Chen Sa has been a fan of Frederic Chopin since she first started to learn to play piano at age 9.
She has performed many of his works during her career and developed a deeper understanding of the composer as she grew up and grew into her life as a professional musician.
In 2019, Chen toured nationwide, performing a program of 21 nocturnes by Chopin. She planned to record an album featuring these pieces in Berlin, Germany, in March 2020. But her plan was postponed due to the COVID pandemic.
She spent hours at home practicing the works of various composers during the period during the outbreak when live concerts were canceled or suspended.
But the idea of recording the Chopin album lingered in her mind.
Several months ago, she spent three days finally recording the album, Chopin's 21 Nocturnes, in the concert hall of the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing. The record was released by Decca, a label under Universal Music Group, on Sept 23.
It's Chen's second album released by Decca after one in 2017, featuring 24 preludes by Claude Debussy.
Chopin's 21 nocturnes for solo piano, composed between 1827 and 1846, are considered to rank among the finest short solo piano pieces.
"Chopin's 21 nocturnes hold an important place in the contemporary concert repertoire," Chen says.
"Many great pianists have performed and recorded them. I was allowed to explore the greater emotional depth of these pieces after the tour in 2019."
The musician immersed herself in Chopin's music for 12 hours on the first day of recording the nocturnes album.
Chen describes the experience as "zero gravity".
The second day saw the pianist return to her usual state of calm and quiet. She wrapped up recording in the middle of the night and felt instant relief.
"I had a good night of dreamless sleep," Chen adds.
"Musicians always have regrets about their recordings. I do, too. I was unworried about having not fully expressed myself, rather than feeling anxious, after recording. Maybe a decade later, I'll record them again."
Unlike many albums featuring the nocturnes that order the songs according to the composer's notes, Chen sequenced them based on her own understanding.
"They connect with one another in their own ways to me. They're dreamlike, mood-filled and very personal," says Chen.
The Chongqing native's mother was a professional dancer, and her father was a French horn player and keyboardist. Chen started to play violin at age 6 and started piano lessons from veteran music educator Dan Zhaoyi at age 9.
Chen achieved fame after winning fourth place as the youngest contestant at the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1996. The following year, she enrolled in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London with a full scholarship.
In 2000, she took fourth at the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. And a year later, she released her debut album, Chopin Impression. Her second album, Chopin's Complete Waltzes, came out in 2006.
Chen received the Crystal Award at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2005.
She later studied at Hochschule fur Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover in Germany, where she received her PhD in piano performance in 2007.
In 2015, her album Memories Lost, featuring modern Chinese compositions, offered audiences a fresh experience with Chinese musical instruments. BBC Music Magazine described the album as "the most interesting and successful recording of new Chinese music so far".
Since 2016, the pianist has received invitations to serve as a judge for such prestigious competitions as the Leeds International Piano Competition and the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.