To say Ray Chen has done well in recent years would be an understatement. As the winner of an impressive number of international violin competitions, Sony Classical very sensibly snapped him up, and he’s since released a number of excellent albums with them, as well as more recently with Deutsche Grammophon and Decca. Not bad for a local Brissie boy! This Queensland Symphony Orchestra concert served as a “welcome back” to Chen, and the audience certainly agreed – the applause kicked in as soon as Chen hit the stage in the second half.

Ray ChenRay Chen. Photo © Sophie Zhai

The first half of the concert began Chen-less with Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia No 10 in B Minor, although I’m more used to seeing it under the more specific name of String Symphony. The set of twelve string symphonies were all written by a barely-teenage Mendelssohn, but, like Mozart’s early music, sound like the work of a much more experienced composer. This is a slight work, but nonetheless was a decent appetiser before the heftier fare to follow. Erin Helyard’s conducting was clean and confident.

The concert continued with Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 4 in D minor, BWV1069 and Handel’s Double Orchestral Concerto No 2, HWV 333. Rather unusually, QSO were in historically-informed mode here with the addition of a harpsichord and Simon Martyn-Ellis on theorbo and baroque guitar. As QSO bassist Paul O’Brien mentioned in the pre-concert introduction, this isn’t something that QSO normally does! So, I have to wonder – whose idea was it to use a theorbo for continuo in both the Bach Orchestral Suite and the following Handel work? Theoretically it was amplified, but at a rough guess I’d say that I heard probably 30 seconds of music from it. For the most part, Martyn-Ellis was totally inaudible. This certainly isn’t an issue with Martyn-Ellis’ playing (what I could actually hear was sensitively played), but an issue with the concert planning. The effect was almost of no continuo at all and a waste of Martyn-Ellis’ talents, except when Helyard jumped in on harpsichord for a few bars at a time in several movements. The orchestral performances were indeed very good, especially given that this type of playing isn’t QSO’s speciality, but I think much more care needs to go into the balance of sound next time.

After the interval, Ray Chen appeared to instant applause from the audience. Without further ado, he launched into Bach’s famous Chaconne from the D Minor Partita. This is quite rightly one of the Everests of the violin world, although I suspect that its technical difficulties (while challenging!) are out-weighed by the hefty emotional demands of the piece. Chen’s performance here was stunning, with spot-on intonation, neatly conveying the massive arc of the piece to the eager audience.

The big ticket item for this concert was more Mendelssohn in the form of his famous E Minor Violin Concerto, Op. 64. This is familiar territory for Chen, and he even recorded it with the Swedish Radio Symphony back in 2012. His lush style certainly works here (perhaps better than the Bach?), although I wish he’d hold off on the vibrato just a bit – the opening is only marked piano, so shouldn’t it be a little more restrained? The last movement was an impressive feat of virtuosity on Chen’s behalf, even resulting in QSO getting unstuck on some of the quicker bits.

The first encore was the Presto from Vivaldi’s Summer. This was played blazingly fast and with supreme ease by Chen, and QSO certainly seemed more comfortable here than in the Handel and Bach of the first half. Oddly, Martyn-Ellis’ guitar (unamplified, this time) was far more audible here.

The second and final encore was Chen’s own arrangement of Waltzing Matilda for solo violin. His recent CD The Golden Age also includes a separate arrangement of it, so I think it’s safe to say that the tune is becoming one of Chen’s calling-cards. This was a real crowd-pleaser, and certainly left the audience in a good mood.

A fine evening, although I felt like I was on a roller-coaster for most of the second half – I’d love to see Chen play a more relaxed recital without the constant fireworks. That being said, when the flamboyance of the playing is this good, well, why not?