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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Born in Kuala Lumpur but a New Zealand citizen, John Chen was the winner of the prestigious Sydney Piano Competition in 2004 when he was 18. Rather than yet more Schumann or Chopin, he has sensibly chosen as his CD début to record more offbeat repertoire, the complete piano music of Dutilleux, and it is difficult to imagine it being served more brilliantly or idiomatically. The Piano Sonata of 1948 was one of the composer’s first works to attract wide attention, and it remains the most important, thoughtful and beautifully written. Yet each of the smaller pieces makes its mark crisply and without inflation, consistently inventive, with intriguing titles adding to their charms. Chen’s playing is magnetic and well controlled, but giving the impression of a pianist improvising. There have been excellent accounts of these pieces before, including one of the Sonata by its dedicatee, Geneviève Joy, the composer’s wife, but this is now a first recommendation. Very good sound.

Colin Clarke
Fanfare, August 2007
p>In 2004, Kuala Lumpa-born pianist John Chen became the youngest-ever winner of the Sydney International Piano Competition. On the evidence of this disc, it is easy to share the jury’s enthusiasm for this young man. His choice of repertoire is at once brave and praiseworthy; the complete piano music of Henri Dutilleux fits neatly one disc and acts as a reminder of the stature of this fine composer.

The 1948 Piano Sonata is surely Dutilleux’s most famous work for this instrument. John Ogdon made a famous recording (apparently currently unavailable and last seen on a hard to find EMI Matrix disc) and more recently the highly talented Claire-Marie Le Guay recorded her thoughts on the score. Chen finds the perfect atmosphere for the opening, conjuring up an explicitly French world related to but not derivative of Messiaen. Chen finds much sense of play in the capricious opening section. His light touch has much to do with this; in fact, he owns a wide tonal range that enables him to bring real depth to the more sonorous contrastive sections. The ultra-gentle second movement, entitled “Lied” by the composer, rises inevitably to a climax of cut crystal clarity. Chen brings out a processional quality that seems most apt, while the finale reveals Chen’s superb fingerwork (tremendous Debussy roulades here).

The first of the Trois Préludes seems again to make explicit reference to the rarefied world of Debussy; the second, even more so. This is truly beautiful music, and Chen holds back interpretative intervention just enough to enable the music to speak naturally while still adding his stamp to the score. The third Prélude was written over a decade later than the other two and at nearly eight minutes is by far the most substantial. Exploratory n nature but nevertheless clearly highly structured, it leaves a lasting impression.

Au gré des ondes of 1946 is a sequence of six movements taken from Dutilleux’s work at Radio France to provide interludes between programs. There is a simplicity here that is utterly charming (“Prélude en berceuse”), pure (“Hommage a Bach) and even almost jazzy (“Mouvement perpétuel”). The remainder of the disc is devoted to miniatures, of which the 1965 Résonances is probably the most important of the composer’s development in its exploration of sonority.

This is a significant disc in two ways. First, the complete Dutilleux piano music at bargain price in fine performances and recording is a must for all fans of this composer, second, here we have an introduction to a pianist who is clearly a major talent.

American Record Guide, June 2007

Henri Dutilleux (born 1916) is France's greatest composer after Debussy and Ravel. His 1948 Piano Sonata is (by his own description) his first fully mature composition. The work, a full-sized 25 minutes in duration, pays homage to the revered traditions of the sonata genre in both its idiom and form. The piano writing, derived from Ravel, is fluent and virtuosic; the harmony is tonal but enriched with chromatic iridescence. The emotional world is exalted, yet often nocturnal, conveying mystery, grandeur, and visionary exoticism—all with the greatest imaginable refinement and purity. Unlike Messiaen, with whom he shares the goal of writing music that aspires to spiritual transcendence, Dutilleux is a supreme crafts· man; everything is perfectly shaped and proportioned, entirely free of excess, redundancy, or bombast.

As one might expect, a masterpiece of this order has attracted many performers—it has been recorded many times. There was a fine reading by Jeffrey Siegel on an Orion LP, and another fine one on LP by Marie-Catherine Girod, reissued on Solstice 18 (July/Aug 1989). Genevieve Joy's rendering on a two-disc set of Dutilleux's chamber works, Erato 91721 (Sept / Oct 1994), is very fast and exciting; and Alexander Morin liked the performance by MarieJosephe Jude on Harmonia Mundi 911569 May/June 1996), which I haven't heard.

John Chen, on this new Naxos disc, is a wonderful pianist who plays with (and is recorded in) exceptional clarity. He illuminates the music's mercurial character without rushing things (as Joy does); at the same time he has an unforced sense of this music's rapture and enchantment and employs a seemingly unlimited array of colors and attacks to bring them to life. In short, this is a superlative performance, and given Naxos's resplendent sonics—up-close, immediate, powerful, luxuriously rich—I’d rate it the best ever.

Any lover of gorgeous piano music will be thrilled with this release, as will all devotees of Dutilleux, especially as it's filled out with no fewer than eight shorter works (Three Preludes, 'Au Greé Des Ondes', 'Bergerie', 'Blackbird', 'Tous Les Chemins', 'Resonances', 'Petit Air', and 'Mini-Prelude') that have seldom or never been recorded. The early items are charming, whimsical, decorous miniatures in the manner of Poulenc at his best behaved. Three Preludes, written from 1973 to 1988, is a dazzling cycle of glittery, epigrammatic translations from the sound-world of Dutilleux's orchestral poems. Each shows the hand of a master engraving exquisite sounds onto silence.

