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Premier Performances of Hong Kong - Rising Piano Stars

Hong Kong
Sheung Wan Civic Center
12/12/2007 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach-Ferruccio Busoni: Chaconne from Partita No.2 for Solo Violin, BWV 1004
Johannes Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Handel, Op.24
Wang Jiang-zhong: A Hundred Birds Paying Respect to the Phoenix
Li Ying-hai: Flute and Drum at Sunset
Enrique Granados: Los Requiebros
Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev: Islamey - An Oriental Fantasy

Jie Chen, Piano

Following Mr. Kobrinís debut recital in Hong Kong three weeks ago at the Sheung Wan Civic Center, PPHK is once again proud to be host of yet another 2005 Van Cliburn Piano Competition rising-star; this time, the Guangdong-based Chinese pianist, Jie Chen. Miss Chen is currently a student under the renowned pedagogue Jerome Rose at the Mannes College of Music in New York, and has been first-prize winner to several important international competitions, most notably the Young Concert Artists International Auditions. Occupying nearly 80% of tonightís recital venue, the success that resulted in Miss Chenís debut recital tonight is a living testimony to the unlimited colors that our musician has within her fingers, and what a great lost indeed to those 20% who missed out tonightís musical extravaganza. Not to worry, Miss Chen will certainly be returning back to Hong Kong given her spell-bounding interpretations tonight.

Jie Chen designed her debut recital programme to what even a mature pianist would have second-thoughts performing Ė given the immense difficulties these pieces ascertained. What appeared to be a mammoth programme at first glance turned out to be brilliantly articulated musically and technically, all so naturally a part of her. Coincidence or not, transcription was a common theme, whereas tribute to the Baroque masters was another in her first half of the programme. The opening chords of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne established a firm ground of authority; here is a composition that requires musical understanding both of the Baroque and Romantic periods, knowledge of the Organ as Bachís instrument, the Violin and Piano as instruments of the elegy, and technical skills in which compositions of Ferruccio Busoni were notorious to require. The Chaconne is one of those Bach-Busoni transcriptions that explicitly outline various polyphonic lines original to Bach, where the use of pedaling should be used audaciously, but delicately. Suffice to say, Ms. Chen kept pedaling at the absolute minimal throughout; yet, when it was indispensable to replicate the real organ-effects on the piano and tracing back to the violin sonorities of the original Chaconne, she used the combined actions of the three pedals most appropriately. For instance, consider the mixture of chords opened with the full organ containing the 5th and octave, or even the 3rd and the 7th, of every tone struck. An appropriate imitation of these tone-blendings would only be musically obtained, on the piano, by the careful use of the three pedals. In retrospect, her tempo was appropriate on a whole, albeit a few fluctuations here and there possibly as her means to sing with a fluidity of expressions. But, the magnificence of organ taste was reminiscent on her piano without ever sounding in extremes. What added to the beauty of her playing in this Chaconne was marked by an intense impression of perfect technique and firm construction of musical span that pulsated steadily like a flowing river of Great China. Under her fingers, Miss Chen had both delicacy and power; that is to say, a beautiful tone color and an astonishing power of ff and feather-like pp revealing the charm of Busoniís very transcription on a large scale. However, all art only comes asymptomatically close to perfection, and Miss Chenís Chaconne was no exception in this regard. Her careful preparations were limited in part by hesitations and resilience to carry forward the climatic build-ups, as one galloped with the music from one mountain-top to another as the music unfolded, she resided rather than continuation with leadership. For this reason, what felt to be a glowing inner fire abruptly seized immaturely, feeling at times to deform the musical structure and integrity of this romantic epic. As she echoed the final trills of the Chaconne, then bringing this towering úuvre to its finale with its commanding chords, experienced listeners were assured that here on stage tonight was a musician who lived and played music from her heart and soul, not her fingers.

