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Moye Chen (piano)
Four Worlds
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Polka de V.R. (1911) [4:22]
Morceaux de fantasie 3 – Melodie, Op 3 No 3 (1892 rev.1940) [4:15]
Morceaux de fantasie 5 – Serenade, Op 3 No 5 (1892) [3:26]
Morceuax de salon 5 – Humoresque, Op 10 No 5 (1893-4) [3:57]
Sonata No 2 in B-flat minor, Op 36 (1913/1931 rev. 1943, arr. Vladimir Horowitz)
Danse excentrique (c.1921) [2:41]
Valse in F minor [2:20]
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
Irish Tune from County Derry [3:45]
Colonial song (1913) [6:15]
Ramble on love after Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier (1920-27) [6:24]
In Dahomey – cakewalk smasher (1903-9) [4:17]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Love walked in (1930, arr. Grainger) [3:49]
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
L'Arlesienne Suite No 1 – Menuet (1872/1900, arr. Rachmaninov) [3:07]
John Philip SOUSA (1854-1932)
The Stars and Stripes forever (1896/1945, arr. Horowitz) [4:13]
rec. 2018, Foellinger Great Hall, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Illinois

This is neat, precise, note-perfect piano playing, with super tone control and masterly handling of the detail of the score. In some repertory this would be more than enough to make this a noteworthy disc from the young Chinese pianist, Moye Chen, who has recently returned to his alma mater – the Shanghai Conservatory – to take up an Associate Professorship in piano after a period studying in the USA. It was while doing his doctorate at the University of Illinois that he recorded this, his debut album for DG. Continuing with the positives, the DG engineers have done a wonderful job recording the piano and maintaining a sense of aural consistency over the seven days during which these performances were recorded, although I do detect a slight richer all-round sound for the Rachmaninov Sonata.

Chen is one of that generation of Chinese pianists who followed the iconic Lang Lang in seeking out a glittering career as concert pianist, and, in that he was a prize-winner at several major competitions and has been signed up by DG, his career seems to be going well so far. But someone at DG needs to give him good, solid advice on repertory, for while he plays all 14 pieces on this disc correctly, with a sure touch and appropriate flashes of technical bravado, he seems seriously ill-suited to what is, in essence, a programme of flashy encores. What Lang Lang would have done with this material ignites the imagination (what a pity that he has not, so far as I can see, recorded any Percy Grainger), but certainly he would have made it larger than life and brought out the sheer sense of fun the programme offers. For his part, Chen seems completely devoid of fun – I can imagine him sweating over the detail, but never smiling over the music – and these taut, strait-laced, and often deadly serious performances stifle the obvious intention for enjoyability the various composers wrote into their music. I love the way he brings out some of the rich tenor melodies – notably in Grainger’s delicious Rosenkavalier extravaganza, Ramble on Love, and his matchless Irish Tune from County Derry – but the charm of the former and the soulfulness of the latter just do not seem to emerge. Even Horowitz’s cheeky remake of The Stars and Stripes Forever has a strangely moralistic feel to it.

The potential which prompted DG to sign Chen up begin to emerge only in the final work on the disc; the Rachmaninov Second Sonata. Here is music the young man can get his teeth into, and its serious character and focused musical arguments find him in a more amenable environment. There is a sense of grandeur about the opening flourishes, a dramatic edge nicely brought out by expansive tempi, and plenty of genuine pathos. However, this is not Rachmaninov’s own version of the work, but that made by Horowitz, under whose hands it worked brilliantly (Rachmaninov apparently approved). But Chen, for all his clear-sighted musical vision and sharp focus lacks the aural presence of Horowitz, and at times it all sounds a little four-square and rigid.

Puzzled as I am that Chen should have recorded repertory which seems so ill-suited to his musical personality, I am even more puzzled by the disc’s title. The blurb on the jewel-case suggests that the Chinese pianist “traces the journey of three composer-pianists who, like Chen himself, followed their destinies to the New World”. But beyond the fact that these three great pianist-composers gravitated to America in the 20th century to seek their respective fortunes, I’m not sure that this really makes for “Four Worlds”. On the evidence of this disc, impressive though Chen is as a pianist, he has a long way to go before he can legitimately have his name placed alongside the giant figures of Grainger, Horowitz, and Rachmaninov. But only time will tell, and the hope is that DG might encourage him to explore his true musical personality in future releases.

Marc Rochester

Previous review: Rob Challinor

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