La Valse (CD review)

Piano music of Ravel and Scriabin. Sean Chen, piano. Steinway & Sons 30029.

When musicians do solo albums they often try to tie things together with some kind of unifying theme for the subject matter. Sometimes it's as all-encompassing as a simple recital of favorite tunes, and at other times, such as here, it's narrower, more specific. In this case, pianist Sean Chen has chosen to concentrate on the period of 1900-1914 and composers Aleksandr Scriabin and Maurice Ravel. Why 1900-1914? As historian Philipp Blom notes: It was a "period of extraordinary creativity in the arts and sciences, of enormous change in society and in the very image people had of themselves." It was also obviously a time of transition in the classical-music world, from the late-Romantic era to the early modern age, and the music of both Scriabin and Ravel reflect this major shift.

Anyway, the star of the show is American pianist Sean Chen (b. 1988), winner of the American Pianists Association's DeHaan Classical Fellowship, one of the most lucrative and significant prizes available to an American pianist; Third Prize at the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the first American to reach the finals since 1997; and numerous other prizes and awards. The album under review, La Valse, marks Chen's second appearance as a soloist on CD, and a very fine appearance it is.

Things begin with the Valse in A flat major, Op. 38, by the Russian composer and pianist Aleksandr Scriabin (1872-1915). Now, understand, not all of the music on the program may be to everyone's taste (these are not traditional Strauss-type waltzes, after all), but each piece is appealing and significant in its own way. Above all, one notices Chen's gentle, sensitive, yet persuasive touch with them. This first item is a good example, starting off very tenderly, full of grace and poise, then accelerating into grand passions before gradually fading back into misty silences. It's a convenient summing up of the Romantic tradition gradually shifting into the twentieth century, though resisting changes along the way.

Next, we turn to the Menuet antique by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). The "antique minuet" is an intentional misnomer, of course, wherein Ravel uses the older musical form to compose something actually quite new. Chen captures the composer's swirling modern harmonies beautifully, again with a light enough touch and fluid enough refinement to accentuate the contrasts and enough full-throated energy and all-out vivacity to point up the more-exciting parts. Delightful.

And so it goes through six more selections: Scriabin's Piano Sonata No. 4 in F sharp major, Op. 30, and Piano Sonata No. 5, Op. 53; and Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales, Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn, Prelude, and La Valse. Of these, it's La Valse I'd like to single out most particularly. As you probably know, Ravel originally published the work for orchestra, where it received a successful Paris premiere in 1920. At the same time the composer prepared versions of it for solo piano and two pianos, but the arrangement Chen has chosen to perform is his own, made from several of Ravel's different scores. A very good one it is, too.

La valse is, in fact, an ideal summing up of the album's theme of change. The music begins with its feet clearly in the nineteenth century, elegant and romantic, and then slowly transforms into a demonic "dance macabre." Some critics have suggested that this change in the music's tone alludes to the destruction of societal values and civility that resulted from the horrors of World War I. In any case, Chen's arrangement and playing of the piece clarifies this purpose, and if Ravel did intend the score to exemplify a breakdown in Western society, Chen skillfully carries out this function as he transitions effortlessly from one mood to another. As he does with all of the selections on the album, he plays it extraordinarily well, with grace and virtuosity.

Producer Dan Mercurio and engineer Daniel Shores recorded the music at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia in September 2013. As usual with a production made at Sono Luminus, the sound is excellent. The Steinway D piano comes through with a fine transparency and solid definition, while maintaining a fairly resonant bloom. Transient response and dynamic impact are especially impressive, and while the instrument itself is just a tad close for my personal taste, one cannot deny its realistic presence.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa