A Tip of the Hat to the Violin Goliaths

Jul 16, 2018

With a precious instrument once owned by one of the most legendary violinists of all time, Ray Chen has channeled the flexible charm of the players of the past on his new recording “The Golden Age,” WCRB’s CD of the Week!

In the 19th century, the miraculous violinist Josef Joachim was offering Brahms the advice he desperately needed for his violin concerto. Brahms, Schumann, and Max Bruch were all so grateful for Joachim’s wisdom and virtuosity that they dedicated their violin concertos to him. Back then, Joachim couldn’t possibly have envisioned the trip that his Stradivarius violin would take into the future when it would become a 21st-century regular on Facebook and YouTube! Thanks to the violin’s current fun-loving owner Ray Chen, the 1715 “Joachim” Stradivarius now takes part in plenty of hilarious educational videos, including “Masterclass Mondays,” not to mention spine-tingling concerts around the world.

Ray was born in Taiwan and raised in Australia. He was just 15 when he was accepted to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He was first-prize winner of the Yehudi Menuhin and Queen Elizabeth Competitions, and just last year he signed with the record label Decca Classics. His newest recording, called The Golden Age, celebrates the music and the very special style of playing that was coined by Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler.

Bookending the CD are performances by Made in Berlin, Chen’s own string quartet. The opening piece, “A New Satiesfaction” is a mesmerizing arrangement by cellist Stephan Koncz that weaves in Satie’s famous Gymnopédie No. 1. It was a major YouTube hit on Chen’s channel even before the CD was released. The final track is another arrangement by Koncz, a nod to Australia in the form of variations on “Waltzing Matilda.” Koncz has also created a gorgeous arrangement of Debussy’s “Clair de lune” that hits the spot with just the right atmospheric restraint.  It trembles like a soft French breeze, and Chen and his quartet make it breathtaking.

The miniatures by Kreisler (“Syncopation” and “Schön Rosmarin”) and arrangements by Heifetz (Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Ponce’s “Estrellita”) are bon-bons of extreme popularity that have been played uncountable times by uncountable violinists. Chen aims for the flexible, kaleidoscopically colored quality that came so naturally to the great golden age players. Restraint is key here, too, with a vocal quality that should make you hold your breath. Chen’s slightly airy approach is given a magical quality with a vibrato that comes only on special occasions. It’s lovely.

At the center of the recording is Max Bruch’s lush first violin concerto, with the London Philharmonic and conductor Robert Trevino. Ray Chen says in one of his videos that since the piece was written for Joachim and his violin, he counts on the concerto’s notes being already “in there” – he just needs to play it.

Watch a trailer for The Golden Age:

For more information and to purchase this recording, visit ArkivMusic.