John Chen (piano)
Perth Concert Hall
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Like some absurdly young musical Caesar, the teenage John Chen, laureate of the most recent Sydney International Piano Competition and currently on a lap of honour around the country, came to Perth to play and conquer a cheering audience. And there was a great deal worth getting excited about. Because with ten fingers that can do no wrong, superb wrist flexibility and an ability to maintain the pace through some of music’s most rugged terrain, John Chen is ready to take on the world. And there is every reason to believe that beyond the confines of Australia – and New Zealand, his adopted home – this youthful pianist will have as much of a success as he has already experienced locally.
Chen was impressive in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata opus 31 no 3. A curious amalgam of grandeur and insouciance, it’s difficult to bring off convincingly. Chen certainly managed to do so. His account of the first movement had more than a dash of poetry to it – and the way he ushered in, shaped and tapered phrases in the Minuet (as well as steering a blisteringly rapid but always controlled way through the “hunt” finale) augur well for a career in one of the most ruthlessly competitive of occupations.
This young pianist’s memory is phenomenal; he seems incapable of a lapse in recall. And, hardly a shrinking violet, he can generate decibel levels to astounding effect when required. Certainly, the vigour and white-hot intensity he brought to Bartok’s savagely aggressive Sonata was a stunning achievement, reminiscent of the young Andor Foldes in full flight.
And in music of a vastly different character – but just as daunting for the technique – Chen, with astonishing virtuosity, romped through Balakirev’s Islamey. And while rather brighter notational definition at speed might have been preferable here, there is no gainsaying the extraordinary fluency that this teenager brings to the keyboard – evident again only moments later when, in response to a tidal wave of applause and a huge floral bouquet, he tossed off an astoundingly nimble account of Chopin’s Etude of the arpeggios from opus 10 as encore.
In was only in Chen’s account of two pieces from Brahms’ late period – the Romance in F opus 118 no 5 and the Rhapsody in E flat opus 119 no 4 – that one felt that, although completely within his grasp in purely physical terms, these profoundly probing pieces are still a rather distant universe in interpretative terms. But on the evidence of the rest of the program, there is every reason to believe that it is only a matter of time before these and other Brahms pieces of the period are conquered.
Earlier, we heard Ondine from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, the fearsome difficulty of which makes it a closed book to just about every pianist other than a tiny handful who can master its appallingly difficult measures. Chen, coaxing beautifully controlled pianissimo murmurings from the instrument, played Ondine as if it had been written for him. Much the same could be said of Gordon Kerry’s Figured in the Drift of Stars, composed specifically as a test piece for the Sydney Competition. With Chen as its champion, this scintillating work is likely to find its way into the repertoire of other heroic pianists.
Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn