Rachmaninov - 6 Etudes;
Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition;
A Night on Bald Mountain
PentaTone PTC 5186 355
The name of pianist Sa Chen is perhaps unfamiliar to most music-lovers today, but will undoubtedly become more famous in years or even months to come, judging from the prodigious talents exhibited on this new SACD of Russian music on the PentaTone label. Born in Chongqing, China, Sa Chen began her musical studies at the Sichuan Conservatory, and she later continued at London’s Guildhall School and the Hochschule für Musik in Hanover. Although she has been the recipient of prizes from age 14 onward, it was at the International Chopin Competition in 2000 and later at the Van Cliburn Competition, that her reputation was secured. A critic once wrote: “Fleet- fingered pianists are a dime a dozen today – where are the musicians?” From the haunting opening measures of the Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableau Op.33 No.2, it’s clear that Sa Chen is a musician of the first-rank, one who combines a flawless technique with an innate musicality. She presents 6 Etudes in all, drawn from Opp.33 and 39, and throughout, her playing is marked by a delicacy of shading with never a moment of bravura for its own sake.
As equally demanding as the Etudes-Tableaux is A Night on Bald Mountain, Modest Mussorgsky’s first major work for orchestra - a tale of spirits, witchcraft, and bells tolling at dawn, a sort of 19th century Thriller, 90 years before Michael Jackson. The piano transcription is as difficult as it sounds, and Sa Chen approaches the music with a splendid panache. Nevertheless, in my opinion, she leaves the best until last, with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition from 1874. Inspired by a group of paintings by Victor Hartmann, the work encompasses a myriad of contrasting moods, and Sa Chen captures them all effortlessly, thereby bringing to a close this most satisfying disc.