John Chen (piano)

Conservatorium Auditorium

reviewed by Neville Cohn

At his recital on Sunday, John Chen, the youngest ever laureate of the Sydney International Piano Competition, would have left no-one in any doubt of the form that netted him the top prize in 2004, aged a mere 18 years.

Drawing on a seemingly invincible memory, Chen took the listener through a notationally flawless reading of Ravel’s Miroirs. Few pianists, even the most virtuosic, are game to traverse this ferociously treacherous musical terrain in public. Chen, however, with the nonchalance of mastery, gave us a deeply probing performance that yielded musical wonders at every turn.

Whether calling up sound pictures of fluttering moths, evoking images of ocean-going ships or the Spanish-flavoured gestures of a juggler, Chen was immaculate in interpretative terms. It called to mind his glittering reading of Ravel’s Ondine that had made his previous Perth recital so memorable just after his Sydney win. Throughout Miroirs, one marvelled at Chen’s ability to draw on a seemingly limitless palette of tonal colours. It was a tour de force.

In Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise Brillante, Chen was at his persuasive best. The velvet-smooth left-hand accompaniment in the Andante – and the solemn, mellow-toned tranquillity of the chorale section – could hardly have been bettered. And the skill with which Chen conveyed the hauteur that lies at the heart of every one of Chopin’s polonaises – and the diamond brightness which informed even the most rapid and complicated note streams – would surely have lifted the spirits of the most jaded listener as Chen conjured up one massive climax after another.

Since Chen gave his first recital in Perth shortly after his contest win, he has featured in innumerable recitals and concerto performances – but there was no hint at all here of familiarity breeding indifference. In fact, the sense of adventure that was such an appealing aspect of that recital was again very much in evidence at the weekend – and that augurs well for a career which is very likely to take young Chen to the forefront of fellow-pianists on the international concert circuit.

Later this month, incidentally, Chen will give a performance, broadcast by the ABC, of a new piano concerto by Roger Smalley who was in the audience to hear Chen’s keyboard wizardry.

An account of Mozart’s Sonata in C minor, K457 was less consistently meaningful. While his account of the notes was blameless and tone invariably pleasing, this curtain raiser did not yield the listening dividends one had hoped to experience. But in Schumann’s Carnaval – and after a quite routine account of Preambule – this young pianist surrendered to the Muse in the most passionately intense and virtuosic way. In section 13, which is Schumann’s tribute to Chopin, the playing in all its romantic sensitivity could hardly have been bettered. And the extraordinary agility and accuracy at whirlwind speed brought to bear on the Intermezzo was irrefutable proof of a rare musical gift which has clearly been guided by first rate instructors.

Chen, incidentally, is Malaysian-born. He was brought to New Zealand by his parents when he was eleven months old.

As encore, we heard more Ravel in the form of Pavane for a Dead Princess.

Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn

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