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Concert Review/ Sa Chen

img  Tobias Fischer

Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonata in E Major, K.20/L.375: Presto
              Keyboard Sonata in F Minor, K.466/L.118: Andante
              Keyboard Sonata in G Major, K.13/L.486: Presto


Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit


– Intermission – 

Liszt: Ballade No.2 in B Minor, S.171
Liszt: Un Sospiro from “Trois études de concert, S.144”
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No.12 in C Sharp Minor, S.244

   The qualities which distinguish a fine technician from an extraordinary artist of the instrument often appear coincidental, as if they are the spur of the moment. In reality, the latter not only requires talent, but a combination of hard work, instinct and novelty. Such is the case of Sa Chen, the Chinese pianist who made her Toronto début to near full-house attendance at the University of Toronto’s MacMillan Theater. Ms. Chen brings to her new Canadian audience warmth and insights in a program that surveys three periods.

   Scarlatti wrote over five hundred Sonatas for the keyboard instrument, and about two to three dozen appears regularly in concert programs nowadays. The Sonatas are a collection of vast imaginative scope, requiring such technical demands as wide leaps, repeated notes and cross-hand figurations. Ms. Chen quickly impresses the audience with her sensitivity at the keyboard, bringing out a freshness in these compositions that is stylishly modern. From the cheerful, light-weighted character of the E Major (K.20) and the G Major (K.13) Sonatas, to the highly-poised but delicate in nature of the F Minor (K.466) Sonata, Ms. Chen starts her audience off in a heightened anticipation of the more complex works to follow.

    Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit has been dubbed as one of the greatest piano compositions of the 20th century, based on the poem by Aloysius Bertrand.  Gaspard’s rise to fame comes chiefly from the demonstration of Ravel’s brilliance as a composer, who ingeniously depicted the narrative on the piano with vivid emotional expanse. Ravel coupled this with an array of technical feats for the pianist, in order to help illustrate the dark, impressionistic imageries underlying this musical canvas. Many of today’s formidable pianists - the likes of Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Martha Argerich, Ivo Pogorelich, Grigory Sokolov, have left memorable accounts of this work. Despite the dry acoustics in the MacMillan Theater and the regrettably mal-conditioned Steinway instrument, Ms. Chen shows aptness in drawing audience into her soundworld, as she delves in the mysterious opening of the Ondine movement. The inherently unbalanced registers in the instrument occasionally hinders Ms. Chen’s effectiveness in sound projection, as heard in the fast repetitive three-note chords of the right hand. While Le Gibet is nothing short of breath-taking poetry, it is in the Scarbo movement where Ms. Chen finds herself in harmony. She finds herself in one with the drama and the music, covering the overwhelming virtuosity and the detailed subtleties in poetry as demanded by the complex score. This is a profound reading of the Gaspard in the highest order.

   Ms. Chen devotes the remainder part of her recital to the piano music of Franz Liszt, a modest gesture to commemorate the Liszt 200th Anniversary. She has chosen three representative works, starting off with the Ballade No.2, to which she articulates the interwoven melodic lines with soaring sonority. In retrospect, this is a Ballade of contrasting opposites: in the opening, it is gentle and simple, at times seemingly religious in nature; then in the episodes leading to the musical climax, the massive octave passages underscore both turbulence and a shattering drama that project a vision of volcanic eruption. The influence from Wagner remained ever so prominent throughout Liszt’s compositional career, and through Ms. Chen’s interpretation of the Ballade No.2, one may come a step closer to appreciate how Wagner’s musical language in operas like Das Rheingold, for example, may have in part influenced the conception of this Liszt Ballade of the same period. Ending with gentle tranquility, Ms. Chen links Un Sospiro next without a pause like a string of beads, and how effective it turns out be to join these two uninterrupted. It takes no more than a minute before one is intoxicated by the originality in Ms. Chen’s musical style, as highlighted by both her conception of phrasing and voicing. They compliment her sense of musical maturity, and in her rendition of Un Sospiro, one is drawn noticeably to her lyrical legato playing and an unfailing transparency, even as the vocal lines develop both in weight and complexity. In the Hungarian Rhapsody No.12, which contains a favorite tune to many in the audience, Ms. Chen displays rhythmical liveliness and dynamic flair that charm her audience with great rewards. Returning on stage with three encores seems the only feasible way to satisfy the highly-charged audience, and Ms. Chen does so with two lovely pieces by Chopin and a Chinese folksong.

   A success of this scope seems to only suggest that it would not be long before Sa Chen returns to Toronto for another enchanted appearance. A Concerto performance, perhaps?

By Patrick P.L. Lam

Image by www.chansonchina.com

Homepage: Sa Chen
Homepage: MacMillan Theater

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