The Golden Age—Ray Chen plays works by Kreisler, Bruch, Debussy, Gershwin, Scott, and others. Ray Chen (violin), Julien Quentin (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, dir. Robert Trevino; Made in Berlin (quartet)—Decca 483-3852—53:26, *****:
The promise of music from the “Golden Age” of violinists—namely by the likes of violinists such as Kreisler, Heifetz, and Joachim and composers like Debussy, Satie, and Gershwin—is the theme behind this new release from Australian violinist Ray Chen. Decca does a superb job of capturing the music in full fidelity, especially so when the music is divided among three ensembles recorded in different locations: violin and piano, violin and orchestra, and string quartet. To my ears, it all sounds as if it was recorded during the same take in the same location. Despite the name of the album, the sound is not pushed behind a gauzy golden veil, but instead is lean and forward. Not every artist might appreciate the transparency of this sound, but it has the effect of putting us, the listeners, right in the front row. It’s really well done.
The piece that might set you back into the Golden Age most forcibly is the performance of Debussy’s Clair de lune, which sounds straight out of a early twentieth century black and white movie. Chen’s collaboration with Noah Bendix-Balgley (violin), Amihai Grosz (viola), and Stephan Koncz (cello)—all from the Berlin Philharmonic—is an especially bright spot on the recording. In the Debussy, Chen does not strain to become the star; when appropriate he tucks his sound into that of the ensemble. Despite only playing a handful of times a year, Made in Berlin is an amazingly tight quartet that stars in three selections.
The opening track, entitled A New Satiesfaction, an arranged composition of Satie’s first Gynopaédie by cellist Stephan Koncz, is an amazingly refreshing piece that steals idioms from multiple sources but ultimately relaxes around the familiar Satie piece for piano. It’s our first taste of Chen’s style, especially from an era criticized by some as having a tad too much schmaltz, especially from the vibrating left hand of these golden era violinists. Chen smartly tempers that reference with what seems, for today at least, a very pragmatic and stylish amount of polish and vibrato. In this short, emotional piece, we begin to fall for both the exquisite sound of his instrument, a Stradivarius once owned by Joseph Joachim, and a very adaptable and controlled technique.
The pieces by Scott, Kreisler, and Ponce are all attractive tastes. Each are beautiful pieces that we can think of as delectable palate teasers. The album notes make reference to beautiful blooms. Either reference—of flowers or of food—are apt. And at the center of the banquet table is the main course (or bouquet) in Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor.
The concerto is cut from luminous cloth, and is entirely a romantic and melodic affair. The athletic, technical challenges come in the third movement, and Chen is equally adept at overcoming those challenges in the same way he’s able to revel in the melodic material that dominates the first two movements. Dipping into the schmaltz, the darkest stuff included, is a fun reference to this golden age. Violinist and orchestra together make reference again for me to movie music. Despite the minor key, the third movement spends considerable time in the major mode, the image of two people so happy together. The liner notes tell us the piece’s success owes much to Bruch’s collaboration with Joachim, on whose violin Chen performs. A happy reunion indeed.
This is one of those rare albums for me that gets so much right, deserving of a five star rating. The programming is smart; the inclusion of music written in different formats encourages appreciation of the miniature to the large scale. And while the style of this period has a particularly period reference today, exploring the music again is not a wasted enterprise. To our benefit, we might even go so far to say that the music and the style has improved with age.