Violinist Leland Chen told a Kennedy Center Terrace Theater audience Tuesday night how he had given up two Stradivariuses for his present instrument, a late '80s (as in 1980s) copy of a Guarneri "del Gesu," the model preferred by Paganini. This bit of news accounted in part for the remarkable tone quality Chen displayed, yet seemed at odds with his reluctance to take many chances or uncover personal observations in frequently performed works that aren't exactly closed shops for interpretation.
During the course of his recital, Chen came across as a reserved virtuoso whose temperament finds little value in dazzling viewers with technical wizardry. His understated approach to the opening piece, Fritz Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro, featured secure intonation produced by a well-controlled bowing arm. The sound was graceful and buoyant, an attribute he maintained as the program alternated between "light" and "heavy" pieces. Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata, Op. 24, itself devoid of severe emotional peaks and valleys, contained meticulous phrasing by Chen and his accompanist, Jeffrey Gilliam. Their slightly whimsical take on the Heifetz-arranged Three Preludes of Gershwin floated on a cushion of syncopated rhythms and spicy blue notes.
Chen's best opportunity to share any profound insights occurred in the Brahms Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, but his playing didn't catch fire until the finale. Gilliam's insistent volume level briefly disrupted the balance before the pair settled into a comfortable dialogue. Whatever excitement the Brahms lacked, Chen made up for with his account of Wieniawski's "Polonaise brillante in D," Op. 4, which was everything its title implies.