RACHMANINOFF: Six Etudes Tableaux; MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition, A Night on the Bald Mountain (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov) – Sa Chen, piano – Pentatone Classics Multichannel SACD 5186 355, 66:43 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Recorded in March 2009 at the “Concertboerderij Valthermond” in the Netherlands, Chen Sa’s second album for Pentatone Classics focuses on a programme of piano gems from late 19th century Russia. Chen selected excerpts from the two Opuses of Rachmaninoff Etudes Tableaux (Op. 33 – No. 2 in C Major, No. 3 in E Flat Minor, No.5 in G Minor; Op. 39 – No.4 in B Minor, No. 5 in E Flat Minor, No. 6 in A Minor) to open her album. These pieces were written at a period when compatriots of Rachmaninoff, like Stravinsky was planting the seeds to Rite of Spring; when Scriabin was experimenting with mystical use of tonality in his Fantaisie Op.28; or when Prokofiev adopted polytonality with new innovations as evident in his Sarcasms for Piano Op.17. Indeed, this was a fruitful period that oversaw an explosive creative streak from the musical circle of the Russian School, in part as an extension from where Romantics from the early part of the century had seeded. Like Chopin and Liszt before him, Rachmaninoff’s Etudes Tableaux uses the “Etude” as a musical form to capture a plethora of technical challenges and poetic expressiveness from the pianist.
Unpretentious in her approach, Chen was attentive to outline the delicate harmonic voicing and intra-communication between the left and right hands, which can be carelessly lacking in less-satisfactory interpretations. This insightfulness was one of her strengths that Chen carried through from her first Chopin recording. Her reliable trait, in this instance, has the benefits of allowing the listener to trace all the intricate details with the greatest clarity. However, to this author, what befitted these Rachmaninoff performances from being rated as excellent was her resistance to adventurism and the “oomph” that pianists like Lympany and Richter could capture in these same selections. At times, it seemed Chen was too busily preoccupied with articulating details of each bar that the “big picture” seemed sacrificed. This was evident, especially with the No. 5 of the Op. 39 set that was the least satisfying out of the six. Nevertheless, Chen’s interpretation reflected a musical personality that is defined by a blend of lyricism and colossal virtuosity. These are strong traits that are hard to dismiss.
The remainder of this album focuses on two important works of Mussorgsky. The first, the orchestral piece “A Night on the Bald Mountain,” was transcribed for piano by Rimsky-Korsakov and arranged by Konstantin Chernov. In the liner notes, Chen claimed that “I think that this transcription is extremely well done, although I know that other pianists continue to add various details to this transcription. However, I thought it quite sufficient to express the orchestral colors.” Chen made an impressive account during the eleven minutes, by placing a pictorial association with this piece that very much suited this and the piece that followed. Her key to a successful rendition was a sensibility in maintaining a balance between tonality and discordance, perhaps to exemplify the limits of heaven and hell.
In the “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a piece that remains as fresh and delightful as its conception more than 200 years ago, garnered a reputation as a large “characteristic piece.” As Franz Steiger reminded listeners in his liner notes, the Pictures is a “kind of self-portrait of the composer as he progresses through the exhibition.” To express this musically, Chen executed a colourful palette of sounds over the Steinway grand. Her exquisite control of the keyboard in all the movements was simply stellar – listen to her rendition of “The Hut of Baba Yaya,” which in the opinion of this author, was absolutely a testament of its own. Her secure technique, as exemplified by the parallel octaves bar after bar, was a great benefit for Chen to be able to focus in the paintings of the canvas. Hearing again her rendition of “Bydlo” and the full sound she was able to produce right from the initial bars, one can comfortably associate with the original Hartman artwork of depicting the Polish ox cart with its massive wheels. In the final musical canvas “Gates of Kiev,” Chen’s technique sung at her piano to mimic the full range of the human voice – that impressively brought this work to its triumphant close.
Recorded in collaboration with Polyhymnia that specialises in high-end recordings of acoustic music, the Pentatone Classics team has produced yet again a disc that captured both artistic and acoustic excellence. But the selling point here is a soloist who offers her unpretentious coloring to Russian gems. For this budget value, what are you waiting for?
— Patrick P.L. Lam