Han Chen (piano)
Concert Paraphrase on Powder Her Face (2009)
Still Sorrowing (1992)
Darknesse Visible (1992)
Blanca Variations (2015)
Traced Overhead (1996)
Three Mazurkas (2009)
Naxos 8.574109 [69’43”]
Producer Han Chen
Engineer Ryan Streber
Recorded 5-7 April 2019, Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York
Written by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
Taiwanese-born and American-based pianist Han Chen releases his third album for Naxos, bringing together almost all the works for solo piano by Thomas Adès (b1971) in readings that depart – sometimes markedly – from earlier practice and are the more impressive for it.
What’s the music like?
Adès’s piano music falls into three well defined phases. Premiered at the London recital that launched his wider career, Still Sorrowing draws on Dowland in a sustained rumination with ingenious use of the keyboard (is Blue-Tack still being used to dampen the middle register?). Darknesse Visible is more directly a Dowland paraphrase, its pianism highly demonstrative in its range of textures and dynamics. An early culmination is marked by Traced Overhead – its three (progressively longer) sections heading from the spiralling upward motion of Sursum, via the animation of Aetheria, to the gradual ascent of Chori whose heightened eloquence is fatefully undermined by its plunging descent near the close. Understandable that Adès then eschewed the piano medium (and largely avoided public performance) for more than a decade.
His return came from a typically unexpected angle. Among the most significant operas this past quarter-century, Powder Her Face might not have obvious pianistic potential, but Adès proved otherwise with a Concert Paraphrase which realigns several musical highlights into a four-part sequence given continuity by the ingenuity with which underlying dance measures merge into and out of each other. Those for whom its theatricality is all may be nonplussed, yet the essentially tragic essence behind the opera’s glittering façade is conveyed even more keenly through such abstract terms. No less ingenious, the Three Mazurkas refashion a genre most associated with Chopin and Szymanowski into music that recalls the études of Ligeti in their technical finesse and those expressive slights of hand capricious and affecting by turns.
Equally modest in their formal dimensions, the most recent two pieces could hardly be more contrasted in content. A test-piece for the 2016 Clara Haskill Competition, Blanca Variations takes a brief piece from Adès’s opera The Exterminating Angel as basis for a study in highly intricate and dextrous pianism. Taken from his score for the film Colette, where it provides a haunting backdrop to the end-credits, Souvenir emerges as a discreet if potent homage to the tradition of French piano music through its slow waltz motion where inference becomes all.
Does it all work?
Yes, even though there are occasions when Adès’s consummate technique risks becoming its own justification. All credit, then to Han Chen (already with excellent releases of Liszt and Rubenstein on Naxos) for ensuring that surface allure is always at the service of an engaged and engaging musical expression. Most of these works have been recorded by the composer, several by numerous other pianists, but Chen clearly has an approach which enables him to render the music very much his own way – extending and enriching its potential accordingly.
Is it recommended?
Indeed. Sound has clarity and definition without seeming clinical, and there are informative booklet notes by Paul Conway. One recent short piece (Berceuse from The Exterminating Angel) has not been included, but it hardly detracts from the qualities of this release overall.
You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the Naxos website
For further information on Thomas Adès visit the composer’s website