Pianist Sean Chen

By Scott MacClellandChen-Sean-132[Cliburn-2013]

BRING HIM BACK! Third-prize (Crystal) winner of the 2013 Van Cliburn Competition wowed a Carmel audience that included a lot of sophisticated piano aficionados at Sunday’s Carmel Music Society debut. This endearing artist displayed a command of the Steinway—keys and pedals in equal measure—that only underscored the kind of mastery from which art gets its full measure. And by art I mean personality. Gauging the quality of a naked solo recital gives critics—and everybody is a critic—exactly the opportunity that we all hope for. It’s always a high-wire performance with no net.

And for those of us who have heard the same old repertoire year in and year out ad tedium, Sean Chen dared to make a different program. (It was the second revision since I provided the sponsoring CMS with its program notes, but I’ve learned never to hold my breath.) And how welcome a departure it was. Two rarely heard, short Beethoven sonatas were introduced by Chen’s own keyboard arrangements of the Offertory from Mozart’s Requiem and Leporello’s ‘Catalog’ aria from Don Giovanni, both so convincingly wrought as to inspire me to sing the words under my breath and, in the former, to marvel at the startling voice-leading and harmonic invention. (I’ve heard full orchestral/choral performances that didn’t get what Chen got in his adaptation.)

I confess, hearing the same Beethoven music over and over has dulled my interest. Therefore, exposure to the 10-minute Sonata in F-Sharp, Op 78, was as fine a Valentine’s Day treat as I could imagine. It’s an adorable piece which, like many others on Chen’s program, deflected equal attention to his own mastery of the instrument. He’s only 29 or 30, and I was reminded over and over of the great Emil Gilels, with his ‘pressing’ instead of ‘pounding’ keyboard technique. And I haven’t heard such subtle pedaling since when? I would love to hear him play Debussy who opened up the keyboard to unprecedented techniques.

Beethoven’s Opus 27, No. 1, the companion to the “Moonlight” Sonata, is also marked “quasi una fantasia,” which means the composer plays fast and loose with the sonata forms. In this case, he frames the allegro-vivace sections within the slower andante and adagio sections. The forms come clear enough but with refreshing departures from the tried and true. The allegro molto in the first movement gives rise to a witty ‘hopalong’ syncopation and Chen made the most of it.

When Chen took the stage to start the second half, an elderly lady down front spoke up clearly, “You’re a marvelous young pianist!” Chen responded, “Well, that’s a first.” He then explained his choice of three numbers from the “Forgotten Melodies” salon pieces by Nikolai Medtner, a contemporary and close friend of Sergei Rachmaninoff—with whom he shared a mutual admiration. While a superb pianist and prolific composer, Medtner lacked Rachmaninoff’s ambition and acute instincts for audience response, hence his music rarely shows up in concerts and recitals. Of the three selected—Primavera, Canzon matinata and Danza festiva—the latter was the most ambitious and complex, and would hold up well among the Etudes-tableaux by Rachmaninoff. The piece displayed some astonishingly syncopated counterpoint, or rather Chen did in his playing of it.

Then came Rachmaninoff’s extremely ambitious Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, in the original version which the composer later decided to truncate, shaving off about five minutes of performance time. Chen defended his preference as more “convincing.” It’s a grand piece of such complexity as to inspire most pianists to avoid it altogether. It’s also a tightly organized work centered around a descending theme heard at the outset that returns in different guises over and over. In the middle of the second movement a passage of haunting beauty emerges and seduces, again with credit to Chen for so smoothly wooing his audience. Chen turned the final movement, the most complex of the three, into a triumphant tour de force, an unequivocal royal flush that brought the audience to its feet.

The authority and artistry from this young man somehow didn’t seem to match the easy, casual demeanor he displayed while speaking from the stage—the additional charm he is likewise getting noticed for. As an encore, he acknowledged the special day with Gershwin’s Love Walked In in the filigreed arrangement by Percy Grainger.