Pre-concert backstage activity at Temple’s Cultural Activities Center Saturday night was constant and varied, as master piano builder Joel Rappaport obsessively fussed with the Steinway’s strings and hammers while the soloist for the evening, Sean Chen, searched for tissues.
“Allergies,” the lanky pianist said.
Chen appeared calm and prepared, but the last thing a pianist needs is a dripping nose, especially at a near sold-out concert. No worries with this artist, however: as soon as Chen strode out on the stage and flashed his trademark smile, all was well. He launched into his opener, Scriabin’s “Valse in A-flat Major” and his sure technique and mastery of the salon style set the tone for the evening.
This composition, his opus 38, was one of the fruits of Scriabin’s expatriate burst of creativity as well as his need for money from his publisher. Chen’s restrained use of rubato, playing freely rather than in strict time, and his pedal technique caressed the piece. And the echoes of Chopin, Scriabin’s first pianistic hero, were heard fleetingly in Chen’s restrained reading.
The majority of Chen’s first half was devoted to the only one of the world’s great composers who made a specialty of the piano: Frederic Chopin. His Impromptus, numbers 1, 2 and 3, along with the most-often heard “Fantaisie-impromptu No. 4,” this last performed in the version uncovered by Anton Rubenstein, seemed ideally suited to Chen’s skills.
Elegance and sophistication characterize the Polish composer’s works no less than the high inspiration that consistently informs them. One reason for Chopin’s high percentage of masterpieces and tiny percentage of poor works was the composer’s unceasing self-criticism. In fact, the Impromptu No. 4 was published posthumously since Chopin thought it unworthy.
And Chen, obviously a hit with the audience, alluded to this fact in his candid remarks between selections. The 24-year old pianist took time to explain a bit about each musical composition, his “million volt smile” charming the concert-goers.
“La Valse,” a composition originally made famous in its full orchestra version, was composed by the French impressionist Maurice Ravel. “I loved the piece and studied the single piano version and a double piano transcription,” Chen said. “This is my version that I did in 2008.” Though it’s not published, “I’ve got it on Sibelius (music notation software),” and he takes some liberties at each performance, playing it as the mood suits him.
The “Sonata No. 8 in B-flat Major” by Russian Sergei Prokofiev made up the entire second part of Chen’s recital, firmly transporting the audience to the angular sonorities of the 20th century. Chen’s remarkably stylistic shifts and technical prowess never overshadowed the simple joy he evidenced in music making.