As part of its performing arts series this season the Cleveland Museum of Art has a focus on “Masters of the Violin”, with as diverse artists as Mark O’Connor, Natalie MacMaster, Jordi Savall, Gil Shaham and Roby Lakatos. When Taiwan-born, Australian-raised violinist Ray Chen and pianist Julio Elizalde performed at the museum on 12 February, they brought youthful excitement and technical facility to a well-filled and enthusiastic audience in the museum’s Gartner Auditorium. Ray Chen has cultivated an extensive online social media presence, making the substantial number of young people in the audience unsurprising. His stylish attire and use of technology – Chen and Elizalde both performed from Apple iPads equipped with foot pedals to turn pages – make him the model of the up-to-date young virtuoso. It is a pleasure that Chen’s musicianship is equal to his image.

Ray Chen © Uwe Arens
Ray Chen
© Uwe Arens

Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major, K305, composed in 1778, opened the program. The sonata is in two movements; Allegro molto and Andante grazioso, a theme and set of six variations. Chen and Elizalde gave a performance that might be described as “sensible modern.” It was not in the mode of historically informed performance practice, nor was it overly Romantic. Rather, it was straightforward, nicely inflected, with flexible phrasing and alert dynamics. The first movement is almost an extended prelude to the second movement variations, which form the body of the work. There was a nice play from violin to piano in the variations, taking turns to play the lead, including a variation that was primarily a piano solo.

 After the opening sonata, Ray Chen made brief remarks. He noted that this concert was the first time he had performed Beethoven’s 'Kreutzer' sonata, which followed in the second half of the concert, in the United States. It is a work of such magnitude that Chen did not feel that anything could follow it, but yet he wanted to play some music by the great Spanish virtuoso and composer Pablo de Sarasate. So Chen described the program as “having dessert before the main course”. Indeed, the three well-known Sarasate pieces were delightful bon-bons that pressed the violinist’s technique to the maximum. The Habanera, Op. 21, no. 2, and Playera, Op. 23, no. 1, were both infused folk-like atmosphere, with snapping, sexy rhythms. The pieces are not complex structurally; they exist to show off the soloist. Julio Elizalde didn’t have much to do with his mostly 'oom-pah-pah' accompaniments, but he was a sensitive and able accompanist. The gypsy music in Zigeunerweisen, Op. 20, no. 1, began with an introduction, then a mournful slow section introducing violin scales, arpeggios, trills and other figurations of the utmost virtuosity. Then, abruptly, the music turns to a brilliant finale, calculated to whip the audience into frenzy, which this performance did.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano no. 9, Op. 47, known as the  'Kreutzer'  Sonata, immortalized violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, whom Beethoven barely knew, dedicated to him in a fit of petulance after the original performer, George Bridgetower, insulted a woman to whom Beethoven was attracted. The work was premiered in 1803 at a concert that began at 8:00 a.m., with Bridgetower sight-reading the solo part, partly from Beethoven’s own scribbled sketches. The sonata is of extraordinary length (about 40 minutes) and emotional depth, placing technical and musical demands on the performers, both violinist and pianist.

Although often listed as being in A major, the bulk of the work is in A minor, with only the opening of the first movement in A major, and then not returning to that key until the third movement. After a stormy first movement, the second movement is a set of variations in F major (with excursions to F minor at times). An abrupt piano chord, introduces the third movement, a lively tarantella, a rondo in 6/8 meter. The performance heard here by Chen and Elizalde was musically and technically very fine and exciting. Yet I was left with the feeling that after more age and experience – and many more performances of the sonata – Chen’s interpretation will deepen and mature. I will look forward to hearing him play it again in a decade.

 The performers offered another Sarasate showpiece as a welcome encore, his familiar Introduction and Tarantella.