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Sean Chen – La Valse = SCRIABIN: Valse in A-flat Major; Piano Sonata No. 4; Piano Sonata No. 5; RAVEL: Menuet antique; Valses nobles et sentimentales; Menuet sur le non d’Haydn; Prelude (1913); La Valse – Sean Chen, piano – Steinway & Sons

Sean Chen – La Valse = SCRIABIN: Valse in A-flat Major, Op. 38; Piano Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major, Op. 30; Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53; RAVEL: Menuet antique; Valses nobles et sentimentales; Menuet sur le non d’Haydn; Prelude (1913); La Valse (arr. Chen) – Sean Chen, piano – Steinway & Sons 30029, 67:37 [Distr. by Naxos] (3/24/14) ****:

Pianist Sean Chen (b. 1988) performed several items in this recital (rec. 16-18 September 2013) in a concert this reviewer attended, utilizing much the same rubric that combines the music of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) with that of the Russian mystic Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915). Chen opens with Scriabin’s popular Valse in A-flat Major (1903), a work stylishly sensual and sophisticated. The music alternately purrs and rages with several dimensions of virtuosity and silken grace. The piece ends in liquid textures, exotic and flamboyant at once.

Ravel’s individual penchant for ancient musical forms engendered his 1895 Menuet antique, his earliest published work. Irregular phrases and passing dissonances merge with a distinctly classical sense of formal structure, in which the Trio section gently invokes a more conservative ethos.  Chen affords the piece a courtly grace, facile in mood and suavely paced. The brittle ringing chords provide an ironic, percussive tonic to the otherwise lulling effect of the dance.

The Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major of Scriabin (1903) takes as its ‘program’ a poem that describes a flight to a distant star. Scriabin envisions himself a musical Dedaelus who traverses cosmic and interior spaces in quest of divine light and liberation. Taking the Wagner of Tristan as its basis, it builds up chords in suspension in the first movement, Andante, with its own water effects unresolved and often texturally spare. Suddenly, the music accelerates, Prestissimo volando, taking its cue from Schumann’s demand in his own First Sonata that the performer play “ever faster. . . as fast as possible, on the verge of the possible.  . .to the speed of light.” The dominant chords stretch wider for Chen to control and tame, ultimately to release a plethora of joyous colors, Chen’s having won the “right to optimism,” in the composer’s words.

For the 1907 Scriabin Sonata No. 5 (1907) Chen becomes more audacious, more exotic and erotic. Scriabin calls to life “mysterious forces drowned in the obscure depths of the creative spirit.” The music clearly has a kinship with the Poem of Ecstasy, effusive with modal sonorities built on fourths and quickly alternating slow and rapid episodes. The vibrant Presto section suddenly collapses into a haunted nocturne to be played “caressingly.” The chromatic line becomes increasingly thicker, a kind of terra-forming of the liberated spirit in which the denser the chord, the richer its possibilities. Scriabin invokes a cyclic principle as well, bringing back the slow opening bars but in diminution, so speeded up they too gain aerial properties. The single notes as well as the chords vibrate, as though Chen’s Steinway D were one elastic string on which some cosmic Paganini strummed and sang at will. Tonality has ceded its place to light and arpeggiated pulsations, as if the paintings of late Turner had assumed a musical life in sympathy with Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” The effect has been quite electric and jarring, as Chen likely intends. The piece, in the midst of cascades and frenzy, suddenly stops, frozen, as if it had quite leapt headlong and ecstatically into the Abyss.

The 1911 Valses nobles et sentimentales of Ravel proceed from Chen with a combination of elegance and percussive bite, the spirit of French irony here coupled to Schubert’s Viennese grace. The passing curlicues of rhythm in the Assez lent lend the Valse a jazzy flavor that beguiles. Often, Ravel’s modal harmonies nod their allegiance to the style of Faure, his teacher. Chen’s Modere enjoys the fluent clarity of the music-box, touched a bit by his own Ma Mere l’Oye figures.  The Presque lent from Chen gives credence to Debussy’s remark that the dances  were the product of “the subtlest ear that ever existed.” The Assez vif in lively tones reminds us of Schumann and his ironic “Pause” just before his grand finale in Carnaval. Moins vif relishes the interior harmonies of the piano juxtaposed against cascades and vibrant, spread chords. The Epilogue: Lent confirms Ravel’s desire to remain “complex but not complicated.” This last waltz sums of the dream-vision of the prior entries in brief, impressionistic fragments and rhythmic impulses, eventually becoming “en se pendant,” losing itself in the contemplation of its own beauty.

Chen plays two suggestive miniatures by Ravel – the Menuet on the Name of Haydn and an elusively laconic Prelude (1913) – as preambles to his raison d’etre for this disc, his own arrangement of the explosive La Valse (1920) that reminisces upon and then demolishes the great dance of the Nineteenth Century. Chen exploits the piece’s suave rhythmic pulsations that impel and arrest our imagination at once.  The “symphonic” effects of the keyboard that emerge result from the canny shifting of registers, cross-rhythms, and textural thickness. The music gains a sense of the grotesque as it proceeds, not far from the Saint-Saens Danse macabre, especially as the left hand undermines the slick Viennese surface.

That Chen has performed music near and dear to his iconoclastic musical heart exudes through every moment of this impressive disc, a display of a superior digital talent guided by a penetrating artistic intellect.

—Gary Lemco

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