Notes and Editorial Reviews
ightness." - Maxim Vengerov
Australian violinist Ray Chen was the First Prize Winner of the 2009 Queen Elisabeth Violin Competition in Belgium and the 2008-2009 YCA International Auditions as well as the Ronald A. Asherson First Prize. He plays the Macmillan, a 1721 Antonio Stradivarius violin.
R E V I E W S:
With his major-label debut, twenty-two-year-old violinist Ray Chen — born in Taiwan, raised in Australia, trained at the Curtis Institute in the U.S. — pays homage to what he calls “the grand tradition,” the repertoire and stylistic first principles harking back to the mid-twentieth-century and before. This will captivate those in thrall to vintage values, especially as Chen boasts a
technical command that makes the album title truth in advertising. Chen’s playing — on a 1721 Stradivarius — is disarmingly beautiful, his lithe tone glinting with silver, his dynamic control total; he does just what he aims to do. His interpretation of Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata is straight out of the 1940s; in fact, it isn’t devilish at all. Chen does better by Bach’s monumental solo Chaconne, his rhythmic inevitability reminiscent of Itzhak Perlman. Although Chen and pianist Noreen Polera emphasize glowing refinement over tempestuous Romanticism in Franck’s A major Sonata, they make ravishing sounds in a crystal-clear acoustic. A surprise highlight is the melancholy, melody-rich Légende in G minor by Henryk Wieniawski, the epitome of a nineteenth-century violinist–composer. Despite his New World identity, Chen seems at one with this Old World music.
– Bradley Bambarger, Listen [Spring 2011]
RAY CHEN VIRTUOSO
Ray Chen (vn); Noreen Polera (pn)
SONY 88697829672 (79:32)
Sonata, “Devil’s Trill.”
Solo Violin Partita No. 2: Chaconne.
. Variations on an Original Theme,
The first thing to strike a listener in Ray Chen’s performance of Giuseppe Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” (in Fritz Kreisler’s famous adaptation) might well be the beauty of his tone. Then come some slashing double-stops that virtually cut through the fabric covering the speakers. If this performance doesn’t have the drive (in the first movement) of even so equable a reading as that of Arthur Grumiaux (not to mention those of David Oistrakh or Nathan Milstein), the even-flowing honeyed tone may serve as compensation. The ensuing
(in Kreisler’s arrangement; the earliest version that survives of the sonata, in Jean-Baptiste Cartier’s
L’Art du violon
of 1798, called it
) sparkles with rapid trills on 16th notes, and Chen brings them alive, although tonal beauty never recedes into the background during technical passagework. In the
that alternates with the final fast movement proper, Chen shows that he possesses the (now) rare ability to twist a note, changing its timbre, in the signature manner of violinist Nathan Milstein or vocalist Frank Sinatra. Beside this expressive subtlety, his aplomb in the awkward trill on two strings (cited by Leopold Mozart in his treatise on violin playing) seems almost trivial. If Kreisler’s cadenza doesn’t strike so many sparks in his reading (though he certainly tries—perhaps too hard—to characterize it) as, say, Grumiaux’s, it builds to a sulfuric frenzy all its own.
Bach’s Chaconne comes in all sizes, from Jascha Heifetz’s 13-minute small to Ruth Palmer’s near-17-minute extra-large. On this shelf, Chen’s 15:16 seems a cozy medium (Aaron Rosand, Chen’s mentor at the Curtis Institute, also sports a medium at 15:27). Chen’s, sharply articulated, seems ever technically keen and alert, with ringing double-stops and facile arpeggios. His architectonic abilities, if they don’t match those of Heifetz and Milstein (many would claim that these violinists sound too slick in this profound masterwork, but design and build they unquestionably do), reveal Chen as a thoughtful as well as a fluent interpreter.
Henri Wieniawski’s two works reveal two very different sides of Chen’s musical personality, the mellifluous
showcasing the subtlety of his tonal palette and the more extended Variations on an Original Theme a flamboyance that now seems almost old-fashioned with its integration of bravura and tonal command.
In César Franck’s sonata, Chen and pianist Noreen Polera encounter the first work they have to tackle jointly, and Polera steps to the fore as a sensitive pianist (as well as an alert accompanist). Chen claims in his personal booklet note that the sonata is one of his favorite pieces for the violin, and it’s clear why. The work might be tailor-made for his abilities as an interpreter, allowing him to vary timbres more liberally than the more straightforward Isaac Stern did with Alexander Zakin. Heifetz also liked this sonata and chose it for his last recital in 1972, when he played it with Brooks Smith (he’d also recorded it in 1937 with Artur Rubinstein). In Itzhak Perlman’s live reading from 1998 with Martha Argerich (EMI 7243 5 56815 2 2,
23:4), his collaborator occasionally sweeps him away—and that takes some doing; he seemed better matched in his 1974 recording with Vladimir Ashkenazy (London 410 554-2). David Oistrakh recorded the sonata twice, with Lev Oborin in 1950 and with Vladimir Yampolsky in 1954, and there’s a live reading with Sviatoslav Richter from December 1968 (Mobile Fidelity 909); these recordings possess an intensity that Chen’s version recalls. He’s indirect when indirection seems indicated, but he storms in the second movement, and seamlessly mixes impassioned rhetoric with nostalgic reflection in the third. In the canonic finale, he and Polera rise to a mystically ecstatic peroration.
Sony’s recorded sound presents both instrumentalists clearly, with Chen appearing slightly more forward. Those who want to hear him, however, shouldn’t be inclined to complain, because hear him you can—in all his glory—here. And, as Humpty Dumpty said, “There’s glory for you,” meaning by “glory” a “knock-down argument.” I mean splendor. Urgently recommended as essential for all collections of violin music, serious or otherwise.
FANFARE: Robert Maxham
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