoon at Sunset Center in Carmel. And to make sure that the significance of the day did not go unnoticed, the audience was rewarded with a Valentine;s day reception in the lobby after the concert — consisting of wines and an astonishing abundance of chocolate treats provided by Carmel Music Society board members.

Sean Chen is a rising young star, still in his twenties, who comes to us with the finest pedigree. He received excellent training at Juilliard and the Yale School of Music, won third prize in the most recent Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and was recently named a 2105 fellow by the prestigious Leonore Annenberg Fellowship Fund for the Performing Arts. In addition to a busy career as a recitalist and concerto soloist, his recently released CD on the Steinway label has received excellent reviews.

As an added bonus, we also had an opportunity during Chen’s recital to observe his skills as a composer in his own arrangement of the Offertorium from Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, K. 626, and his concert paraphrase of Madamina from Don Giovanni. We had to admire how in each case he not only achieved an amazing feat in combining complicated vocal and instrumental textures, but also how he made it all look so easy. In addition, the Madamina was so much fun you instantly wanted to hear it again.

The first half of the program was unusual in that it included, not one, but two Sonatas by Beethoven — No. 24 in F-sharp Major, Op. 78, and the companion to the famous “Moonlight” Sonata, Sonata No. 13 in E-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 1. Although that may seem like a lot of Beethoven for one program, Chen’s amazing technical and stylistic mastery made these works seem as easy as a run through the park. The only downside was that the tempos in faster movements were occasionally like a trip on the Shanghai Maglev high-speed train traveling at 300 mph, with the countryside flying by so fast you couldn’t always enjoy the scenery.

However, in the second half of the program after intermission Chen’s amazing virtuosity and his ability to perform the most difficult works at the speed of light were mated with works that truly benefited  from such high powered virtuosity. Chen had been saving the best for last, for in the second half of the recital his playing developed ever increasing  levels of intensity and succeeded in involving the audience to a greater degree. The second half began with three short “Forgotten Melodies” by Nikolai Medtner, probably the first time we have ever heard any of Medtner’s works played locally. Speaking from the stage Chen explained that the title “Forgotten Melodies” may have been inspired by Franz Liszt’s four Valse oubliées (“Forgotten Waltzes”), which were inspired in the last years of this life by nostalgia for his carefree youth. Chen approached these three pieces with respect for their charming nostalgia and a keen insight into their musical spirit. The last of the three, “Danza Festiva,” was the most meaningful with its fast moving passages constantly treating us to fanciful modulations and delicious turn of harmonic variation. Its middle section with its wistful melodies was totally winning.

Chan wound up the program with a titanic performance of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor. This is a work composed in 1913 that the composer ultimately considered so over written and turgid, that in 1931, he caused to be published a revised version, shortened by six minutes and containing more pianistic solutions to overly complicated passages in the two ouster movements. It is interesting that this mighty sonata lay dormant like a sleeping giant until Vladimir Horowitz revived the work in 1968 during his historic  return to the concert stage after a thirteen year absence. We learned in 1968 that Horowitz had actually performed the original version for his degree recital at the Kiev Conservatory in 1920, but was dissatisfied with the 1931 version and asked Rachmaninoff for permission to combine the two versions. The Horowitz 1968 Carnegie Hall performance opened the flood gates, so that now it seem every day witnesses new performances (or recordings) by a new generation of pianists — with the sonata now routinely being performed in three different versions: the original, the 1931 version and various combinations of both.

Chen announced from the stage that he would be performing the original 1913 version, the super complicated and longest one. it turned out to be a magnificent journey. From beginning to end Chen held our attention and prevented the work from unraveling all the way up to its triumphant conclusion that brought the audience to its feet with spontaneous bravos. One of the marvels of Chen’s playing it that although he creates the most intense layers of loud textures, he never bangs unnecessarily or creates an ugly sound. In this age when so many young virtuosos exploit the four level of loudness — forte, fortissimo bangissimo and blastissimo, Chen never assaulted our ears with ugliness. That is quite an accomplishment in a work as virtuosic as Rachmaninoff’ Second Piano Sonata.

Chen played one encore. It was Percy Grainger’s arrangement of Gershwin’s “Love Walked In.” Now, how’s that for an appropriate Valentine’s gesture!

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