He came, he saw, he exuded charisma and he conquered.

City Recital Hall, Sydney
November 11, 2014

If there were but a single word permitted to describe Ray Chen, on the evidence of this final Musica Viva concert of the year it would have to be “sunny”. That isn’t to say that there is anything slight about the Taiwan-born, Australian-educated violin virtuoso. He confessed that his idol is David Oistrakh and there is something about the Russian violinist’s style and dash that has clearly rubbed off. But this program was a doom and gloom free affair and all the better for it, say I.

Chen picked a pair of bright and effusive works for the first half of his recital – the brilliant Mozart A Major, Sonata No 22 and the diamantine Prokofiev Second Sonata in the well-matched key of D Major. The Mozart was perfectly pitched to show off his immediately obvious charm with its bravura opening Allegro di molto. The impeccably dressed violinist clearly relished this movement with its catchy melodies and its cheeky little come-round-again chorus.

The lengthy ‘Theme and Variations’ second movement gave Australian pianist Timothy Young a fair suck of the sauce bottle as well (indeed, he was excellent throughout), though with his elegance, poise and expressive physicality Chen held the visual foreground. Here is a violinist who is the very exemplar of the phrase “the face is index to the mind”, his flickering mouth and eyes revealing each and every poetic thought. He’s even an engaging talker between works!

Having recently heard Nicola Benedetti (surprisingly not a talker) at the Utzon Room play Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata, the contrast between that mysterious, brooding work and its airy successor couldn’t be more apparent. This former flute sonata fitted Chen like a glove. With his graceful style he revelled in the lyrical opportunities while his formidable technique made short work of the more frenetic moments.

The bow-shredding second movement was dispatched with bravado, but showmanship never prevented him seizing the romantic intervals either. And yes, the scherzo does sound better on the violin (sorry flautists). A relaxed and quite lovely reading of the Andante third movement preceded the plunge into the flamboyance of the finale, Chen relishing the sheer joie de vivre of Prokofiev’s invention. This was jubilant music making and drew well-deserved cheers at interval.

With a Sarasate showstopper lined up as a finale, Bach’s Third Partita in E Major (I told you it was a sunny affair) was the violinist’s best chance to show his more profound side. There was certainly a thoughtfulness to Chen’s approach as well as a fine sense of the architectural niceties of Bach’s extensive suite. Nevertheless, it was the dance elements that came out most clearly in this interpretation.

The dazzling opening Toccata was followed by the slow, stately three-four of the Loure, which saw Chen almost waltzing on the spot. The famous Gavotte got a Puckish reading, its recurring chorus subtly varied each time and mirrored by beams of delight on the violinist’s face. The Minuets and the Bourée were gossamer fine, the finale full and firm.

And so to the Sarasate, or as Chen described it, a triple helping of musical dessert. Two moderately fiendish Spanish dances veered between the salon and the concert platform, drawing some of the meatiest tone of the evening along with some exceptional fireworks (my godfathers, those fingers moved like lightning!) The famous Zigeunerweisen was the final hurdle and Chen vaulted it in absolute style, capturing every nuance in its eight-minute span while holding his audience utterly spellbound throughout. And after all that he managed two encores!

This was a remarkable concert by any standard. A musician of tremendous charisma allied to a cast iron technique and tremendous powers of communication. The Musica Viva crowd don’t yield those standing ovations easily – ‘nuff said – and he thanked us!

Ray Chen is on national tour with Musica Viva until November 23.

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