Sean Chen is another dashing young American pianist with formidable chops, and his Chinese Performing Arts Foundation recital Saturday night at Jordan Hall contained many moments of aspiringly throwback playing, long of line and rich of tone. A Juilliard graduate now going for his artist diploma at Yale and a Van Cliburn laureate, he clearly has the flash, substance, looks and hair to have a significant career in a crowded field.
Chen’s traditional program ranged from Bach to Copland to Ravel/Chen. Beginning the evening were the Adagio S.968 and the three-voice fugue from The Musical Offering. With indistinct fingerwork and overpedaling, it was not a promising start; even given Chen’s old-fashioned emphasizing of leading voices, Bach’s textures wanted profile and strength. Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque similarly sounded meh to my ear, low in finish, albeit with some color. (In his hands the hall’s Hamburg Steinway was unusually multi-hued.)
Copland’s 1930 Piano Variations comprise an orderly, difficult, abstract set of sounds; Walter Gieseking refused the composer’s request to premiere it, owing to its severity and “crude dissonances” (while Leonard Bernstein later said that, “harsh and wonderful,” it was “prophetic”). From Chen they did sound terrific: the pianist likes the piece, obviously enjoyed it with full engagement and brio, his playing coming to life in confidence and viewpoint. Although other performances emphasize musicality more, I’d like to hear this one again. Scriabin’s op. 38 Valse also danced in a beautifully assured and pointed rendition, looking ahead to Gershwin: rarefied cocktail music. So maybe the Bach and Debussy deficits that I sensed had to do with warmup.
Chopin’s Impromptus may have lacked the highest level of power but did feature Golden Age singing runs (if you buy Harold Schonberg’s historical notions), suppleness of rhythm, strings of pearls, and tonal blur in the good senses. The pianist’s own arrangement of Ravel’s La Valse is, he told us, designed to be denser and more orchestral than other versions, and without making comparisons, it certainly sounded chockablock with thundering effects, left hand intrigue, clever polyphony. Finally playing full out, Chen knocked it out of the hall. An astounding technique was revealed, about the equal of anyone’s.
For his encore, Chen probingly read Mozart’s Fantasy in D Minor, whose strange, improvisatory opening with the composer noodling Bach, soon lets down into an elegance of melancholy. A fine close to a most impressive debut.
Chen likes to chat before pieces, which, for the future of classical audiences, is probably a good thing for any 25-year-old artist to do. (Especially absent consistently interesting program notes.) But as several people in the audience noted, he really needs to step it up: louder, clearer, more articulate, as well as more contentful.