Chopin: The 2 Piano Concertos

Sa Chen; Gulbenkian Orchestra/Foster (Pentatone SACD PTC 5186 341)

25 October 2008 3.5 stars

Chopin ConcertosPentatone has an admirable record in signing some of the best young artists around, as the success of their relationship with Julia Fischer proves. Chinese pianist Sa Chen was a prize winner at the 2005 Van Cliburn competition and first captured the attention of the British public when she played in the final of the Leeds competition, over a decade ago, aged just sixteen. This recording of the two Chopin piano concertos with the Lisbon-based Gulbenkian Orchestra under Lawrence Foster shows her, as one would expect, to be an outstandingly gifted pianist.

The liner note tells us that Chopin's concertos have survived in the repertoire simply as brilliant examples of the 'virtuoso concerto' genre, 'in which nothing is allowed to divert the listener from the performance of the soloist.' We are told to expect over 'an hour of glistening jewels pouring forth from the piano lain upon the luxurious, silken blanket of the orchestral background.' It's not a terribly helpful description – these concertos, although undoubtedly the works of a Chopin some way short of full compositional maturity, are much more than this – but it does reflect a little of Chen's approach.

In setting the scene, Foster too doesn't seem to see the orchestra's role as much more than that, as prescribed in the notes, 'of increasing […] the eagerness of the audience for the longed-for entrance of the soloist.' The opening tutti of the first concerto is given a run-of-the-mill performance that does indeed make one more than usually impatient for the soloist's arrival. And that arrival doesn't disappoint: this is Chopin to sparkle with impeccable articulation and skip along effortlessly in the passagework; technically it is hugely impressive playing. These are also performances that display none of the excesses that can mar the playing of Chen's superstar compatriot, Lang Lang. 

For those, however, who like their Chopin a bit more dramatic, Chen might be a little disappointing. Particularly in the development sections of the concertos' first movements, the music needs more of a powerful forward thrust. In Chen's performances, the development section of the F minor concerto sounds discursive and the climax in the E minor work is underwhelming. I missed the elemental power that Argerich, for example, brings to these passages or, for that matter, the young Kissin. Similarly, the semi-quaver idea that starts about five and a half minutes into the E minor's first movement sounds a little tentative and slow, and the writing that leads to the exposition's close, although articulated with impressive clarity, strikes me as too delicately polite. The slow movements are distinguished by some beautiful phrasing and dreamy sonorities but there's little hint of any underlying darkness, and the rhetorical outbursts at the centre of the F minor's Larghetto are underwhelming.

What we do have here, though, is a pianist whose technique is such that every note registers cleanly, captured in engineering that reproduces with precision an unusually beautiful piano tone. Any pianist worth his or her salt has recorded these works but I don't think I've heard any achieve such a feeling of skipping lightness in the E minor's first movement coda or in the opening of the Finale. This is followed by incredible dexterity in the triplets around 2'20 (where as elsewhere the bassoon's line is also unusually clear) and in the left hand just after four minutes. There's the same brilliant command of passagework in the F minor's Finale and although Chen's way in the slow movements is more finely thought-out than improvisatory – and she has strangely insistent way with the spread chords in the first concerto's Larghetto, for example – her phrases are often delivered with disarming, almost Mozartian, simplicity.   

Although the orchestral introductions to the two first movements are a touch routine, Foster and the Gulbenkian Orchestra provide more than adequate support, with some distinguished solo contributions – from horn and bassoon in particular. This is not necessarily a release to dislodge the front-runners in an extremely crowded field, but few have made these works sparkle quite as brilliantly as Chen.

By Hugo Shirley