Friday 19 July 2013

Chen/Quentin - Mozart, Brahms, Ysaÿe, and Saint-Saëns, 16 July 2013

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – Violin Sonata in B-flat major, KV 454
Brahms – Violin Sonata no.3 in D minor, op.108
Ysaÿe – Violin Sonata in A minor, op.27 no.2
Saint-Saëns – Havanaise in E major, op.83
Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso in A minor, op.28

Ray Chen (violin)
Julien Quentin (piano)
The violinist Ray Chen has already released two CDs for Sony; here, he was joined by pianist Julien Quentin for his Wigmore Hall debut. In many respects, especially during the first half of the recital, it was Quentin who impressed more. Mozart’s great B-flat sonata, KV 454, opened the programme. There was appropriate spaciousness to the first movement’s introduction, though it seemed an odd decision not to repeat the exposition, both in terms of the lack of balance imparted to the movement in itself and in relation to the slow movement. Chen offered gleaming tone, even the occasional touch of portamento, but it was Quentin who seemed more under the kin of the music, not that he lacked anything in pearly tone. The slow movement flowed nicely, its aria sensibility finely conveyed. Chen at times needed to play less as a ‘soloist’ and more as a chamber musician, though later on, there was a far greater sense of interplay, especially during the most harmonically adventurous passages. The finale was taken a little too fast: more Allegro than Allegretto, its character turned forcibly more brilliant. Articulation was excellent, though, and there was a good sense of the rondo as formal principle.

The first movement of Brahms’s D minor sonata showed that this was not to be an ‘autumnal’ Brahms – perhaps not inappropriately, on one of the hottest days of the year. This was a Romantic reading, in music that seemed to suit Chen better, Quentin being equally at home. The pianist’s half-lit progressions made one want to hear him in some of Brahms’s solo piano music. Brahms’s extraordinary concision was powerfully conveyed, as if in a single breath, alongside a perhaps unusually passionate sensibility that linked this movement at least with the D minor Piano Concerto. For me, some of the violin part was over-Romanticised in the slow movement, vibrato laid on with a trowel, but I must admit that the ‘Hungarian’ and/or ‘gypsy’ sensibility imparted by Chen had its own validity. The essential ‘idea’, the movement as song, certainly emerged in performance. Playfulness – serious playfulness, mind – was apparent in the third movement, taken at a slower tempo, effectively so, than I had expected. That did not preclude passion, but it was Quentin’s lucid reading of the piano part that stole the musical show. The finale benefited from plenty of light and shade, through which the sheer complexity of Brahms’s musical thought shone through, especially with respect to the piano.

Ysaÿe’s A minor sonata, dedicated to Jacques Thibaud, received a fine performance from Chen, his clean tone, often less ‘Romantic’ than that employed for the Brahms, giving an impression of Bach in a sense the composer might well have recognised. The ‘Obsession’ – Ysaÿe’s subtitle – of the Dies irae chant was apparent throughout. Technically beyond reproach, this was also a performance imbued with a proper sense of form. It was probably the highlight of Chen’s evening. Saint-Saëns followed, with his Havanaise and the A minor Introduction and Rondo capriccioso. The former benefited from a strong, yet never overemphasised sense of rhythm, neither musician trying to turn it into something deeper than it is. Virtuosity aplenty clearly pleased fans in the audience. Quentin managed even in the second work to prove a wonderfully attentive ‘accompanist’. (Here the term is not entirely inappropriate.) It was a commendably fluid performance; there was much to enjoy in the Romantic sound of Chen’s violin. I could, however, happily have done without the repetitive cloying sentimentality of John Williams’s theme from Schindler’s List as an encore, likewise the vapid display of a piece - I forget which - by Sarasate.