Violinist Ray Chen is a consummate showman, with his looks, stance and smile complementing his performance. This is no criticism; that Chen is the latest in a long line of charming musicians only enhances his appeal. Fortunately, his musicianship matches up; otherwise this would be a very different kind of review.
The program was devised (so Chen told us) like a delicious meal – not an unusual concept, although it was original to suggest the unaccompanied Bach was like a palate-cleanser, perhaps a sorbet. The “menu” comprised:
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART Violin Sonata no 22 in A major, K305
Sergei PROKOFIEV Violin Sonata no 2 in D major, op 94
Johann Sebastian BACH Partita no 3 in E major, BWV1006
Pablo de SARASATE Danzas españolas
Habanera, op 21 no 2, Habañera (Spanish Dance no 2)
Playera (Spanish Dance no 5)
Zigeunerweisen, op 20
First came Mozart, with not the cleanest entry of the night thanks to a tricky early ornament for both violin and piano (played by Timothy Young). Only a few bars in, however, the gloriously resonant sound of the violin was heard as the piano met the challenge of accompanying Chen’s tempo (sensitive to his fondness for rubato), and changing dynamics, the first movement ending with a very fine violin crescendo.
The choice of music and Chen’s style meant that the violin was the centre of attention, although the second movement of the Mozart gave Young scope to demonstrate his feeling for the work, with sympathetic phrasing and pedalling. But it is undeniable that every violin entry lifted the performance. Each of the variations highlighted an aspect of Chen’s prowess, the final Allegro providing a suitably declamatory ending.
The drama of Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata suited Chen, who showed his prowess in a strong attack even with the high notes, but also demanded attention in a quiet reiteration of the theme. After a brilliant Scherzo, the Andante drew out beautiful texture from both instruments, while both performers delivered on the “con brio” required to round off this exciting work.
Bach’s unaccompanied Partita no 3 in E major served to show the essence of Chen’s gift, with music that seemed spare and yet was eloquent. Without the piano and dramatic sweep of the Prokofiev, the work was still the perfect showcase for technique and feeling, both of which Chen has in abundance. Without wishing to over-analyse the performance, highlights were cleanly articulated arpeggios, the delicate Minuet and the sheer speed of the Bourree with its broken chords.
Having more than proved his worth with the Prokofiev and the Bach, Chen’s choice of Sarasate to end (and for an encore) seemed pure indulgence for both musicians and for the audience. It’s true that this is easy music to listen to, but even so Chen and Young revealed the composer’s work as having more challenges than one might have expected from simply hearing recordings. Fast fingerwork and ornamentation were among them, as was the gradual increase in tempo in the popular Zigeunerweisen from a measured peasant dance to a wild finish – and a roar of applause from a well-satisfied audience in the crowded hall.
Next time, I would hope to hear an Australian composition in the program, or at least as an encore. Ray Chen playing Ross Edwards, Peter Sculthorpe or Nigel Westlake – that would have been the ultimate, and fitting, flourish!
The picture of Ray Chen is by Chris Dunlop