Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


WGBH Radio WGBH Radio

La Valse / Sean Chen

Scriabin / Ravel / Chen Release Date: 03/25/2014
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30029
Composer:  Alexander Scriabin ,  Maurice Ravel Performer:  Sean Chen Number of Discs: 1
Recorded in: Stereo

"Chen's playing is brilliant, subtle, and spontaneous, and his mastery of the piano's tone colors makes the music highly effective, especially for those who want to hear the audible connections between Ravel and Scriabin." -- All Music Guide

The years between 1900 and 1914, as historian Philipp Blom notes, were a “period of extraordinary creativity in the arts and sciences, of enormous change in society and in the very image people had of themselves.” The works on this album, composed in that era, are emblematic of that creative ferment, poised between the ‘good old days’ and the rapid onslaught of modernity.

Pianist Sean Chen has been hailed as a rising star with a “million-volt smile” and a
Read more “formidable set of fingers” (Dallas Morning News). In 2013 he won the American Pianists Association’s DeHaan Classical Fellowship, one of the most lucrative and significant prizes available to an American pianist.

Album Credits:
September 6 - 19, 2013 at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce Virginia.
Producer: Dan Merceruio
Engineer: Daniel Shores

Executive Producers: Eric Feidner, Jon Feidner
Art Direction: Oberlander Group
Photo of Sean Chen: Chris Lee
Piano Technician: John Veitch
Piano: Steinway Model D #590904 (New York)

Reviews: 3813570.az_SCRIABIN_Valse_38_Piano.html

SCRIABIN Valse in A flat, op. 38. Piano Sonatas Nos. 4 and 5. RAVEL Menuet antique. Valses nobles et sentimentales. Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn. Prélude (1913). RAVEL (arr. Chen) La valse Sean Chen (pn) STEINWAY & SONS 300029 (67:57)

It’s a nice idea to juxtapose music by Ravel and Scriabin in this disc entitled La Valse (although it is a bit of a stretch to fit Scriabin’s Fourth and Fifth Piano Sonatas into this descriptor), two composers whose heady chromaticisms readily complement each other, while each composer comes from different aesthetic standpoints. Here is a program of works which, except for Ravel’s La valse , were composed between 1895 and the beginning of the First World War. Florida-born Pianist Sean Chen was a prizewinner at the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; he trained at Juilliard and Yale. This present disc was recorded as part of Chen’s deal as winner of the American Pianist Association’s DeHaan Classical Fellowship.

Scriabin’s La valse of 1903 is given a delicious performance. Once the excellence of the piano recording has sunk in, it is Chen’s sensitivity that impresses. The contrast with Ravel’s Menuet antique is clear in Chen’s hands; here, artifice is highlighted, a sense of gentilité absent from Scriabin’s expressive vocabulary.

The two-movement Fourth Sonata of Scriabin is one of his most impressive utterances. Chen is supremely sensitive in the heady yet delicate Andante, while his Prestissimo volando is not only volatile but promises a volcanic eruption. One gets the impression that had this performance been live, the promise would have been delivered; as it is, the close does not quite reach the ecstatic. As the pull of the theosophy of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky took Scriabin over (theosophy, as a belief system, still exists today), Scriabin’s language became ever more elusive, an embodiment of the mystical in sound. The Fifth Sonata in this sense acts as an extension of the Fourth. Chen is technically commanding here, and again there is much to commend. There is also the impression, though, that Chen is simultaneously trying to isolate the Chopin influence that had so dominated Scriabin’s earlier work. The effect is rather as if an earthbound, retrospective force is pulling away from the headlong ecstasy.

In fact, there is a general impression that Chen seems more comfortable with Ravel than with Scriabin. His Valses nobles et sentimentales is beautifully perfumed, the atmosphere magnificently sustained; however, the Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn perhaps shows a minor tendency towards clumsiness. Chen’s own arrangement of La valse is “drawn from Ravel’s different scores,” to quote the booklet note.

Comparisons for Ravel are legion, but of modern performances the major rival is Steven Osborne on Hyperion, who remains prime choice for his supreme attunement to Ravel’s expressive nature. Chen cannot compare with Richter in Scriabin (the Fifth Sonata). But as a stand-alone recital, this disc has much to recommend it.

