Tag Archives: John Chen

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

John Chen (piano) Perth Concert Hall

John Chen (piano)


Perth Concert Hall


reviewed by Neville Cohn


Like some absurdly young musical Caesar, the teenage John Chen, laureate of the most recent Sydney International Piano Competition and currently on a lap of honour around the country, came to Perth to play and conquer a cheering audience. And there was a great deal worth getting excited about. Because with ten fingers that can do no wrong, superb wrist flexibility and an ability to maintain the pace through some of music’s most rugged terrain, John Chen is ready to take on the world. And there is every reason to believe that beyond the confines of Australia – and New Zealand, his adopted home – this youthful pianist will have as much of a success as he has already experienced locally.

Chen was impressive in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata opus 31 no 3. A curious amalgam of grandeur and insouciance, it’s difficult to bring off convincingly. Chen certainly managed to do so. His account of the first movement had more than a dash of poetry to it – and the way he ushered in, shaped and tapered phrases in the Minuet (as well as steering a blisteringly rapid but always controlled way through the “hunt” finale) augur well for a career in one of the most ruthlessly competitive of occupations.

This young pianist’s memory is phenomenal; he seems incapable of a lapse in recall. And, hardly a shrinking violet, he can generate decibel levels to astounding effect when required. Certainly, the vigour and white-hot intensity he brought to Bartok’s savagely aggressive Sonata was a stunning achievement, reminiscent of the young Andor Foldes in full flight.

And in music of a vastly different character – but just as daunting for the technique – Chen, with astonishing virtuosity, romped through Balakirev’s Islamey. And while rather brighter notational definition at speed might have been preferable here, there is no gainsaying the extraordinary fluency that this teenager brings to the keyboard – evident again only moments later when, in response to a tidal wave of applause and a huge floral bouquet, he tossed off an astoundingly nimble account of Chopin’s Etude of the arpeggios from opus 10 as encore.

In was only in Chen’s account of two pieces from Brahms’ late period – the Romance in F opus 118 no 5 and the Rhapsody in E flat opus 119 no 4 – that one felt that, although completely within his grasp in purely physical terms, these profoundly probing pieces are still a rather distant universe in interpretative terms. But on the evidence of the rest of the program, there is every reason to believe that it is only a matter of time before these and other Brahms pieces of the period are conquered.

Earlier, we heard Ondine from Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, the fearsome difficulty of which makes it a closed book to just about every pianist other than a tiny handful who can master its appallingly difficult measures. Chen, coaxing beautifully controlled pianissimo murmurings from the instrument, played Ondine as if it had been written for him. Much the same could be said of Gordon Kerry’s Figured in the Drift of Stars, composed specifically as a test piece for the Sydney Competition. With Chen as its champion, this scintillating work is likely to find its way into the repertoire of other heroic pianists.

Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn