It’s heartening to see major labels still signing largely unknown talent. In a well-planned and intelligent program to showcase his eclectic virtuosity, Chen raises the curtain with Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata, music which supposedly came to the composer in a dream in which it was played by the devil. The work begins with sweet simplicity and becomes more fearsomely difficult as it progresses. By the end, Chen’s virtuosity is like shards of light refracted through a brilliant prism.
The first major work is the famous chaconne from JS Bach’s D minor Partita. For all its structural formality, this sublime movement harbours as wide an array of emotions as any Romantic violin piece, ranging from joy to solemnity and grief. Chen maintains the shape in one great arc but also remembers that a chaconne is still a dance, even in Bach’s hands.
The other masterpiece is the César Franck sonata, perhaps the greatest Romantic violin sonata of all, composed by the 64-year-old Franck, an eminent organist who, it’s thought, would have been unable to play the violin. Here, Chen’s youthful ardour is to the fore. I’ve always found this work, especially the first movement, a wonderful amalgam of poetry and drama, and so it is with Chen. In the second movement, he contrasts fiery declamation with heart-easing tranquility. I particularly liked the slow, sad ending to the curiously named third movement (Recitativo-Fantasia). In the finale, a summation of what has preceded it, joy burgeons and Chen makes a questioning motif in the third movement into a warm affirmation at the climax.
A fine debut, leavened by a whiff of drawing room charm with two substantial Wieniawski pieces.