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CD: Buywell


Maurice RAVEL
Jeux d’eau (1901) [5:29]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862–1918)
Suite Bergamasque (1890 – 1905) [16:36]
Maurice RAVEL  
Pavane pour une infante defunte (1899) [5:29]
Miroirs (1905) [27:40]
Claude DEBUSSY  
Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (1917) [2:16]
Pour le Piano (1901) [13:16]
John Chen (piano)
rec. 18 April 2006, Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Ultimo Centre, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia DDD
ABC CLASSICS 476 6834 [71:29]
Experience Classicsonline

John Chen was born in Kuala Lumpur in 1986, studied at the University of Auckland with Rae de Lisle, and in 2004 became the youngest winner of the Sydney International Piano Competition. Part of his prize as winner was to give the première of Roger Smalley’s second Piano Concerto which was commissioned for him and the Sydney Youth orchestra by Ars Musica Australis.
This is the first time I have heard Chen play anything apart from the Smalley Concerto – the première, a month before this recording was made, and again a year later, when it was conducted by James MacMillan – and I am very impressed. A major work by each composer and an handful of miniatures plus the delightful Suite Bergamasque makes a very satisfying programme.
Jeu d’eau is treated lightly and delicately, the music-box sounds of the opening are quite lovely and there is a marvelous fluidity (no pun intended) to Chen’s playing. Debussy’s charming Suite Bergamasque is very enjoyable. Chen uses the most subtle rubato throughout and his limpid playing make this more of a salon piece – which, let’s be honest, it is and that’s not a criticism – and it works very well. He doesn’t try to inflate the music into a bigger piece than it is and he understands the delicacy of the work. The Menuet, second movement, has a nicely bluff sense of humour and in the famous Clair de lune (third movement) he withholds his emotions and the climax is restrained and ethereal.
The famous Pavane is given a straight forward performance, again the emotion is held in check and this makes for a more stately performance. Miroirs is one of Ravel’s most important large scale piano works and whilst it might not have the intense concentration of the, slightly later, Gaspard de la nuit the composer doesn’t waste a note in the five pieces which make up the suite. The first three movements are quiet and meditative, but there’s such variety here – from the stuttering, yet calmly elusive, Noctuelles (Owl–Moths) where the birds seem restless, through the singing of the Oiseaux tristes (sad birds) – Ravel’s favourite amongst these pieces – to Une barque sur l’océan (a boat on the ocean), a picture of a fine day at sea – and it’s not until the fourth piece, the justly famous Alborada del gracioso (Morning song of the buffoon), that Chen finally allows us to hear him as the virtuoso he truly is – so far we’ve heard the virtuoso musician, now we have the virtuoso concert pianist unleashed. But Chen understands that whilst this piece has become the staple of all virtuosi it is part of a bigger piece and he never allows the work to overpower the music which surrounds it. The final La vallée des cloches (the valley of bells) brings us back to Ravel the impressionist and to Chen the poet.
Debussy’s recently discovered miniature Les soirs illuminés par l’ardeur du charbon (Evenings lit by glowing coals – the title comes from Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal) has a rather sad, but yet touching, provenance. In 1917, suffering from the cancer which was soon to kill him, France was at war, his daughter was dead, Debussy, the great Musicien Français wrote to his coal merchant (!) “You can understand I can’t keep writing you piano pieces, but we desperately need coal.” If I thought that I might receive such a delicate utterance then I might get a few bags of coal in, just in case! Not a major work by any means and a tragic end to a great life but poignant, and human, none the less.
Pour le Piano, which ends this recital, is a superb short suite of three pieces which includes two fast, and finger breaking, movements surrounding a delicate Sarabande. Chen relishes the fast music, the virtuoso again, but shows his intellect in the middle piece, and with his marvelously understated rubato makes this dance 5 minutes to remember.
As you will have realised, Chen is a fine musician who uses his technique fully at the service of the composer, indeed, there is much more Debussy and Ravel here than Chen because he has not imposed himself between us and the music. The recording is bright and clear, the piano situated a little way from the microphone, thus giving a feeling of sitting in a concert hall a few rows from the stage. The notes are good, and this is a very enjoyable disk in every way, and well worth having purely for the marvellous playing if nothing else!
Bob Briggs


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