The title Virtuoso on a violin CD might lead one to expect gypsy airs and other encore pieces, but the Taiwan-born, Australia-raised, Curtis Institute-trained Ray Chen offers some rather substantial music. Besides the familiar "Devil's Trill" Sonata and two lesser-known display pieces by Wieniawski, we get Bach's Chaconne for Solo Violin and the Franck Sonata — quite a varied selection of Baroque and Romantic challenges for any fiddler, and with 79 minutes of music and excellent sound from Sony, a considerable bargain, assuming our young virtuoso will be up to muster.
The rendition of "The Devil's Trill" is an impressive opening to the program. Chen uses the Fritz Kreisler arrangement, and I will not attempt to make musicological comparisons with the original score (or interpret the dream that Tartini claimed inspired him to compose the sonata). Listening to another performance of the Kreisler arrangement, by Gil Shaham (in a 2000 DG CD of mostly Halloween-ish music), I found the Israeli-American to play the opening Larghetto with a restrained or refined sadness rather than what I hear as a youthful tenderness on Chen's part; and Shaham's finale is considerably more forward-driving and intense than Chen's. But there is much to admire in Chen's warmth of sound and seemingly effortless execution of not only the famous trills but the various other technical demands that Tartini placed upon his soloist.
Many listeners rank a great performance of the Bach Chaconne as one of the most profound musical experiences imaginable. I hesitated to go back to the most celebrated interpreters of the recorded past — Jascha Heifetz comes first to my mind — but turned instead to another young prize-winning artist of recent times, Jennifer Koh, who recorded a Solo Chaconnes CD for the Cedille label in 2001. Her performance, proceeded by the rest of the Partita No. 2 (a kind of dance suite in five movements, with the astounding Chaconne roughly as long as the other four movements combined), is thoughtful, alert to Bach's constantly varying moods, and very far from heart-on-sleeve. Chen, from his first notes, is more impassioned, and as he gets into the piece he is practically Richard Strauss' Don Juan, full of yearning, even torment. I don't mean to imply that his performance is self-indulgent or overwrought — just that he is excitingly committed. I wouldn't claim that this reading has the overall dramatic arc or vision that the greatest mature artists achieve, but the recording does make me want to hear him play the Chaconne in concert.
Henryk Wieniawski's Légende is better known as a violin-with-orchestra piece but is heard here in a violin-piano arrangement. Dating from about 1860, it's a gently melodic work that (at least in this version) seems like a predecessor to some of Dvorak's more homespun violin music. Chen plays it with the requisite warmth and narrative drama. The Variations on an Original Theme is a more flamboyant piece, calling for pyrotechnic display even before the statement of the theme, plus extravagant embellishments even of the theme itself, let alone the variations. To put it mildly, Chen does not hold back. It's all great fun.
I wish I could be as unreserved in praising Chen's and his accompanist's performance of the Franck Sonata. Ideally, this great work should be performed with a pianist equal in every way to the violinist, but Noreen Polera, while perfectly skilled for the Tartini and Wieniawski, is disappointing here — note the pallid statement of the impassioned theme for piano alone in the opening Allegretto. But Chen is pretty pale in the opening bars himself, as if he wanted to save the drama for later. To be sure, his commentary in the CD booklet indicates such a plan. He envisions the four movements as portraying innocent childhood, impetuous young adulthood, midlife crisis, and death-and-transfiguration, respectively: an interesting concept, though I'm not convinced that the music supports it. In any case, veteran performers of the Sonata can convey a world of emotion, however held back, even in those opening bars.
I found Chen's performance of the stormy Allegro second movement more engaging, but Polera still seems cautious, and both seem to lose the pulse of the drama in the middle Quasi lento section. In the Recitativo that opens the third movement, Chen again seems too deliberately or self-consciously tentative, and the Finale has less joy and pathos (especially on the pianist's part) than one might want.
Sony provides realistic presence and skillful balance of violin and piano, and the CD booklet offers good program notes by Guido Johannes Joerg as well as the welcome bonus of Chen's own personal impressions of each piece.