Pianist Sean Chen inaugurated the 2017-18 season of the Steinway Society the Bay Area Saturday, September 9, with a vigorous and colorful program featuring works that indulged in emotional nostalgia and often sported bells and carillon effects. Mr. Chen, conducting a lecture-recital at Le Petit Trianon Theatre before an enchanted audience, set the tone for the evening, which remained both accessible and musically stupendous. The height of Chen’s personal charisma — already apparent in his gracious, keyboard demonstrations of motifs and connections between the individual works – came in the form of his only encore, a wonderfully inventive improvisation on “Happy Birthday!” for a member of the Steinway staff that managed to align her with such personages as Brunnhilde, Isolde, and Gershwin’s Bess in the course of a jazzy and Lisztian revel that might have made Liberace envious.
Chen opened with a large piece by Federico Mompou (1893-1987), a musician oft championed by Alicia de Larrocha, his Variations on a Theme of Chopin (1938; rev. 1957), originally conceived for cello and piano and based on the Prelude in A Major, Op. 28, No. 7. The familiar Chopin prelude and its twelve variations provide a good example of the composer’s Catalan inventions, which tend to exploit the key of A Major, but gravitate to both G Minor and F-sharp Minor for emotional contrast. The third, Lento, had Chen’s playing with only the left hand, in figures reminiscent of Ravel, whom we would hear later. The said F-sharp Minor variant, Evocation, blatantly alluded to Chopin’s familiar Fantasie-Impromptu. We sat engrossed by this new entry into our musical domain, whose guitar filigree, occasional, carillon rhetoric and idiosyncratic polyphony anticipated much in the following piece by the quirky Russian, Nikolai Medtner (1879-1951).
In his brief spoken introduction, Chen pointed out the musical likeness (in key, certainly) of Medtner’s 1914 Sonata-Ballade in F-sharp Major, Op. 27 to the Chopin Barcarolle and the Scriabin Sonata No. 4. Its three movements — Ballade (Allegretto), Introduction, and Finale — form a work whose inspiration derives from a poem by Fet that addresses Christ’s temptation in the desert. The Manichean struggle between the forces of darkness and light permeates the musical progression. The work ultimately becomes a subjective narrative of inner conflict and expiation, one more suggestive, in the last pages, of Russian bells and Russian Easter. Romantic in temperament and polyphonic in syntax, Medtner’s work seems daunting, emotionally, technically, and rhetorically. Chen obviously feels affection for the weighty, idiosyncratic progressions and gestures in Medtner, which are thick and fluent, like Rachmaninov, yet bass-laden and introspective, like Brahms. Although at times, the music becomes virtually solipsistic, self-referential and meandering in its own nostalgia, Chen maintained a fixed tempo and rigorous line. The sheer volume of notes and sonorous tissue could be imposing, yet curiously mesmeric, like an Eastern, labyrinthine chant. The last movement, a toccata for all intents and purposes, raised the roof off the Trianon and made us wonder if there were a body of piano music here well worth further exploration.
The music of Maurice Ravel graced the second half of Chen recital. The fascinating set of five Miroirs (1905) virtually define “impressionism” for many auditors, although Ravel claimed his Jeux d’eau set the standard, particularly in “water-pieces.” Chen pointed out the interval of the descending third unites many of the pieces, whose fourth entry, Alborada del gracioso, once characterized as “the angry buzzing of guitars,” has achieved a life of its own as an outstanding, Spanish virtuoso piece. Chen’s touch literally transformed itself in the opening Noctuelles, a post-Lisztian study in touch and wrist action that raises images of night-moths, delicate, transparent, and ephemeral. Glossy and luminous in patina, the musical gestures suggest an etude in D-flat of three-versus-four infiltrated by visual and night associations. Several commentators point to Liszt as the master influence, specifically his Waldesrauchen etude.
The sensuous, rhythmically vital mood continues into the E-flat Minor Oiseaux tristes, Ravel’s “sad birds.” Again, luminous filigree, octave doublings and repeated notes, flit and jump about, perhaps a nostalgically dark reminiscence of Schumann’s “prophet bird,” but wrapped in arabesques of chromatic veils. We savored Chen’s pedal effects in Une barque sur l’ocean, the longest piece of the set. The 2/4 liquid motion, in “supple rhythm,” projects a small craft and its vulnerability to wind and the ocean’s whims. Here, minor seconds and thirds, along with diminished chords, provide the “visual” impetus. The panoply of effects includes arpeggios en masse, double trills, glissandos and pentatonic black-key scales, any of which serves as a Chen specialty. Amid all these washes of color, we realize that the music never “develops” as such; the scene lingers in space, its textures more significant than its “journey.”
It became quickly apparent in Chen’s Alborada how much of both Scarlatti and Liszt influence its demeanor. While virtually each of the pieces exploits crossed hands, this wild dance in 6/8 utilizes rapid double notes, ornamental scales, and guitar filigree that evolve dynamically, in the manner of a Rossini overture. Clashing semitones and the Phrygian mode are merely two of its ardent, percussive, rhetorical devices. Castilian and Andalusian colors fly through the piece, with more than hints of flamenco culture, all of which Chen reproduced with breathtaking vigor. The final piece, The Valley of Bells, has its inspiration in Paris at mid-day, and the music of Mussorgsky likely played some part in Ravel’s notion of suspensions to create multi-layered bell sonorities. The gradations of metric beats – in concert with divided G-sharps and G-sharp octaves – in the appearances of the voices create the realistic effect. Chen did affect a grand largement chante, as called for by Ravel, since what we emerge with is a sense of melodic contour and the “singing” of the Paris churches, whose rolled chords imbue an atmosphere of spiritual serenity.
One more moment of Ravel would suffice: his Toccata from his “memorial” suite Le Tombeau de Couperin, which Ravel used to honor the dead of WW I but in a way not lachrymose. Marked Vif, the piece had Chen scrambling over the keyboard, but with his Cheshire Cat assurance and assured wit at all times. We could recall that Stravinsky had called Ravel “the ultimate clock-maker” in music, but Chen granted us the privilege to see how much musical freedom lies in Ravel’s canny strictures.