Brahms was known to be an original composer, as much as he was a fabulous pianist. In nearly his 60 years of avid compositions, he left a legacy of piano transcriptions that marked no less to Busoniís, including themes written by Bach, Haydn, Paganini, Schumann, and none the very least, Handel. Featuring as the second piece on tonightís roster was Brahmsís Variations on a Theme by Handel. Brahms was known to have dedicated a lifetimeís worth studying in depths the original works written by Handel before he tackled this composition. His Handel Variations not only added virtuosic passages, pedal usages, dynamic changes, and different registers from the original theme of Handelís, but Brahms also gave expression terms that reached the intimate core qualities of the orchestra and the pipe organ. Brahmsís solo piano music is not performed as readily as it should anymore, and this Handel Variations can be a clear example why Ė not only is technique of the highest order required, but total musicianship is what separates a superficial reading from one that is scholarly. There are certainly few pianists who could accomplish this, and Jie Chen was certainly one who did as evident from her journey in this piece. Miss Chen played the opening Aria with elegance, which laid the grounds for the remainder 25 variations to come. What remained remarkable in her playing came out evidently as she gone through the trouble of giving attention to the nuance and details of each variation. Take, for example, to the concluding fugue, which was masterful; subjects-and-answers were clearly intertwined as if two individuals were conversing, and they were beautifully phrased with beautiful lightness and natural ease without ever sounding bombastic or overtly lyrical. Moreover, every one of the variations was played as if a microcosmos in itself: with grace, majesty, imagination, sense of the dimensions, and above all savoir vivre! If there is a more effervescent, idiomatic, innovative and resplendent performance of this Handel Variations, Miss Chenís live performance tonight was one of those rare examples of such genre. She displayed the colossal scrupulosity, the wide dimensions and diversity in spectre of the orchestral instruments. Even with oneís eyes closed, one could only marvel at the technical equipment arising from Miss Chenís playing, let alone watching her sailed from one register to the next. To those musically trained, it would not be an exaggeration to call Miss Chen a natural 'Brahmsian'. Suffice to say, the totality of Miss Chenís vision in this piece was unparalleled; other pianists may offer a tad more depth here and there, varying from one variation on another, but no pianist to my knowledge would play Brahms as if it was Brahms himself performing on his own piano music. Please excuse me for sounding scientifically metaphysical for a moment, but not many pianists are capable of bringing to music the illusion that the composer himself may actually be playing there on his instrument. Only a meager handful of artists come close to my mind, and this is no small compliment to Jie Chen only as a rising star in her developing career.

In the second half to the recital, Miss Chen swopped into a beautiful designer red dress to open her inner love to China through two magnificent Chinese folk-tunes written by Wang Jian-zhong and Li Ying-hai. The Hundred Birds Paying Respect to the Phoenix and Flute and Drum at Sunset, respectively, were part of a collection of piano favorites newly released on her debut album known as 'Chinese Piano Favorites'. Both of these pieces depicted natural sceneries on Chinese folklores, and surely, no one other than Miss Chen herself would be a better interpreter of these Chinese gems. The Hundred Birds is a vivid and splendid representation of hundred birds in different postures, and under Miss Chenís world, we heard the musical ornamentations representing these multitude of postures. What was so enjoyable about traditional Chinese music is that as a Chinese myself, there was an instant bond so close in tracing back to my origins in Chinese heritage, reminiscing Chinese peopleís livelihood and all aspects of nature from the distant past. In this particular piece, Miss Chen musically caricature hundred of birds flying by; she brought in an atmosphere of a beautiful courtyard where one found his routes onwards to a great green landscape. A specialty was how the songs could have two melodic lines without ever intruding each other. From where I sat on the left-center of the hall, I was captured by Miss Chenís playing on stage as if she represented one musician playing one line while another musician playing his own tune simultaneously as a compliment. The music had a general hallmark of light-heartedness, at times, even to the extent of a comic ridicule. The Flute and Drum at Sunset was chosen by Miss Chen for her passion and love to nature, and so we imagined as she beautifully articulated the various tone-colours on the upper register of the piano keyboard. Wang and Li are two highly skilled musicians who crafted excellent scores from these original folksongs on the piano, and only through the hands and inner spirits of Jie Chen were we able to appreciate the full authentic Chinese heritage culminating in these traditional pieces

