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Concert Review/ Sa Chen

img  Tobias Fischer

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
Polonaise in F Sharp Minor, Op.44
Mazurka in F Minor, Op.68 No.4
Mazurka in A Minor, Op.67 No.4
Mazurka in C Sharp Minor, Op.63 No.3
Nocturne in C Sharp Minor, Op.27 No.1
Nocturne in B Flat Minor, Op.9 No.1
Nocturne in E Flat Major, Op.55 No.2
Scherzo No.3 in C Sharp Minor, Op.39
Piano Sonata No.3 in B Minor, Op.58

Sa Chen, Piano

   Located approximately 55km northeast of Montréal, Joliette is a town of over 50,000 inhabitants with a historical lineage that can be traced to its founder, Barthélemy Joliette. In addition to serving its municipal county with a rich diversity of agricultural products from home-made honey to berry fruit farms, Joliette is also known to be the home of the Festival de Lanaudière during the summer months of July-August. Serving Canadians for over three decades, the Lanaudiere Festival is bequeathed the accolade as “Canada’s premier summer music festival” in its 33 years of history. This reputation has established as a result of the vision from its founder, Father Fernand Lindsay.
   Tonight, the Festival presents the much-awaited first recital appearance of the Chinese pianist, Sa Chen, who has performed the Prokofiev Second a week ago in Macao, China. Those who have witnessed the pianistic characters of Sa Chen in a live performance can surely attest to her instincts for sounding the poetry without sacrificing the form, for effecting a bold energy in the most tempestuous moments without sounding forceful, and for provoking listeners with her full-bodied tone along with an equal adeptness in a lightness in touch that can simulate the wide range orchestral sounds on a single instrument. For Chen, Chopin is one of the composers whom she finds herself most at ease. This strikes evidently in her opening work with the Polonaise Op.44; she sets the opening with a mysticism that unfolds into bold drama that mended with the St. Thomas Church’s ambience. Chen is able to sustain the work like a whirlwind – with an unrelenting outpour of expression and technical athleticism. Most impressively, she brings out the galloping motif of the Polonaise with finesse and rhythmical precision.

    An exchange in the original programming order of 3 Nocturnes and Mazurkas displays the narrative and reflective qualities of Chen’s Chopin without reservation. This adjustment welcomes a greater musical sense and continuity in ideas developing from one set to the next. Although the presentation of the Mazurkas could infuse a greater sense of dance-rhythm and varied-character, her performance does strike a similar resemblance to the poetry of esteemed versions by Alexander Brailowsky and Artur Rubinstein. Her poetry evolves a myriad of colors particularly in the Mazurka Op.67 No.4; likewise in the Mazurka Op.63 No.3, her interpretation resembles a song-like meditation, with an almost sorrowful element in the recapitulation section whose effect is penetrating. The use of rubato in her Nocturnes is sparing but effective - looking as closely as possible to her hands and movements in the upper extremities, Chen’s approach towards the ivory keys is instrumental in rendering the dream-like quality in her playing. What is successful in her set is the fluidity, and also managing a nostalgic quality leaning on the Impressionism that Debussy and Ravel would have greatly admired. She ends the first half with a strong account of the Scherzo No.3. While her bass-line does emulate a bell-like sonority to pre-set the crystalline right hand treble passages, there are one or two small instances (in the octave passages) when her bass-line is muffled by over-pedaling and strong echoes in the venue’s acoustics that perturb the overall fluidity.

   Sa Chen takes the Piano Sonata No.3 in B Minor on stage in the second half of the recital with complete physical and mental energy that have kept the audience in complete concentration. It is therefore no surprise that it is one of the most successfully performed pieces of the evening, which captures the audience with a positive jealousy just on how great a familiar piece such as this B Minor Sonata could be done by this humble pianist. Looking back in time, this author can attest that there is greater musical growth in her account of this work compared to her recorded version from the 12th Van Cliburn Competition in 2005. The two opening movements are highlighted by her pearly right hand textures, although the turbulence in the opening Allegro Maestoso may have suggested otherwise. She triumphs naturally in the poetic aspects of the movements, showing obviously the meticulous care she has placed on preparing for this work to evoke what may be considered the pianistic equivalent of a "bel canto style on French singing." The solemn Largo movement showcases the pianist with her intelligence working with harmony; this is flanked by cascades of clear arpeggio and fiery passages spread in this movement under disguise. The constant struggle between the minor and major keys in the Rondo finale further elaborates on Chen’s musicianship and technical confidence. As a striking difference to her recorded performance on Harmonia Mundi, Chen demonstrates tonight with greater shades of tone and a clear balance between opposing figures with glowing exquisiteness. Chen’s transition into the march-like thematic materials in the closing pages further concludes this pianist’s rhythmical wisdom, one of her strong gifts among many. She brings the audience with a selection from the 24 Preludes, as a final encore.

   Those who are planning to schedule a Sa Chen concert in their agenda will be pleased to find themselves under the wizardry of no less a consummate musician. She deserves to earn a reputation as the next Poetess of the Piano, which surely will be no exaggeration if one attends one of her live recitals.

By: Patrick P.L. Lam

Image by Patrick P.L. Lam

Homepage: Sa Chen
Homepage: Lanaudière Festival

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