Los Angeles Music Review: RUEIBIN CHEN, PIANO: TOTAL RACHMANINOFF (The Wallis in Beverly Hills)

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by Tony Frankel on April 2, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

TOTAL IS LESS THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS

The acclaimed Chinese-Austrian pianist Rueibin Chen is in the midst of a worldwide tour coinciding with the anniversary of Rachmaninoff’s birth 140 years ago, but there were three Rueibin Chens at his solo recital at the Wallis last Friday: There was Rueibin Chen, the fascinating interpreter of works written, arranged, and played by Rachmaninoff; there was Rueibin Chen the packaged event; and there was Rueibin Chen the showman. Unfortunately, the three did not add up to a unified satisfying event.

There was unpredictability to his playing in both an attractive and ineffectual way. It was refreshing how Chen seemed to be headed in one direction and then he would suddenly surprise in tempo and reading. While he is no doubt a highly proficient player, there was a palpable detachment between him and the audience; he received a positively nonchalant reception after the first half, even as he finished with a Rueibin Chen, pianistferocious no. 9 from the Op. 39 set of Études-Tableaux.

The audience responded well to the flashier second half, even applauding after a particularly tricky passage midway through Rachmaninoff’s transcription of Kreisler’s Lebesfreud (I noticed Chen did far less interpretation when interpreting Rachmaninoff’s interpretation of other composers). Yet I couldn’t shake the sense that he was trying too hard, perhaps showing off a bit to impress the Wallis patrons (many more than normal from the Asian community), who knew this was the first piano recital at the gorgeous new performing arts center. What that meant for the latter half, made up of mostly Rachmaninoff transcriptions of other composers, is that I sensed Liberace more than Vladimir Horowitz or Daniil Trifonov.

Pianist Rueibin Chen.In 1910, when Rachmaninoff composed 13 preludes for solo piano, op. 32, it completed his set of 24 preludes that covers all 24 major and minor keys. Opening his program, Chen (who was born in Taiwan) was determined to take us on a new journey with the oft-played nos. 5 and 12. In the G major, no. 5, the left-hand quintuplets, which are normally played at a somewhat steady pace, were either taken very slowly or rushed. His right hand rightfully dominated the line in the shaping of the phrase, but the melody was struck startlingly loud. This was certainly a valid interpretation, and it emphasized Rachmaninoff’s genius—a major-key work constructed in such way that it feels like a minor key, melancholic and introspective. The G-sharp minor, no. 12, written in allegro, was played like a horse race, showing off Chen’s technical precision, but it left little room for emotional involvement, which would have elevated this and other performances throughout the night to the status of performances by world-class players such as Ashkenazy.

In the Prelude in D major op. 23, no. 4 (1903), Chen’s concentrated and imaginative expression was on full display. He may have been all over the map in tempo, but his soulful, slow, luxuriant, almost hesitant execution rendered the piece exquisitely and achingly beautiful.

It’s amazing that Three Nocturne op. 1 are rarely played in recital, and even more amazing that Rachmaninoff wrote them at 14. I have heard all three, but never at the same time; perhaps it is true, as the program states, that played together these three works are a California Premiere. Chen had interesting hand posture, a combination of the flat-fingered technique of Horowitz and the curvature which most beginners are taught to play. The separation between melody and Pianist Rueibin Chen.accompaniment is rightly extreme, but the melody line seemed forced at the risk of losing the chordal texture that is spread over the entire keyboard.

The lush, radiant, and atmospheric “Lilacs” is a 1913 solo piano transcription by Rachmaninoff of his own song by the same title. He recorded it 3 times, the last being 1942, while he lived in Beverly Hills (half of the performance repertoire was written while Rachmaninoff lived on Elm Drive not far from the Wallis). Chen brought a wholehearted character to the piece, adding a textbook blend of melody and accompaniment this time. He followed this with a fun and brisk reading of Rachmaninoff’s transcription of the Gavotte from Bach’s third Partita for unaccompanied violin, BWV 1006, adding delightful moments when he haltingly reigned in the tempo.

