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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
2nd Piano Sonata, op.36
Preludes, op.32 nos. 5, 10 and 12
Etude-Tableau op.39 no.9
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)

Le vol du bourdon (arr. Rachmaninov)
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)

Petrouchka

Wen-Yu Shen, piano
Recorded in Brussels, Flagey, Studio 1, 23rd-24th July 2003
CYPRÈS CYP9617 [54:21]

 

This is the debut disc of a pianist who, incredibly, is yet to celebrate his eighteenth birthday. Chinese-born Wen-Yu Shen has been based in Germany for some years, and first came to prominence in Europe last June when he gained second prize in the Queen Elisabeth piano competition in Brussels. He won extravagant praise on that occasion for his maturity and stunning technical mastery in a wide range of music.

In that sense, this issue does not disappoint; Shen can hardly be accused of playing safe for his first CD, for he has chosen a programme which, as well as being monstrously challenging from a technical point of view, is also stylistically diverse, from the late romantic Rachmaninov to the decidedly unromantic, or even anti-romantic Stravinsky. If he is more successful in the former than the latter, that is not to say that his Stravinsky is without merit. It simply calls for a kind of discipline which he may yet need to strive for (thank heavens this amazing youngster is going to have to strive for something!).

The Rachmaninov Sonata is given a powerful performance. If the finale is the most involving section, then that is probably because it contains the best music in the sonata. Certainly, Shen launches the fireworks in a spectacular way, and the torrents of bravura figuration hold no fears for him – every semiquaver as clear as a bell. Though he is not quite so convincing in the slow movement – and that’s true also of the three op. 32 Preludes that follow – he is by no means prosaic or insensitive, and balances the delicate textures of the Preludes with precocious mastery.

The issue in the Stravinsky is mainly a rhythmic one. Shen is superb in the impressionistic music of Chez Petrouchka (the scene in the central puppet-character’s cell) and in the high jinks of the Shrove-Tide Fair. But the opening Danse Russe finds him indulging in a rhythmic rubato which would surely have infuriated Stravinsky. This music depicts the mechanical movements off the three puppets, and must have an appropriately machine-like inflexibility of pulse to it if the style of the music, so typical of its composer, is not to be misrepresented. Back to the drawing-board – or at least the metronome – for that one!

The disc is completed by a glittering performance of one of the Rachmaninov Etude-Tableaux, and an equally brilliant one of his arrangement of le Vol du Bourdon (otherwise known as The Flight of the Bumble Bee!). Despite my reservations about the Stravinsky, this is a very fine and, in many ways remarkable disc. Shen’s playing (on A Steinway type D) has been perfectly captured by the Cyprès recording engineers.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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