FANFARE: Colin Clarke


"Los Angeles native Sean Chen has the rare ability to combine poetic musical sensibilities and dazzling technical prowess. On La Valse, his debut album for Steinway & Sons, Mr. Chen delves into Ravel and Scriabin’s solo piano works... Mr. Chen’s charisma, remarkable musical depth and talent for coaxing subtle and surprising colors and textures from each work on the recording are only a few reasons to listen to La Valse more than once. The album itself is a fascinating blend of the two composers’ solo piano works for the waltz genre... Chen artfully develops Scriabin’s harmonic language that is marked by chromaticism and unconventional harmonies. He likens them to early Russian jazz, i.e. the use of 7th and 9th chords and progressive harmonies that are now characteristic in the jazz sounds of today. Mr. Chen plays the rhythmically complex works caressingly -- as if taking the listener on an intimate journey. Maurice Ravel’s La Valse was published as a Poeme choregraphique for orchestra but Ravel also composed versions for solo piano and for two pianos. The 13: 21 minute version on this album is Mr. Chen’s brilliant arrangement that is drawn from Ravel’s different scores. Also included is Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales - a suite of 8 miniature waltzes. Ravel did not differentiate the noble waltzes from the sentimental ones and it is up to the listener to discern which is which. Chen plays the entire suite with impeccable skills."

-- Paula Edelstein, LA Music Examiner

The pianist Sean Chen, a 2013 laureate of the American Pianists Association's annual competition, focuses his attention on music (most of it written in the early 20th century) by two Impressionist composers. He offers alluring, colorfully shaded renditions of works including Scriabin's Piano Sonata No. 4, which Mr. Chen likens to "early Russian jazz"; Ravel's "Valses Nobles et Sentimentales"; and Mr. Chen's own arrangement of Ravel's turbulent "La Valse."

-- New York Times

Sean Chen is a young American pianist with a promising career ahead of him. The winner of several recent competitions, including third place at last year’s Van Cliburn competition, Chen has been making waves wherever he has played.
The 25-year-old has just released his first album, and it’s spectacular. Focusing on some of the earlier works of Scriabin and Ravel, Chen displays his versatility, technical mastery, musicality and interpretative skills to the fullest. It’s an auspicious recorded debut and one can only hope there will be many more CDs from this talented young artist.
There are three works by Scriabin in this album: the Valse in A flat major, op. 38; and the Fourth and Fifth Piano Sonatas. It’s an absolute delight hearing him move from the lush romanticism of the Valse and Fourth Sonata to the more expansive and vigorous harmonic vocabulary of the Fifth. His playing is assertive and he shows that he has a solid grasp of the music.
As good as the Scriabin selections are, the real payoff is the Ravel. Chen offers a nice sampling of the composer’s works, including the Menuet antique, Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn and the brief Prélude.
The real showstoppers, though, are the Valses nobles et sentimentales and Chen’s own arrangement of La valse. In each of these pieces, Chen captures the sweeping lines and pungent harmonies with his sensitive and perceptive playing. His account of the Valse nobles et sentimentales is particularly noteworthy for his meticulously crafted phrasings and clean lyricism. This is one of the best performances of this piece on CD.
And La valse is memorable for Chen’s virtuosic playing which he deftly modulates with finely molded expressiveness.
This album makes a perfect addition to one’s CD collection.

-- Edward Reichel, Reichel Recommends

Pianist Sean Chen (b. 1988) performed several items in this recital (rec. 16-18 September 2013) in a concert this reviewer attended, utilizing much the same rubric that combines the music of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) with that of the Russian mystic Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915). Chen opens with Scriabin’s popular Valse in A-flat Major (1903), a work stylishly sensual and sophisticated. The music alternately purrs and rages with several dimensions of virtuosity and silken grace. The piece ends in liquid textures, exotic and flamboyant at once.

