Ray Chen Virtuoso. J.S. Bach: Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in d for Solo Violin, S.1004; César Franck: Sonata in A for violin and piano; Giuseppe Tartini, arr. Fritz Kreisler: Sonata for Violin in g, “The Devil’sTrill”; Henryk Wieniawski, arr. Gustav Saenger” Légende in g, Op. 17, and Variations on an Original theme for Violin and Piano in A, Op. 15. Ray Chen, violin (1708 “Huggins” Stradivarius and/or 1721 “Macmillan” Stradivarius), Noreen Polera, piano. SONY Classical 88697829672, © 2011, 79:02, $11.98.

This program is unusual in pairing these two sonatas. None of the 143 other recordings of the Franck offered on ArkivMusik’s website pairs it with the Tartini, of which 45 other recordings are listed there. The pair surrounds the shorter works in chronological order, so the whole builds up to the quietly sublime Franck, the most recent of the works, rather than to one of the more brilliant pieces. The shorter works are similarly grouped with the older, the Bach, first.  All have more substance and structure than many other virtuosic showpieces, e.g., some of the famous Fritz Kreisler works that often appear on début recordings.

Chen was born in Taiwan in 1989, raised in Australia, and accepted at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia at the age of 15. He was the winner of the 2009 iteration of the Concours Reine Elizabeth in Belgium, founded in 1937 by her in memory of Eugène Ysaÿe (who had envisioned it but died before it could be realized, and originally named for him; it was renamed for its patroness in 1951 when it resumed after WW II.), the dedicatee of the Franck sonata and violinist in its première 1886. Wieniawski taught Ysaÿe, yet another inter-connection among the composers represented. Chen also won the 2008 iteration of the Yehudi Menuhin Competition.

Noreen (Cassidy-)Polera was the winner of the Accompanying Prize at the VIIIth Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1986. She has partnered with many competition winners over the years, particularly winners of the Reine Elizabeth – an inter-connection between the performers – and Naumburg Competitions, has appeared in major venues all over the world, and has made several recordings. She earned both her BM and MM at Juilliard.

It is clear that Chen has mastered his instrument and these works. Furthermore, he is not merely playing all the notes, or showing off his chops; he demonstrates expression, interpretation, sensitivity, and understanding of the music beyond what one might expect for someone so young; all of these will no doubt evolve and grow further as he matures. Not surprisingly, the Tartini and the Bach are played in a very Romantic fashion, and the tempi seemed to me a tiny bit fast for some of the movements of the Franck.  Polera is a masterful accompanist and partner. The sound is excellent; the recording venue was the resonant Teldex Studio in Berlin.

The content of the attractive and colorful booklet, which features six photos of Chen (on its cover, across the opening spread where the track listings and timings are printed, a pair on the closing spread where the credits are printed, ahead of the program notes, and opposite his bio) begins with a friendly personal note (“Dear Listener”) from Chen (“I hope you enjoy this recording. I know I certainly enjoyed making it!  Best wishes, Ray”) telling why he selected the works for the program. This is followed by fine detailed notes about each of the works and its composer in an English translation by Stewart Spencer of a presumably German original by Guido Johannes Joerg. These are followed in turn by the bio of Chen.

The to-my-mind serious problem, however, lies in what is not there: no bio or photo of the pianist; no information about the piano (a Hamburg Steinway?); no indication of which violin is used for the recording or for each work if not the same one throughout; and no life dates for the composers printed with the track listings. While the piano may be somewhat an appendage in the Tartini, and even in the Wieniawski works, it is much more an equal partner in the Franck, who was, after all, a keyboard artist.  It is nice to train the spotlight intently and lovingly on the brilliant young star, who certainly deserves it, but it is not so nice to neglect the conventional niceties concerning the artistic partner and to be so sloppy with the documentation. Credit needs to be given when and where it is due!

This is a nice CD, both for the program and the performances. It is scandalous, however, that recognition was not better given to Polera for her contribution to its excellence than the mere presence of her name on the track listings page. This strikes me as highly inappropriate.


Note: Chen performs at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on February 27. For details, see our  calendar.