Sa Chen plays Rachmaninov & Mussorgsky

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COMPOSERS: Musorgsky,Rachmaninov
LABELS: PentaTone
WORKS: Musorgsky: A Night on Bare Mountain (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov/Chernov); Pictures at an Exhibition Rachmaninov: Etudes Tableaux, Opp. 33 & 39 – selection
PERFORMER: Sa Chen (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: PTC 5186 355 (hybrid CD/SACD)


Sa Chen’s first solo recital for Pentatone is something of a mixed bag. There’s no doubting her formidable pianism and musical intelligence, not to mention the sheer beauty and depth of her sound which is emphasised most effectively in the beautifully rich recording. Yet for all this, the performances aren’t always as vivid as one might expect.

A good example is Rachmaninov’s Etude-Tableau Op. 39 No. 6, allegedly inspired by the story of Little Red Riding-Hood. The performance is technically immaculate, the helter-skelter cascade of notes delivered with brilliance and precision.

Yet Chen doesn’t really convey the scary frantic nature of the music to the same extent as Rustem Hayroudinoff in his account for Chandos. Likewise, for all her grandeur, Chen seems far more laboured than Hayroudinoff in building up the tension in the famous E flat minor, Op. 39 No. 5. 

Chen seems very committed to Chernov’s transcription of Musorgsky’s A Night on Bare Mountain, though I remain sceptical of its effectiveness as an alternative to the more familiar orchestral version. Although Chen plays it with a good deal of urgency, she still fails to inject the music with a sufficient degree of menace and grotesquerie.


In this respect Chen is far more convincing in vividly characterised accounts of ‘Gnomus’ and ‘The Hut on Chicken’s Legs’ from Pictures at an Exhibition. Elsewhere, Chen is impressively flamboyant in the ‘Ballet of Unhatched Chicks’ and the ‘Market at Limoges’, though Boris Giltburg on EMI brings even more grandeur and spaciousness to the ‘Great Gate of Kiev’. Erik Levi