The Studio, Sydney Opera House
May 6, 2018

When pianist Piers Lane heard Moye Chen’s audition tape for the 2016 Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia he felt the hairs prickling on the back of his neck. Praise doesn’t come much higher than that, and two years later the 33-year-old Beijing-born virtuoso was back here to promote his debut album Four Worlds on the Deutsche Grammophon label as part of the Utzon Series.

Instead of the intimate Utzon Room this concert was held in the Studio, a more formal space which is not usually used for classical music. The flow of the concert was hindered by the fact that the printed programs had not arrived and regular announcements had to be made to introduce the dozen or so works on the bill. These were all written by three naturalised American virtuoso pianist-composers in Sergei Rachmaninov, Percy Grainger and Vladimir Horowitz. There were also quite a few fidgeting children in the audience who might have been better entertained at the Peppa Pig’s Surprise which was showing next door in the Playhouse. All this aside, Chen demonstrated why his brand of expressive and dynamic pianism, coupled with a charming stage manner and wide range of facial expressions, have so enthralled audiences.

Rachmaninov fans had to wait a little for his contributions – the early part of the concert was shared between the quirky works of Grainger and some equally off-kilter pieces by Horowitz, whose original compositions are less well known than his virtuosic arrangements of material from such diverse sources as Bizet’s Carmen and John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever.

This latter work wasn’t performed by Chen – although it does feature on his Four Worlds disc – but the two that he did play, a Valse and Danse Excentrique, showed the Ukrainian virtuoso to have a good way with character pieces. This second work was mirrored by a Grainger work, In Dahomey (Cakewalk Smasher), modelled no doubt on Debussy’s Golliwog’s Cakewalk. Chen injected a fine sense of comic timing to these pieces, providing some light relief to the more serious fare.

The program was an eclectic mixture which, despite some oddities like Grainger’s take on Danny Boy (Londonderry Air) and Gershwin’s Love Walked In, worked surprisingly well. These were dovetailed with some of Rachmaninov’s shorter Morceaux pieces. But this wasn’t all salon music. There was plenty of high emotion, especially in Rachmaninov’s Sonata, which became a signature work for Horowitz to perform throughout his long concert career. When at the end of the 90-minute recital Chen launched into the passionate opening of the work there were hairs prickling on quite a few necks. It left one with the feeling that here is a remarkable talent and the prospect of hearing him perform some of the more substantial works in the repertoire is an exciting one.