Ravel’s individual penchant for ancient musical forms engendered his 1895 Menuet antique, his earliest published work. Irregular phrases and passing dissonances merge with a distinctly classical sense of formal structure, in which the Trio section gently invokes a more conservative ethos. Chen affords the piece a courtly grace, facile in mood and suavely paced. The brittle ringing chords provide an ironic, percussive tonic to the otherwise lulling effect of the dance.

The Sonata No. 4 in F-sharp Major of Scriabin (1903) takes as its ‘program’ a poem that describes a flight to a distant star. Scriabin envisions himself a musical Dedaelus who traverses cosmic and interior spaces in quest of divine light and liberation. Taking the Wagner of Tristan as its basis, it builds up chords in suspension in the first movement, Andante, with its own water effects unresolved and often texturally spare. Suddenly, the music accelerates, Prestissimo volando, taking its cue from Schumann’s demand in his own First Sonata that the performer play “ever faster. . . as fast as possible, on the verge of the possible. . .to the speed of light.” The dominant chords stretch wider for Chen to control and tame, ultimately to release a plethora of joyous colors, Chen’s having won the “right to optimism,” in the composer’s words.

For the 1907 Scriabin Sonata No. 5 (1907) Chen becomes more audacious, more exotic and erotic. Scriabin calls to life “mysterious forces drowned in the obscure depths of the creative spirit.” The music clearly has a kinship with the Poem of Ecstasy, effusive with modal sonorities built on fourths and quickly alternating slow and rapid episodes. The vibrant Presto section suddenly collapses into a haunted nocturne to be played “caressingly.” The chromatic line becomes increasingly thicker, a kind of terra-forming of the liberated spirit in which the denser the chord, the richer its possibilities. Scriabin invokes a cyclic principle as well, bringing back the slow opening bars but in diminution, so speeded up they too gain aerial properties. The single notes as well as the chords vibrate, as though Chen’s Steinway D were one elastic string on which some cosmic Paganini strummed and sang at will. Tonality has ceded its place to light and arpeggiated pulsations, as if the paintings of late Turner had assumed a musical life in sympathy with Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” The effect has been quite electric and jarring, as Chen likely intends. The piece, in the midst of cascades and frenzy, suddenly stops, frozen, as if it had quite leapt headlong and ecstatically into the Abyss.

The 1911 Valses nobles et sentimentales of Ravel proceed from Chen with a combination of elegance and percussive bite, the spirit of French irony here coupled to Schubert’s Viennese grace. The passing curlicues of rhythm in the Assez lent lend the Valse a jazzy flavor that beguiles. Often, Ravel’s modal harmonies nod their allegiance to the style of Faure, his teacher. Chen’s Modere enjoys the fluent clarity of the music-box, touched a bit by his own Ma Mere l’Oye figures. The Presque lent from Chen gives credence to Debussy’s remark that the dances were the product of “the subtlest ear that ever existed.” The Assez vif in lively tones reminds us of Schumann and his ironic “Pause” just before his grand finale in Carnaval. Moins vif relishes the interior harmonies of the piano juxtaposed against cascades and vibrant, spread chords. The Epilogue: Lent confirms Ravel’s desire to remain “complex but not complicated.” This last waltz sums of the dream-vision of the prior entries in brief, impressionistic fragments and rhythmic impulses, eventually becoming “en se pendant,” losing itself in the contemplation of its own beauty.

Chen plays two suggestive miniatures by Ravel – the Menuet on the Name of Haydn and an elusively laconic Prelude (1913) – as preambles to his raison d’etre for this disc, his own arrangement of the explosive La Valse (1920) that reminisces upon and then demolishes the great dance of the Nineteenth Century. Chen exploits the piece’s suave rhythmic pulsations that impel and arrest our imagination at once. The “symphonic” effects of the keyboard that emerge result from the canny shifting of registers, cross-rhythms, and textural thickness. The music gains a sense of the grotesque as it proceeds, not far from the Saint-Saens Danse macabre, especially as the left hand undermines the slick Viennese surface.

That Chen has performed music near and dear to his iconoclastic musical heart exudes through every moment of this impressive disc, a display of a superior digital talent guided by a penetrating artistic intellect.

-- Audiophile Audition
Read less