The bar for classical musicians is set ever higher in our time; not only are musical mastery, technical brilliance and a winning onstage persona absolute prerequisites, but image and online presence become ever more important too. Not that any of this would worry Ray Chen in the slightest; featured in Vogue, supported by Armani and with over one million followers on SoundCloud, Chen has all the hallmarks of a classical pop star. As tonight’s performance proved, his brilliance isn’t merely superficial. Joined by French pianist, Julien Quentin, we were treated to a concert full of fire, passion and great sensitivity.

Ray Chen © Julian Hargreaves
Ray Chen
© Julian Hargreaves

The choice of pianist is quite revealing especially when there is as dominant a persona as Chen’s. As extroverted as Quentin was introverted, the dynamic between the two proved to be richly rewarding in this largely Russian, modern programme. In the first half, the simplicity of Pärt’s Fratres contrasted with the brutality lurking in much of Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata no. 1 while there was an intelligent connection between the Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky works of the second half. Stravinsky’s Divertimento for Violin and Piano commemorate the work of Tchaikovsky with several references of the latter’s music to be heard.

From the opening attack of the Pärt’s Fratres, Chen came across as a violinist of little fear. The dazzling, not to mention daunting arpeggiated figures which open this work were attacked with incredible vim and vigour and if there were the odd tuning issue in this notoriously difficult section, it was swept away in the fearlessness and brilliance of the virtuosity which had us enthralled. The slow chords on the piano which followed gave both violinist and audience a chance to breathe. Quentin, impassive and immovable beside the highly expressive Chen, captured the Zen-like peace which pervades this work. Here, Chen’s dramatic interpretation and the passionate sound elicited from the G string, throbbing with vibrato, seemed somewhat at odds with the simplicity and transparency so inherent in this work. Nonetheless, the harmonics towards the end were wonderfully atmospheric evoking a feeling of eeriness.

Such dramatic, not to say fiery displays were much more suited to Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata. Here the searing vibrato on the lower strings suited the sombre opening of the Andante. I was much impressed at how carefully Quentin listened to his partner, shaping his melody with great care, as Chen slid up and down the muted scale passages. As might be expected, Chen threw himself into the second movement with all the abandonment of a Rock star, nodding his head and violin to the hammering of the bitonal octaves, the hair of his bow snapping wildly as he whipped up the excitement, revelling in the malicious joy of the discordant. Quentin, while proving an able partner in this frenetic dialogue, lacked some of the barbaric quality for which this elemental music cries out. There was a whiff of the enchanted in Chen’s muted playing of the third movement and here Quentin’s great delicacy in shading was most impressive. The rhythmic shifts in metre of the final movement were expertly dealt with by Chen whose evident enjoyment of the rhythmic challenges lessened somewhat the portrayal of the more sinister side of the music. The return of the first movement theme was played with icy beauty by both before a funereal knell brought the sonata to its enigmatic close.

The second half brought with it the lush romanticism of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d’un lieu cher and something Chen obviously identifies very much with. Discarded as the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, the first piece, Méditation, contains all the musical vocabulary of this concerto. From the incandescent vibrato on the G string to the soaring high notes on the E string, Chen poured his heart into this work. Such soulful playing was replaced by the Sturm und Drang of the C minor Scherzo with its offbeat accents for the violin and the flighty scale passages on the piano. The Mélodie which concludes this work was opulent and overtly romantic. I felt the restraint and simplicity with which Quentin played his part was more becoming to the sense of nostalgia that imbues this piece than the excess of emotion from Chen which failed to convince.

What did convince wonderfully though was Stravinsky’s Divertimento, whether it was the brusque dialogue between violin and piano in the Sinfonia or the humour of the charming Danses suisses or the sparkling ricochets of the Scherzo. The longing and ardour inherent within the final Pas de deux had Chen pouring every ounce of emotion into his glorious Stradivarius before the syncopated dialogue between piano and violin ratcheted up the excitement for a truly stunning ending. A thoroughly merited standing ovation and two generous encores concluded a truly memorable concert.  

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