Philip Clark
International Piano, June 2007

Although the playing of young Malaysian pianist John Chen – aged 19 when he cut this disc in 2005 – is technically prodigious and highly intelligent, the music itself is a rather mixed bag. Henri Dutilleux's habit of being rather too literal is the problem. I reckon, Blackbird (1950) merely twitters and flies around itself while Resonances (1965), er, resonates. These works are, of course, judiciously crafted but somehow there's not too much that's meaningful to listen to.

The three-movement Piano Sonata Dutilleux composed in 1948, and considers as his unofficial 'opus 1', is more the ticket. The opening section has an extraordinary approach to rhythm – flattened out rhythms that sound like the churning mechanism of a 78rpm record player concertina outwards into flashes of more fluid activity. Eventually this rhythmic tension is released by a torrent of quicksilver, nimble passagework that leaves Chen absolutely unruffled. The lullaby-like lyricism of the second movement emphasises just how considered Dutilleux's linear writing can be, out of which Chen locates real depths. In contrast, the finale is emotionally schizophrenic, stating an austere chorale at the beginning and then flitting through a life-cycle of divergent moods.

Chen makes cogent structural sense of Dutilleux's challenges both here and in the Trois Préludes, assembled between 1973 and 1988. The obvious starting point of the first prelude, ‘D’ombre et de silence’, is the textural sound world of Debussy's piano writing. Harmonic spectra morph into each other, and Chen's tightrope sensitivity is hugely impressive 'Sur un même accord' is a more resourceful study of resonating textures than the devoted 1965 piece, as a single chord is nudged around the instrument, and the 1ast piece aims at a linear trajectory from first note to last that Chen confidently orientates.

What an impressive calling card for the young pianist.

Tony Haywood
MusicWeb International, May 2007

Such is the fastidious and painstaking approach to composition of Henri Dutilleux that his entire output for solo piano is accommodated quite easily on a single, hour-long disc. As the dates demonstrate, most of his keyboard works come from earlyish in his career, before orchestral writing really began to dominate his thoughts. The biggest and the most important, the Piano Sonata, was started in 1946. It was written for his wife, the pianist Geneviève Joy, whom he married in the same year. Her recording of it has been intermittently available over the years. It’s had a few good recordings, but the young New Zealand-based Malaysian pianist John Chen has made it something of a speciality in his concert programming and obviously feels a great affinity with the piece.

It’s a tight, classically-structured three-movement form, and references to other composers are audible, the most obvious being Bartók, whose folkish modality is echoed in the work’s main opening motif. Chen’s nuanced yet propulsive playing brings plenty of light and shade, as in the delicate bridge passage that leads to the second theme (track 1, 2:09). He is slightly less highly charged in the stormier passages (as at 4:01) than my only available comparison, a superb ‘off air’ Radio 3 performance from Artur Pizarro, but Chen is very much alive to the many contrasts within the Sonata’s rigid framework. He is suitably contemplative in the Prokofiev-like Lent second movement, and rises heroically to the Sonata’s grand Choral et Variations finale, whose imperious, dissonant opening reminded me in passing of Copland’s piano music, some of which was written after studies in France. I love the toccata section beginning at 1:52, where Chen’s enviable technique is fully up to the considerable demands placed on it. All told, this is an excellent version which does complete justice to a brilliant, multi-layered piece.

Of the remaining works, many are miniatures lasting one or two minutes, delicate little studies in mood, generally written for occasional or functional purposes. Six of the best of them were collected together as a suite in the same year as the Sonata was begun, 1946, and given the collective title Au gré des ondes. They are never less than entertaining and Chen’s beautifully graded pianism is hypnotic.

I was even more impressed by what I consider the best pieces after the Sonata, Trois Préludes, which are the most recent compositions on the disc. These were not conceived as a cycle either but work very well as one. Here we get echoes of Dutilleux’s most famous predecessor, Debussy as well as a nod towards his older contemporary, Messiaen. The third is the most substantial, covering a lot of musical ground in its eight minutes and fully exploring the wide-ranging sonorities of the modern piano. The clear, detailed recording captures everything perfectly and Richard Whitehouse’s notes are, as usual, well written and informative.

This release is part of Naxos’s excellent Laureate Series, where young competition prize-winners from around the globe are given a recording contract. Chen has won quite a few, most notably the 2004 Sydney International Piano Competition, and it’s easy to see why. I look forward to hearing more from him.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2007

I have to confess that much as I try I cannot get below the skin of Henri Dutilleux's orchestral music, but here I find more I can enjoy. Born in France in 1916, his early works were influenced by the Impressionists - Debussy, Ravel and Roussel. His output has remained small, the complete works for piano being contained on this one disc. All are of short duration with the exception of the three-movement sonata, a beautifully crafted score with tricky rhythms falling easily on the ear. Over the years his music did toy with atonality, while at the same time growing in complexity, Messiaen often lurking in the background of the Three Preludes. Those like myself always trying to come to terms with Dutilleaux should start with Au Gre des ondes, a piece in six short sections, mainly of happy tonal music and often having a passing acquaintance with Poulenc. The last six works are all modern classical salon pieces, with a Messiaen look at the call of the Blackbird, and back again to Poulenc for Tous les Chemins, the short Mini prelude en Eventail a delightful conclusion. In the New Zealand-born pianist, John Chen, the music has a first class champion, the feel for a basically French idiom perfectly captured, the technical requirements cast aside in playing of mercurial brilliance. The clarity of his fingers and transparency of texture is helped by stunning sound quality.

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