By Greg Cahill | From the November-December 2020 issue of Strings magazine
When the COVID-19 quarantine sidelined the globe-trotting violinist Ray Chen’s burgeoning concert career, the New York–based violinist didn’t get mad, he got creative. Chen, 31, purchased a half dozen professional-grade mics, built a small home studio, connected via the internet with London-based producer Jonathan Allen, and dug into the music of J.S. Bach. He notes: “Bach’s music, in particular, written so far ahead of its time, reminds us of an important message: that humanity struggles onwards despite the odds.”
The result is Solace (Umusic), on which the Taiwanese-Australian musician navigates the twists and turns—and joy—of the composer’s six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. The lockdown album features a half dozen select movements from these monumental Baroque works, though this winner of the 2008 Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition foregoes the iconic Chaconne, from Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, championed by Menuhin as the ultimate solo-violin work. Instead, he has crafted a dynamic program fashioned from multiple movements.
The album opens with the jaunty Preludio of Partita No. 3 in E, BWV 1006, and moves on to the double-stop-laden Fuga of Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001. That latter piece captures the raw emotion with which Chen has infused some of these ancient works, lending a biting urgency to the movement’s dangerous double-stops before adding a sweet tone to the signature cascading scales. He brings calm to the Largo of Sonata No. 3 in C major, BWV 1005, a landmine field of contrapuntal technique. Bach’s solo violin works have been a favorite among quarantined string players, drawn especially to the aching quality of the Fuga of Sonata No. 1 and the elegant beauty of the Gavotte en Rondeau of Partita No. 3.
Playing a 300-year-old Stradivari, once owned by famed Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, Chen has turned the stress of the COVID-19 lockdown into a sumptuous document filled with the timeless pleasure of Baroque solo-violin works.