Just as one becomes captivated by Jie Chenís illustrious Chinese lineage, she quickly switched her profile, and here, one doubted for a split second of a possible secondary Spanish heritage as she played extravagantly the beloved Spanish miniature from Granadosís Goyescas. Los Requiebros (or 'People in Love') is the first movement of this suite for piano, and here, we paid tribute to a composer who crafted a musical and pianistic masterpiece. Under Jie Chenís interpretations, oneís heart lifted together with her stunning, exotic and thrilling emotional ecstasy that almost seemed native to her blood. Was she Spanish, as some of us who attended may have tinkered? Most certainly not, but Spain and Spanish culture must have topped in her favorite of experiences that rendered her seasoned reading on this loverís prologue to another. In the Los Requiebros, love was the central theme, and through each note on the score, one came to terms with a composer whose music reflected his laborious love feeling for another. Phrases from within reflected flights of pure fantasy, gorgeous dissonances, melodic folk-tunes that even The Three Tenors (Carreras, Domingo and the late-Pavarotti) craved about. At times, her playing was purely fun, and this reflected Granados as a composer who must have been born inside a piano with a guitar in each of his hands. This message of love revealed incredible energy and creativity from a man of superb pianistic competence and musical luminescence. In less than 10 minutes, what a wonderful ďwith loveĒ listening experience this was, and I felt sorry for those who missed out her Spanish beauty.

To close her recital in Hong Kong on a strong forte, Miss Chen triumphed the very final score of her recital in Balakirevís devilish Islamey Ė An oriental fantasy, one of those romantic war-horses with nearly no equals. This piece seemed to have ignited Miss Chenís passions again to the exotic East, much like the earlier Chinese folk-tunes, with yet another layer of common origins to folk-tunes. This was indeed a piece, much like the Bach-Busoni Chaconne that had a kind of epic scope, and our pianist did full justice to bring those little tinkering trills as much as the quadruple forte chord passages to full extent - both tender and merciless at a whim. In this regard, Islamey is notoriously known to be difficult on a pianoís log-book, one of those war-horses in the repertoire that is either overplayed to the point of dense cacophony, or is underplayed by a pianist who is incapable or afraid because of uncontrollable fingerworks in demanding sections. Miss Chen, on the other hand, had mastered nearly all the technical aspects to allow her to freely concentrate on expression of details. One became easily unaware of the technical difficulties or any sense of effort from our pianist, which would have otherwise distracted oneís appreciation of the emotional qualities she delivered. At times, her playing did become buried beneath the swirl of notes, and again, there were hesitations to carry forward the flow of phrases to the climatic apex. Nevertheless, in nearly the two hours worth of music-making, from Bach to China, we had here with us a pianist who had inexhaustible virtuosity and potency of musical phrasing that had to be heard rather than to read to believe when a talent is born.

With bouquets and bouquets of flowers, and nearly three rounds worth of full-house cheers and applause, Miss Chen brought us three rounds worth of additional encores Ė a Chopin Waltz, a Scarlatti Sonata, and none the very least, Tang Bi-guangís Liu Yan River (as arranged by Wang Jian-zhong for the Piano). Despite her quicker-than-usual choice in tempo on this piece, here we had an interpretation that reflected fluidity and lively spirits that reminisced a roaring river-stream in the Eastern part of the Hunan province near Changsha today. From the West to the East, Miss Chen had strived herself a mark of excellence to be remembered as an honest ambassador representing the musical beauties of both worlds.

Patrick P.L. Lam



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