Stravinsky: Diversions

Howard Smith
Daily Classical Music (New Zealand)

Twenty-one-year-old Taiwanese/Australian Ray Chen enters stage left with an impressive early portfolio and several celebrity endorsements. A student at the Curtis Institute, Chen is a protégé of veteran American virtuoso Aaron Rosand; who himself studied at Curtis. In 2008 he won the Yehudi Menuhin Competition and a year later triumphed at the (Belgian) Queen Elisabeth Competition.

Earlier this year (2010) Sony Classical signed Chen on an exclusive, multi-disc contract.

Bogdan Roscic, president of Sony Classical, described the decision to sign him as being 'as immediate as with Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel and American pianist Simone Dinnerstein'. ('I was absolutely convinced only minutes into the very first piece I ever heard from him.')

Listen -- Stravinsky: Danse russe -- Allegretto giusto
(track 18, 0:00-0:50) © 2010 Melba Recordings :

The Australian's performances (with Timothy Young at the piano) are never less than arresting and seasoned with Stravinsky's wily creativity and invigorating musical palette.

Prompted by the active help of Samuel Dushkin (1891-1976), an American violinist of Polish birth and pupil of Auer (Paris) and Kreisler (New York), Stravinsky completed the Duo Concertante, and rearranged his old Pulcinella suite as the Suite Italienne.

Dushkin toured extensively with Stravinsky, giving the premières of the Violin Concerto (1931) plus the Duo concertante and Suite Italienne (Berlin Radio, 28 October 1932).

'I had formerly' (before the concerto) 'had no great liking for a combination of piano and strings', said Stravinsky, 'but a deeper knowledge of the violin and close collaboration with a technician like Dushkin revealed possibilities I had longed to explore.'

With this and his other repertoire Stravinsky had left behind the Romantics, side-stepped Edwardian grandeur and consigned the Second Viennese School to its overgrown 'garden path'.

Chen's programme includes four works in which Dushkin had a hand. But rather than Suite Italienne, he includes the Suite (1925) after themes, fragments, and pieces by the Italian composer, violinist and organist Giambattista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Stravinsky dedicated this earlier suite to violinist Paul Kochanski (1887-1934).

Listen -- Stravinsky: Gavotta (1925 Suite)
(track 4, 0:00-1:00) © 2010 Melba Recordings :

For the 1932 work that Chen and Young forgo, Stravinsky sought the assistance of cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976) and fashioned the 1925 suite into the Suite Italienne for cello and piano. Later in 1932, Stravinsky and Dushkin arranged the cello-and-piano Suite Italienne for violin and piano.

The liaison with Dushkin resulted in a complete programme with which the two friends toured Europe in the 1932-3 and 1933-4 concert seasons.

The 1925 and 1932 works are both derived from Stravinsky's inspired Pulchinella ballet, based in turn on themes of Pergolesi.

The Suite Italienne, Duo Concertant and Divertimento have no finer recorded advocates than violinist Cho-Liang Lin and pianist Andre-Michel Schub on CBS Masterworks (1986) and a brilliant runner up from 1989 featured violinist Isabelle van Keulen and pianist Olli Mustonen with twelve Stravinsky items on the Philips 2CD set 420953.

Lin and Schub evince a delightful neo-classical insouciance that Chen and Young, for all their assurance and expertise, cannot match.

Indeed both Lin and van Keulen outclass both Chen (on Melba MR 301128) and Itzhak Perlman (violin) with Bruno Canino (piano) playing the Divertimento, Suite Italienne and Duo Concertante on the HMV LP ASD3219 from 1976.

Other Stravinsky programmes which match (in part) the Melba recording feature Lydia Mordkovitch (violin) and Julian Milford (piano) on Chandos CHAN 9756 and Jennifer Frautschi (violin) with Marta Aznavoorian (piano) on Artek (2001), or Dora Bratchkova (violin), concertmaster of the Radio Symphony Orchestra Saarbrücken, with pianist Aldo Orvieto on CPO 999941 (2003).

Gone are the days when soloists launched their recording careers with the Kreutzer and Spring sonatas or programmes of Kreisler, Sarasate, Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski. Having said that, 'rookie' fiddlers start out with the same recorded concertos (Mendelssohn, Bruch, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius) though recently Szymanowski's concertos -- No 1 (1916) and No 2 (1933) -- have been turning up from time to time. Also Ralph Vaughan Williams' idyllic The Lark Ascending.

What is welcome and enterprising is to find challenging twentieth century works on a début recording. Furthermore, Lin and Young clearly belong with the frontrunners in the regiments of sterling new soloists and recitalists appearing in today's concert halls and recording studios.

Chen plays these always intriguing works with a refreshing naturalness and the rapport between both performers is never in doubt.

Listen -- Stravinsky: Sinfonia -- Andante (Divertimento)
(track 6, 5:30-6:49) © 2010 Melba Recordings :

I prefer this Australian duo to the thirty-four-year-old, customarily reboubtable Perlman/Canino team in their more earthbound, vinyl recording of Divertimento, Suite Italienne, and Duo Concertante (now on Angel Records and both difficult and expensive to obtain).

Clean lines and buoyant rhythms are observed throughout and despite such stellar competition from pianist Schub and Cho-Liang (Chen's countryman, affectionately referred to as 'Jimmy' Lin), this Melba release is a noteworthy introduction to two of the brightest talents from the Austral-Asian musical melting pot.