Fort Worth — Any pianist who would play Beethoven’s over-worked “Moonlight” sonata before the sophisticated, piano-savvy core audience in Fort Worth is either a fool or a genius.
The 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition third-place Crystal award winner Sean Chen proved himself to belong to the latter category Thursday night in a Cliburn concert at the Kimbell Art Museum’s Renzo Piano Pavilion. Along with an appealingly unassuming Asian-American-boy-next-door presence, Chen owns an impressive technique, a remarkable command of piano sonority, and an unusual gift for building musical impetus.
Chen opened by tossing a repertoire curve ball in the form of late romantic composer-pianist Leopold Godowsky’s richly virtuosic transcription of J.S. Bach’s lean, basically monophonic Cello Suite No. 1 in C. Musical purists of the mid-20th century tended to look down on transcriptions of this sort as cheap meddling; in our own more (thank God) eclectic era, audiences and musicians accept these transcriptions for what they are: meaningful commentary by one great musician on a masterpiece by another.
In its transformation by Godowsky, the Suite becomes essentially a romantic work, and Chen managed wonderfully to display the profundity supplied by Bach as well as the sheen of virtuosity and romanticism overlaid by Godowsky.
Chen also discovered and created a sense of drama and inevitability across the six separate movements of the Suite, whether lingering in the serenity of the Sarabande, proclaiming the almost opulent grandeur of the Courante, or delighting in the lighthearted joy of the Bourée.
He also demonstrated an arresting command and imaginative use of the pedal, knowing just when to build rich sonorities, and just when to rein in to lean clarity of tone.
Beethoven’s Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2, “Moonlight,” a piece that has been a warhorse for well over a century and a half, also provided a surprising moment of revelation, as Chen progressed from a songlike plaint of the famous first movement through an intriguingly understated and gentle second movement to the assertive lightning bolts of the finale.
After intermission, Chen pulled up one of the thornier masterpieces of American modernism, Copland’s boldly dissonant Piano Variations of 1930. The ever-popular Americanisms Copland would produce in his nationalist scores of the ensuing decade—such as Rodeo and Appalachian Spring—are hinted, but just barely, in the broad resonance of the piece, which Chen advocated handsomely. (This listener would have preferred to enjoy the work’s strident angularity without the verbal commentary beforehand, though there seems to be a general attitude that this particular work has to be “sold” to an audience.)
The quintessential Gallic elegance of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin provided a perfect contrast to the steely muscularity of the Copland; once again, in this 20th century tribute to the French baroque, Chen demonstrated a complete and engaging mastery of piano textures and musical structure.
Chen had obviously constructed in the program a noble arch with baroque and neo-baroque suites at the beginning and end of the concert; as the final moments of the performance approached, it became clear that he had also insightfully built a thrilling momentum that would bring an enthralled audience cheering to its feet. A second Godowsky transcription, Schubert’s song Die Forelle (“The Trout”) provided a fleet and fluid encore to a performance that clearly announced Chen as a potential pianistic superstar with a very significant career ahead.