Ray Chen Virtuoso = TARTINI: Violin Sonata in G Minor “The Devil’s Trill”; BACH: Chaconne from Partita in D Minor, BWV 1004; WIENIAWSKI: Legende in G Minor, Op. 17; Variations on an Original Theme in A Major, Op. 15; FRANCK: Violin Sonata in A Major – Ray Chen, violin/Noreen Polera, piano – Sony Classical 88697829672, 79:02 ****:
Taiwanese-born Ray Chen (b. 1990) has been a winner of Queen Elisabeth Competition (2009) and the Yehudi Menuhin Competition (2008), and he plays the “Huggins” Stradivarius and “The Macmillan” Stradivarius, each on loan as tribute to his outstanding artistry. Chen currently studies with veteran Aaron Rosand. This debut album from Berlin (rec. 19-20 April and 21-25 June 2010) “represents who I am,” claims Chen in his “Dear listener” preface to the liner notes.
The 1713 “Devil’s Trill” Sonata by Tartini provides much firepower and suave arco work for Chen, whose lush tone and fast vibrato well acclimate to Tartini’s variegated demands on his fingers. Assorted runs and wide-spaced scales, quick alternations of pizzicato and arco articulation, and a blistering last-movement cadenza seem so much grist for Chen’s musical mill, his lightning strokes a testament to digital control and razor-sharp inflection. He manages to maintain the kind of taut musical line on the various ebbs and flow of the work to suggest a more mature artist. The Bach for me has the technical means required, but Chen feels compelled to exaggerate voice entries, imposing a more “periodic” sense of emotional progression than a more fluid disciple like Szeryng or Milstein would conjure. What Chen imparts wholeheartedly is a spirit of unbridled youthful enthusiasm, a delectable delight in the range of expressive figurations and their inexhaustible sense of invention on a limited bass pattern.
Wieniawski’s 1859 Legende in G Minor has been a Chen staple since he was eight-years-old. Apocryphally, the piece was conceived as a love-letter to Wieniawski’s intended, Isabella Hampton. A melodic study that moves from triple to duple time, its ternary form embraces both major and minor tonalities on G, employing double stops and passionate slides, crescendo, and moving at its soft finale to a high G three octaves above middle C. Chen presents a ripe, even voluptuous, rendition of the piece, not subtle but ardently passionate. The running figure that both opens and closes the piece bears a distinct resemblance to the main first-movement theme in the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony. The Op. 15 Wieniawski Variations in A blatantly rivals bravura works of Paganini for explosive and demanding digital articulation. The piece assumes the kind of stiff bowing that can accommodate “the devil’s staccato” in his writing. The plucked figures and spiccato articulation contrast with bold chords from the keyboard, the rhythms in hearty Polish national idioms, the Chopin (polonaise) heroism and cantabile instrumental style applied to a brilliantly illuminated violin. The last blistering pages Chen flies through in a manner thoroughly reminiscent of another firebrand of the violin, Ruggiero Ricci.
Chen concludes his recital with a more sober piece, the 1886 Franck Sonata in A Major.Scherzo: Allegro hard, his graduated decrescendo quite intimate. The music becomes momentarily a chorale that slowly swirls to new passions–in slurs and touches of portamento–the harmony closer to Wagner than to anything from the French school of guarded restraint. Within the sonata’s structural cyclicism, however, Chen infuses his Romantic temperament, plying the through-composed motif of the first movement with studied ardor, milking the phrases as they elastically expand and contract in close harmony with the expansive keyboard part, moving more by tautness and laxity than by the dictates of sonata-form, since the movement has no development as such. Chen drives the Chen and Polera capture the smoky mystery of the Recitativo-Fantasia by small degrees, eventually rising–by etched, ardent phrases–to simultaneously molten rarified proportions. The last movement offers sweet polyphony, delicately realized by Chen and Polera, whose keyboard part Chen conceives as bells intoning a transcendence in death. The skittish middle section elicits in Chen something like the old Heifetz slick edginess, the upward scales resurging with plaints from the third movement fantasia. With the return to the opening motif and the grand coda, Chen unleashes his personal take on “acceptance,” assuming he can storm his way into heaven.
— Gary Lemco