Whatever the reason, Chen’s almost perfectly mannered playing doesn’t pull you in, which explains the disconnect between him and the audience. He played so hard at one point in the second half that his cufflinks went flying, but Chen’s dazzling skills were simply not always enough to make up for his limited magnetism on stage. Rueibin Chen, pianist.Standing ovations are the norm, but quite a few patrons simply stood to leave at the end, and the actual applause was scattered and tepid. After a few departed, Chen encored with Frédéric Chopin’s Marche funèbre; it may have been an apropos choice given that it was played by Rachmaninoff at his last recital in 1943, but the choice was odd at best, and played with little sensitivity it was almost a downer. As viewers began to head out, Chen rushed to the piano for an extravagant solo arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, but there was no fooling an audience, many of whom either stood in the aisles or continued walking out. It’s a shame that Chen was trying to blow us away, but ended up offering little more than a breeze.

Rueibin Chen, Piano
Total Rachmaninoff
Bram Goldsmith Theater
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd in Beverly Hills
played March 27 & 28, 2014
for future events at the Wallis, call 310-746-4000 or visit www.thewallis.org
for more info, visit www.rueibinchen.com

{ 5 comments }

janina dietzel April 3, 2014 at 1:27 pm

The reviewer is contradicting himself many times in this write-up.
It’s very unprofessional and ill-observed to call standing ovations the “norm”
It is also untrue that there was a disconnect between Mr Chen’s playing and his effect on the audience. Lastly, who would write that people left the theatre while the artist was playing his encore, other than someone who has a habit of hitting below the belt on every occasion that he can find???
If you don’t have anything nice to say, it’s best to refrain from doing it at all. Period!

danny April 4, 2014 at 2:07 pm

How can you rebut something by saying it is simply “untrue?” We’re talking about educated guesses (my educated guess is that critics have more of a right to make the call than the masses). Standing ovations ARE kind of the norm these days, particularly in piano recitals. Also, I think that a critic trying to accurately describe the atmosphere and tone of a performance might mention that people were leaving in the middle of encores; doesn’t that illustrate the vibe a little bit?

Vicky April 8, 2014 at 2:30 pm

My friend and I were there and we had a great time! Mr. Rueibin’s Chen’s playing was sensual and engaging. I enjoyed how he plays with crispness and technical clarity. “The almost perfectly mannered playing” completely pulls me in. I could not take my eyes off of him! Hope to see more performances by Mr. Rueibin Chen.

Luna April 9, 2014 at 10:03 am

Mr. Frankel has not been fair in this review. I was at the March 28 concert. The audience didn’t all respond in the cold way Mr. Frankel described. Several times I heard “Bravo!” (from different voices) when Mr. Chen just finished touching the last key of the pieces. These people were so excited that they couldn’t wait for the piano to stop ringing. From where I sat (upstairs), during encores a couple of people hung on the railing and stuck their heads out to see him play. Apparently not all the audience was in disconnect like Mr. Frankel described. Being a professional critic, Mr. Frankel’s comments are not professionally fair to the audience.

Tony Frankel April 9, 2014 at 11:09 am

Luna:

I cannot comment on the March 28 concert. I promise you that on the 29th, the audience reception was tepid–some even left at intermission (which I did not add to the review). The point is not about the audience anyway – that was just part of the evening. Mr. Chen may have done better performances with or without an orchestra elsewhere, but this particular event was a very mixed bag. You will notice I pointed out the good work as well. I stand behind my opinion, and reported the event with accuracy.

Stage and Cinema rarely receives more than one comment on a review, so I looked for a review from Chen’s all-Rachmaninoff program at Segerstrom last December; the first one I found said “Despite Chen’s virtuosic skills, there was something remote about the first half of his recital. He was not able to fully transmit the essence of these works to his audience, who while respectful, remained cool.”

While I hardly need validation, it is encouraging to know that in a world of “If you don’t have anything nice to say, it’s best to refrain from doing it at all” (per Janina above), some are brave enough to call it like it is. As George Orwell said, “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

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