Monday, November 20, 2017

Sean Chen explores some musical byways in solo recital for APA at Indiana Landmarks Center

An out-of-the-way first half set the stage for more familiar repertoire by Maurice Ravel in the second half of Sean
Sean Chen brings the little-known to light.
Chen's recital Sunday afternoon at Indiana Landmarks Center.

The popular 2013 winner of the American Pianists Association's classical competition began with little-known, substantial works by two unconventional, early 20th-century composers: Nikolai Medtner of Russia and Federico Mompou of Spain.

Catalonia has been much in the news lately with an independence movement that has roiled Spanish politics. Mompou was a Catalan who seemed independent of everyone, countrymen or not. An entry in the 1954 edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians makes him seem like a mystical hermit out of J.R.R. Tolkien. 

There may not be any account of a composer in that venerable reference set more bizarre, in which Mompou's music unleashes a host of literary references from the writer, including Robert Browning, Sir Thomas Browne, Thornton Wilder, and Enoch Soames. The last-named author, an imaginary poet created by Max Beerbohm, is quoted favorably to shed light on Mompou as if Soames really existed. And I'm still trying to wrap my head around the meaning of this citation: "A French critic once said that some of [Mompou's] music could be dictated in words without making use of any conventional music-writing method." That may be a kind of reverse Zen koan. Or maybe Method acting applied to musical composition.

This fragrant essay, which carries a whiff of parody about it, applies mostly to Mompou's miniatures. Chen offered an extended work, Variations on a Theme of Chopin, to open the recital. Harder to follow than many sets of variations rooted in 19th-century style, the variations depart capriciously from the theme, the simple, forthright Prelude in A major, op. 28, no. 7. Everything converges in a wild blend of majesty and headlong energy in the 12th variation, a "galope" followed by an epilogue. There a reverant seal is placed upon the theme, which will never be the same for me after this performance.

The Classical Fellowship winner of four years ago then turned his focus to the individualistic but less eccentric Medtner. Chen typically displays the power and accuracy of his contemporaries, but there's a special quality — a personal flair — that lifts his performances above today's steely-fingered norm. That came out in Medtner's Sonata-Ballade, op. 27. The potential clash of song and structure in the first movement was finessed in a well-ordered performance with thoughtful layering of the material. The second movement is all tension and anticipation, leading to a stormy fugue in the finale. Chen's hypnotizing interpretation of the piece made it seem well worth encountering more often.

The picturesqueness of Ravel's "Miroirs" is classically conceived, despite the highly colored treatment of such subjects as "a boat on the ocean," "moths," and "sad birds." By that I mean that the titles do not invite us to find programmatic content in every measure. Mompou might inspire literary fantasies, but Ravel in this set of charmers doesn't invite us to conjure up any more images than those suggested by the five titles. 

The individual pieces essentially show what the piano can do as put through a Ravel filter, with the subjects in the titles suggestive, but not explicitly detailed.  Changes of meter, precise pedaling indications, and some drawn-out dynamic shifts over rapid figuration carry the message in other than visual terms.

For example, after Chen caught the rhythmic sparkle and dash of "Alborada del gracioso," the most intensely choreographic piece in "Miroirs," the attention to resonance and the feeling of music coming through at various distances put the listener in a vastly different world for "La vallee des cloches," the final piece. 

Chen turned to the purely abstract Ravel to end the program: the Toccata from "Le Tombeau de Couperin." Ravel's chaste manner of using accents and the subtle variations in dynamics were scrupulously represented in Chen's fleet performance, mounting inevitably to the triple forte final measures. Justifiably called back for an encore, the recitalist offered an effective contrast — his introspective adaptation of the "Adagio ma non tanto" movement of Bach's third violin-keyboard sonata.