For a young guy with phenomenal talent, violinist Ray Chen has conservative tastes in music. Even he described the program of Mozart, Brahms, Ysaye and Saint-Saens he brought to the music room at Dumbarton Oaks on Sunday as “meat-and-potatoes.” And it was almost identical to the program he played in his last D.C. performance a little more than a year ago. But sometimes a meal of meat and potatoes just hits the spot, and the formidable partnership he has forged with pianist Julio Elizalde made entirely satisfying work of everything they touched.
Perhaps Chen’s most impressive strength is the uncompromising rhythmic integrity of his playing. This enabled him to rip as surely through the roller coaster of the Saint-Saens “Havanaise” as he was able to navigate the transition from tension to repose in the first movement of the Mozart K. 454 Sonata. In the Brahms D Minor Sonata, Op. 108, he and Elizalde set up just enough rhythmic competition (Elizalde pushing Chen ahead ever so slightly in the first movement) to keep Brahms’s long phrases from wallowing in their own loveliness. And managing Ysaye’s Sonata No. 2 with almost no rubato allowed both the ever-present “Dies Irae” melody and its Bach-like reworking to speak clearly.
Chen plays a Stradivarius on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation, and the tone he gets is almost human in its slight graininess and glow. This gave the harmonically adventurous second movement of the Mozart a sense of the mysterious and the concluding Saint-Saens “Introduction et Rondo Capriccioso” a splendid sensuality.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.