Sa Chen plays 20 Chopin Mazurkas & Liszt’s Piano Sonata at Milton Court

in C-sharp minor, Opp.6/2, 30/4 & 63/3
in A-flat, Opp.59/2 & 24/3
in B, Op.56/1
in C, Op.56/2
in C minor, Op.56/3
in G minor, Op.24/1
in C, Opp.6/5 & 24/2
in F minor, Op.7/3
in A minor, Opp.7/2 & 59/1
in E, Op.6/3
in B minor, Opp.30/2 & 33/4
in E minor, Op.41/1
in B, Opp.41/2 & 63/1
Piano Sonata in B minor

Sa Chen (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 17 September, 2015
Venue: Milton Court Concert Hall, London

Sa ChenPhotograph: Hong WeiThe Chinese pianist Sa Chen has progressed from early prize-winning prowess to a robust professional career. The mainstay of her repertoire is Chopin, and this thoroughly schooled musician comes equipped with a prodigious technique and a sympathetic style.

For all her undoubted accomplishment, though, I thought that to devote the first half of her Guildhall School alumnus recital to an hour’s-worth of Mazurkas was a bit of an own goal. Obviously she knows their idiom well and has a keen appreciation of these pieces’ inimitable and non-virtuosic self-absorption. Furthermore, she didn’t spotlight Chopin’s formal, harmonic and rhythmic experiments so that even the more extrovert ones kept their strange elusiveness, helped immeasurably by the control of her mezzo-forte and quieter tone, which was veiled and very beautiful.

In fact, it was the louder passages that alerted me to the sameness of her engagement. As her choice (which looked as though it had been selected by key as much as by mood) progressed, her finely judged rubato sounded more calculated and became detached from the music’s dance spontaneity. If she had played fewer, I’m sure their unique introspection and folk/salon balance would have spoken unequivocally – and any pianist would have their work cut out sustaining variety in this sort of total immersion.

The Mazurkas also didn’t give much of a clue as to her towering performance of Liszt’s B minor Sonata. Apart from her rock-solid virtuosity, there was a powerful imagination at work, allied to a mercurial understanding of Liszt’s inspired yoking together of fantasy and structure. Her measured articulation of the opening immediately signalled the stature of what was to come, and the appearances of the majestic chorale anchored the work’s huge, romantic canvas and defined its emotional trajectory. Just as memorable was her playing in the central slow section, ruminative, transparent, distracted and completely involving. I had a bit of a problem with the hardness of her fortissimos and some generous pedalling, but in terms of pace, shape and large-scale poetry this was a distinguished performance. And who could blame her for excusing herself from giving an encore?

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