sfcv logo


Wendy Chen

May 7, 2006


Wendy Chen

E-mail this page

Curious Diversity

By David Bratman

The recital by Chee-Yun, violin, and Wendy Chen, piano, at Stanford's Dinkelspiel Auditorium on Sunday afternoon was a curious combination of the unexpectedly similar and the wildly disparate.

Gabriel Fauré and Richard Strauss were both relatively young, inexperienced composers when they wrote their sonatas for violin and piano (No. 1 in Fauré's case, for he followed it with a second one 40 years later). Though their careers overlapped, these composers are not names one would normally put together: the quiet, delicate Frenchman and the world-shaking German. Yet their sonatas are strikingly similar, while each is atypical for its composer. Both are large works suffused with lush romanticism, tending toward the overlong and rambling, especially in the first movements.

Fauré, writing at the age of 30 in 1875-1876, offers music quite unlike the introverted elegance that would characterize his mature work. The jocular scherzo is charming enough, but in this performance, the rest of the sonata seemed to suffer from undigested Liszt, yearning waywardly and saying rather little at rather too great a length.

As for Strauss, it may be surprising to find the master of massive, colorful orchestration writing a violin sonata at all. In later years, Strauss did not thank performers who revived his early chamber music. He felt that Brahms had said everything necessary in this field and wished it forgotten that he had ever tried to follow in those mighty footsteps. Yet the Violin Sonata, the last of these early pieces — Strauss wrote it at age 23 in 1887 — does not sound like Brahms at all. It's less heavy, but less concise, than the older composer's work. The central andante (there is no scherzo) is the least pretentious or striving part of the sonata. It moves from an opening reminiscent of Beethoven through a middle section featuring fast, threatening piano chords à la the Schubert of "Der Erlkönig," then suddenly dissolves into an airy cloud of Chopinesque filigree lasting the rest of the movement.

Strauss' finale is the part that most seems to strain to break its boundaries. At times the listener thinks, "This sounds like a composer who wants to free himself from the confines of chamber music and write Don Juan." But you are primed to think this because that is, in fact, what Strauss almost immediately did. Chamber music that seems larger than its contents is not unusual, and not all such works are followed by blazing orchestral breakouts.

A show of strength and technique

It could have been the performance that led to thoughts of magnitude. Both of these performers have fine technique; both are powerful, unsubtle musicians. Chee-Yun draws from her Cremona violin (Ruggieri, 1669) a dry, hollow tone of such strength that even a mute hardly subdues it. Even at the back of Dinkelspiel, the sound came through as almost shockingly harsh. Wendy Chen also has strength but plays less heavily. She approaches lush romanticism in a rumbling and passionate manner, thick but not heavy. When, in his finale, Fauré finally deigns to sound French, or when Strauss is spinning notes like Chopin, Chen lightens her touch into a perfect legato.

Both performers shone in the shorter works that filled out the program, works that could have been chosen to be as unlike two late-Romantic sonatas as possible. Suite populaire espagnole is violinist Paul Kochansky's brilliant adaptation of six Spanish songs by Manuel de Falla. The suite expands several of the songs, adding extra "verses" and calling on the violin for various effects the human voice can't produce: pizzicato guitar-style chords, melodies in harmonics and double-stops, vigorous multiple-stops sawed on the bridge, and so on.

Chee-Yun produced all these with ease, finding the lyric side to this music without pomposity and avoiding rhythmic over-rigidity. Chen, on the other hand, hunching her long frame over the piano, struck out her notes with precision. Where Chen's way with the gentler parts of the sonatas made me curious to hear her Chopin, her work here had me yearning for her Prokofiev. Both musicians were gently restrained in the encore, a quiet and lyrical rendition of John Barry's title theme from the romantic 1980 film Somewhere in Time, arranged by Kenji Bunch.

Chee-Yun's finest moments came in Pablo de Sarasate's Introduction and Tarantella — a showpiece featuring fingering on the bridge and some two-handed pizzicato, all tossed off nonchalantly and wowing the audience as Sarasate had intended — and the Chaconne in G Minor generally (but probably incorrectly) attributed to Tomaso Antonio Vitali. Here the violinist's thick, hard tone was highly suitable, cutting through the dark, stern music like a knife. Double-stopped passages resonated as if three or four violinists were playing together. At the same time, she maintained the flow of the piece, building the repetitions of the chaconne into a coherent entity. This is the music Chee-Yun was made for. For the rest, Wendy Chen is the performer one would like to hear again.

(David Bratman is a librarian who lives with his lawfully wedded soprano and a wall full of symphony recordings.)

©2006 David Bratman, all rights reserved