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John Chen at Paekakariki - JS BACH - The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One

John Chen (piano), Sunday June 23rd 2013

By Peter Mechen

It is alway a great pleasure to go to Paekakariki to hear music being played. Firstly, the surroundings, especially on a good day, are spectacular - and of course, if the weather isn't good, there can be spectacle of a different kind, especially as the Memorial Hall, where the concerts are held, is situated almost right on the shoreline, with only the road and the beach separating the music from the ocean, and vice versa. It seems to me that the only thing that might give concern in such a situation is the prospect of a decent-sized tsunami, which would put an end to pretty well everything if it ever happened.The location is picturesque, breathtakingly so on a fine day, with the ocean and the islands on one side and the coastal mountain ranges on the other.

One of the features of these concerts is the presence of art-work on the walls of the hall - on this occasion, paintings and drawings by two of Paekakariki's most distinguished residents, Sir Jon and Lady Jacqui Trimmer (present at the concert). Besides their extensive activities and experience in dance, both have worked in the visual arts for a number of years, painting, pottery and sculpture. Most of the paintings were by Jon Trimmer, some by his wife, Jacqui - not surprisingly there seemed in his work a preoccupation with the human form, and not merely engaged in dance.

In the hall, the piano is situated halfway-down rather than at one end, and the audience sits in a half-circle around the instrument. One would imagine that in an empty hall the sound would be impossibly reverberant - but with all of us there the sound had a pleasant bloom without being too lively. After being introduced, the pianist, John Chen, spoke to us for a few moments, wanting to share with us just a few of his thoughts about the music he was going to play - which was, of course, Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach.

I liked very much Chen's spoken characterization of the music's course over the twenty-four preludes and fugues. He told us that for him the music has three different aspects interwoven together - physical, emotional and spiritual - and its course represents a person's lifetime, with the opening few pieces having a fresh, birth-like quality, and the second quarter of pieces filled with the energy and exuberance of youth. The later preludes represent maturity, with the last few spare and visionary, the energy of youth all gone, and a spiritual aspect taking over the sounds.

He also told a lovely anecdote against himself - he had been approached admiringly by somebody after a concert who marvelled at his playing of the entire First Book of the WTC from memory; but he was mindful, in the face of such praise, how he had heard about Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix's sister, who had memorized BOTH books at the age of 9; and even more astoundingly, about the German pianist Wilhelm Kempff, who also knew both books from memory, but could also play the complete work, every Prelude and Fugue pair in ANY key, also from memory. He said that he wanted us to have some kind of perspective about what he was going to do that afternoon - that "it wasn't such an amazing achievement after all!". I'm sure Chen would have undoubtedly been aware of the composer's own response to some admirer of his keyboard prowess, which was, "There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself."

Aware of the significance of the journey we were about to be taken upon, we sat, listened attentively, and let the music cast its spell upon us. From the beginning Chen's playing impressed with its sheer beauty, the well-known opening Prelude sounding freshly-minted in the player's hands, in fact as if reborn for our benefit. As he played, he gave each of the pieces the space it seemed to need, following the dictum of "where to hold, where to let go", as fugue followed prelude, and new prelude followed fugue. Whatever the contrasts between the individual pieces, Chen made them work shoulder-to-shoulder, treating the transitions, both gentle and rather more startling, as though they were entirely natural progressions.

Certainly that sense of journeying, as John Chen put it, through a life-span, allows you to "pace" yourself and give yourself the energy required to keep the attention focused - and it must be the same for the performer, as well. The wonder is that over such a long span, the pieces can still stimulate a lot of difference and variety, rather than sound as thought they're melting into one another. And of course a full-length concert can perhaps be thought of as a life in microcosm - energetic at the start, properly warmed up for the middle sections, where one is at one's best, and then perhaps becoming more reflective as the energy starts to dissipate.

What Chen did was to bring his own creativity to that of the composer's and make it all come alive - so what we heard throughout was a marvelous amalgam of youth and experience, of energy and discipline, of inspiration and skill - I think it's something of a picture of a person a young man aspires towards, in that respect. So the music, and its making, is confident, energetic, well thought-out, beautifully shaped and most of all, very alive!

I felt there was only one piece in which his playing didn't really take me anywhere - and I've always found this a bit of a problem piece to listen to, as I've heard quite a number of pianists who similarly go on a kind of "auto-pilot" as if they're not quite sure what to do with the music except perhaps let it play itself, as opposed to a handful who have that "gift" - and I think it's probably no coincidence that they're all older and more worldly-wise. The piece I'm talking about is the very last Prelude of the set, No.24 in B Minor - I would call it an elusive piece, something almost not of this world, a glimpse into another realm.

The music actually expresses a good deal of what John Chen was talking about in terms of the music reflecting someone's lifespan, except that I didn't feel that his playing of the music had gone there, in that particular instance - compared with everything else he played it's performance seemed to me lack something beyond the notes, a surety of imagination, a sense of the music's mystery.

On the other hand, the fugue which followed the prelude was splendidly performed! This is quite all right - musicians, and artists in general shouldn't be able to conquer worlds too easily - the achievement is in the journey as much as in the arrival!

Considering the pianist's youth it was no wonder he seemed less in touch with the deeper, more reflective side of things, but able to express that more vigorous,here-and-now kind of transcendental spiritual joy with which Bach writes in some of the pieces. I would imagine John Chen will be playing this music at various times throughout the remainder of his life; and I would hope I get the chance to hear him perform it all again, at some time.

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