The intimate Sunrise Theater acquired some of the atmosphere of the Spoleto Festival USA when Wendy Chen took her place at the Steinway piano for the seaon's final Classical Concert Series concert. After the first selection, she said that she had heard she was best known by the local audience from her appearances on the stage of the Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, South Carolina, where she will be celebrating her tenth season this May. Over those years, in addition to accompanying duties for chamber music, there have been tantalizing examples from her solo repertory. There was nothing trite about her Southern Pines program, which was eclectic and gave equal representation of her considerable physical prowess and her poetic touch.
Those accustomed to Chopin's Nocturnes as dreamy or melancholy were snapped to attention by the stormy fortes of the Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48/1. This exceptional nocturne begins in a meditative fashion, but its middle section builds to what John Gillespie, in Five Centuries of Keyboard Music, describes as "a lavish climax — massive harp-like chords... interrupted by octave passages in both hands." Just before this episode, the accompaniment is gradually stretched to cover more than three and a half octaves in a single rolled chord. Chen conjured up huge waves of sound with the most restrained of arm movements and no grandiose gestures.
Chopin's Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante in E-flat, Op. 22, has always been a calling card for virtuosi. The Grande Polonaise was originally vcomposed for piano and orchestra and only later arranged for solo piano by the composer, who grafted on the gentle Andante as an introduction. Chen's eschewing of melodramatic body language while summoning thundering fortes or hushed melodies reminded me of an older generation of wizards of the ivories such as Claude Frank or Luiz Carlos de Moura Castro. The great Leon Fleischer was one of her teachers.
Samuel Barber's suite, Souvenirs, Op. 28, was originally composed for four-hand piano with no intention of it being published. It was a popular party piece that was frequently played by Barber and his friend Charles Turner, who had suggested its composition. The composer made several arrangements of it including one for solo piano from which Chen extracted the "Hesitation Tango." This made a fine light work with which to "cleanse the audience's musical palate" and to give the pianist respite from the demanding athleticism of the opening works.
There is no lack of sheer pyrotechnics or soldering eroticism in Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1. From the Faust legend, it paints a lurid picture of the episode at an inn in which Mephistopheles seizes a violin from a wedding musician and, with his sensual playing, seduces the guests, who pair off, including the bride, who leaves with Faust. Chen's dynamic range was extraordinary, with her loudest fortes sometimes straining the piano. Her sensitive phrasing extracted the maximum poetry from this showpiece.
It is most unusual to see any work from the world of jazz on a classical piano recital — the occasional Gershwin yes, but Bill Evans (1929-1980)? Chen's comments before the set, drew attention to Evans' classical training and expressed delight in his music, and noted her use of it as a rest. New Jersey born Evans was lured to Southeastern Louisiana College (now University) by a flute scholarship. He graduated with a degree in piano performance in 1950 and studied composition at Mannes College of Music in New York City. Evans brought elements of French Impressionism as well as a mastery of harmony and rhythm to a jazz style that combined a unique approach toward ensemble with a classical sense of form. Lovers of the keyboard music of Debussy and Ravel could find much to savor in Chen's set of Laurie and Letter to Evan.
Both aspects of Rachmaninov — warm, flowing melodies and knuckle-breakers — are displayed in his Opus 23 Preludes, from which Chen selected No. 4, in D, and No. 2, in B-flat. Chen's sonorous, singing lines played out above rock-solid bass lines. Her application of refined control of volume and her ability to sustain seamless lyric lines was idiomatic. Chen's brief and light encore — Chopin's Étude in A-flat Major, Op. 25, No. 1 — made a fine contrast to the Russian's demands of heavy virtuosity.
A search of CD sources such as Arkivmusik.com turns up three recordings featuring Wendy Chen. Her fine Chopin recital on RCM 19702, titled "Bolero," is hard to find. She accompanies violinist James Ehnes for the two Prokofiev Sonatas on Analekta 23145 and for a French recital (Ravel, Debussy, and Saint-Säens) on CBC Music Viva 1138.
Wendy Chen's many Spoleto USA fans will be delighted to know she will be in Charleston May 22 through June 1, 2007.