IN: Reviews

Harmonious Blacksmith Hammers Red-hot Metal


Young, broadly repertoired, and competition-honed Han Chen陳涵 already has four solo piano Naxos CDs to his credit. They focus on Franz Liszt, Anton Rubinstein (“playing him is like reading a Russian novel”), Thomas Adès (about whom he is at work on a CUNY Graduate Center doctoral dissertation), and György Ligeti’s three books of Piano Études (which he will be playing complete in New York City in the fall). His concert at Williams Hall last night in the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts Summer Festival showcased his confident and direct persona as well as his inerrant instinct for making his selections feel like inevitable concertmates.

Chen gathered himself up in a rather long period of concentration before embarking on Alban Berg’s modernist yet so very Viennese Piano Sonata (Mark DeVoto has referred HERE to its ‘creeping chromaticism.’ David Moran’s earlier review bears recycling:

What a hip single movement of chromaticism that is, everything developing from the opening gestures. Chodos played it so beautifully as to take the breath away, apparently knowing in full its status as a thing of beauty. Passages were almost voluptuous. Gunther Schuller told my seatmate that the performance was a treat in part because Chodos understood the sonata’s 19th century roots, while most other exponents played it as if it were Schoenberg. A distinguished administrator in attendance told a colleague afterward that it was like listening to Art Tatum. I thought more Gershwin channeling Chopin, or maybe vice-versa, before concluding that this was surely some undiscovered complex non-consonant score of very late Brahms.

The preternaturally experienced-sounding player needed no overexuberant swooning gestures to convey the misty modernisms with nostalgia. He combined salon intimacy with a well-honed, steely, and almost dangerous edge. At some times he channeled a very sad cabaret singer anticipating the decadence of Weimar, while at other moments he relished exuberant hyperexpressivity. Franckishly cyclical in its wistfulness, stirring and relaxed by turns, what a sonic universe materialized in that singe movement.

Ligeti’s etudes challenge intellectuals like Jeremy Denk as well as voluptuaries like Yuja Wang (listen to her Devil’s Staircase). Book One’s six examples occasioned Chen (who combines the aforementioned qualities) to revel in unassailable technique while dwelling in realms beyond the notes. Readers should definitely plan to attend his traversal of all three books at National, Sawdust in Brooklyn [details HERE]. With thanks to Wiki (my words underlined):

1. Désordre. Molto vivace, vigoroso, molto ritmico, = 63

The right hand plays only white keys while the left hand is restricted to the black keys. This separates the hands into two pitch-class fields; the right-hand music is diatonic, the left-hand music is pentatonic. This étude is dedicated to Pierre Boulez. We heard it as mucho perpetuo pinball wizardry…maybe a Steve Reich carillon of change ringing.

 2. Cordes à vide. Andantino rubato, molto tenero, = 96

Simple, almost Satie-esque chords become increasingly complex. These chords are built primarily from fifths, reminiscent of open strings, hence the title This étude is also dedicated to Pierre Boulez. Reflective, pensive, reassuring…drones and ostinato with differences, and the unmistakable fiddle tuning came across spectaculary

3. Touches bloquées. Vivacissimo, sempre molto ritmico – Feroce, impetuoso, molto meno vivace – Feroce, estrepitoso – Tempo I

Two different rhythmic patterns interlock. One hand plays rapid, even melodic patterns while the other hand ‘blocks’ some of the keys by silently depressing them. This is the last étude Ligeti dedicated to Boulez.  Mixed rhythms and independent hands… …the big crescendo on those repeated riffs staggered us.

4. Fanfares. Vivacissimo, molto ritmico, = 63, con alegria e slancio

Melody and accompaniment frequently exchange roles in this polyrhythmic study which features aksak-influenced rhythms and an ostinato in 8/ 8 time, dividing the bar of 8 eighth notes into 3+2+3. This ostinato is also used in the second movement of Ligeti’s Horn Trio.[6] This étude is dedicated to Volker Banfield. Motoric but developingten finger brains gloriously arguing…gigantic episode almost shockingly intense.

5. Arc-en-ciel. Andante con eleganza, with swing, ca. 84

The music rises and falls in arcs that seem to evoke a rainbow. This étude is dedicated to Louise Sibourd.  Chen shaped the figures like a singer…block chords and tunes and runs in seconds somehow could warmly embrace

6. Automne à Varsovie. Presto cantabile, molto ritmico e flessibile, = 132

Its title, Autumn in Warsaw, refers to the Warsaw Autumn, an annual festival of contemporary music. Ligeti referred to this étude as a “ tempo fugue” . A study in polytempo, it consists of a continuous transformation of the initial descending figure – the “ lamento motif”  as Ligeti called it – involving overlapping groups of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, ending up at the bottom of the keyboard. This étude is dedicated to Ligeti’s Polish friends. Swirling…some of the wildness and fantasy of the Berg Sonata…extravaganza of expressionism… morphing like a nocturnal affray…

The review title “Harmonious Blacksmith Hammers Red-hot Metal” summarizes my view (with apologies to Handel) of Chen’s third public traversal of Beethoven’s Sonata no. 29 Op. 106 Hammerklavier. Oxygenated by powerful intellectual bellows and endowed with muscular forearms, Chen didn’t just hammer Beethoven’s formidably relentless and ever-modern challenge to pianists and listeners; with fire and tempering plunges he alternately annealed, welded, sintered, and sensitively stretched the well-wrought iron into impressive curls and shapely forms. His carefully plotted interpretations conveyed nuance and compelling gesture through very well-graduated colorations and dynamics from white hot to warmly glowing. No two repeated chords sounded the same. Chen’s Beethoven seemed to anticipate Berg and Ligeti on this night.  

Chen’s brilliantly assembled program, a predominantly fast and furious feat with the exception of a single outlier movement, might cohere even more inevitably with the consideration of a daring sacrilege. Try reversing last two movements of the Hammerklavier and make that heavenly long and poignant slow Adagio sostenuto a planned encore.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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