Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Fou Ts'ong (1934 - 2020)

I was about twelve when I was taken to my first piano recital. The pianist was Fou Ts’ong. I don’t know why, but I remember the programme – Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511, Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, and Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960. After that initial encounter, I had opportunities to hear the pianist on several occasions, and I still treasure the half dozen or so recordings of his in my library. 

 

Fou lived through tumultuous times in China’s history – growing up in pre-revolutionary China, he witnessed the tragedies of the Sino-Japanese war, the Chinese Civil War, and the greatest tragedy of Mao Tse-Tung’s so-called “liberation” of the country. He had the opportunity to study in Poland, winning third prize at the Fifth International Chopin Competition and the special prize for his playing of the mazurkas. He remained highly regarded in Poland, and served as jury member at the Chopin Competition on many occasions. He concertized extensively throughout the Soviet Bloc countries, but managed to escape to England (that in itself is a story worthy of a movie), narrowly avoiding what would have been humiliation and certain death had he returned to China. His own parents committed suicide in the 1960’s, unable to bear the shame and dehumanization of the person during that time. Fou quickly established himself, first in England, and then throughout the world of music with the sensitivity and poetry of his playing, and had been performing and teaching throughout the world. 

 

Somehow, critics (except on rare occasions) had refused to acknowledge him as a truly great pianist and musician. But he certainly had his friends and admirers among his musical colleagues – Martha Argerich, Radu Lupu, Leon Fleisher, Sviastolav Richter, Daniel Barenboim, and Vladimir Ashkenazy, to name just a few. He performed with some legendary artists – Yehudi Menuhin (his one-time father-in-law), Benjamin Britten, Hugh Maguire, Jacqueline du Pre, Kyung Wah Chung, and the aforementioned Argerich, one of his closest musical friends.

 

Although known for his poetic interpretations of Chopin, Fou was equally at home with Mozart, Scarlatti, Schubert, and Debussy – composers whose music made up the core of his concert and recorded repertoire. His deep knowledge and appreciation of Chinese classical literature and poetry gave him a unique window to look at the canon of western musical literature with fresh perspectives. 

 

Fou had never been a barnstorming virtuoso. A relatively late starter at the piano, Fou himself freely admitted to be technically inferior to the many young pianists he taught, and struggled with pianistic technique his entire life. Some of his performances could be technically disastrous – this was true of many pianists in the last century – Schnabel and Cortot were notable examples. I remember a Vancouver recital where he sounded distinctly uncomfortable in Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 110. On another visit, his all-Chopin recital at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts was memorable, especially his performance of the Préludes, Op. 28. And yes, his playing of Chopin’s very elusive mazurkas is truly magical, capturing the rhythmic and musical essence of these dances of the soul. What Fou Ts’ong always had to offer was the originality of his interpretation, the poetry, the soul, of his playing, and his ability to reach the emotional core of the composer’s sound world. 

 

Fou Ts’ong did not have a large discography, but he did make some fine recordings. Among his recordings, I treasure his set of Chopin Nocturnes (Sony Classical), playing that is pure poetry. There is also some wonderful playing in his recording of the Chopin Mazurkas, but the record suffers from an overly resonant and bright-sounding piano. He also recorded a beautiful disc of 32 Scarlatti Sonatas, playing that captures the humour, romance and quirkiness of the composer’s keyboard writing. In his Debussy albums, one on Collins of the Images and Estampes, another of Book I of the Préludes and Book I of the Études, recorded in the studios of Polish Radio (Ermitage Concerto) we hear the almost Oriental aesthetics of the composer’s creativity. He had always been a very fine Schubert interpreter, as is evident in a live 1998 recording of the composer’s autumnal Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960, recorded at London’s St. John’s Smith Square (Meridian).

 

In an age where originality is often sacrificed for technical polish and, sometimes, clinical perfection, Fou Ts’ong will remain in my mind an artist whose imagination, poetry and sensitivity animate that music that he played. I shall cherish in my mind the many fine performances I witnessed over the years. 

 

During his life, Fou Ts’ong had suffered many setbacks as well as personal tragedies. At the end of this long journey, may he now finally Rest in Peace.

 

 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Thinking of John le Carré

The imaginary world of David Cornwell, better known by his pseudonym John le Carré, is decidedly grey.

 

Not only when he is writing about the autumnal mist over Hampstead Heath, but even with settings in Central America and the Caribbean (as in The Tailor of Panama) or Africa (as in The Mission Song and The Constant Gardener), nothing is really black and white. 

 

From his earliest works such as Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, le Carré sets himself apart from authors such as Ian Fleming, in that the former deals with battles of the mind and the intellect, without resorting to fast cars and fancy gadgets. I remember reading le Carré reference to James Bond, probably the world most famous fictional spy, as an “international gangster” and someone without a single shred of conscience. 

 

A recurring theme that runs through much of le Carré’s works is the morality, or lack thereof, of spying. George Smiley, the author’s most famous hero, does battle not only with the Soviet spymaster Karla, but also with the hypocrisy as well as the stupid, self-serving individuals that run the British secret service. Indeed, he seems to hold a very cynical view of the competence and intelligence of (oxymoron indeed) those who operate within the “intelligence” world. In The Tailor of Panama, le Carré’s homage to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, and probably his most entertaining novel, a MI-6 agent is sent to Panama to gather intelligence and protect British interest. He in turn recruits the services of a well-connected tailor, and his completely fabricated intelligence reports lead to a U.S. invasion of Panama at the end of the story.

 

With the fall of the Soviet bloc, the author turns his attention to the rest of the world, constantly reinventing himself. In The Little Drummer Girl, le Carré’s first non Cold War novel, an Israeli spymaster recruits a young actress to discover the whereabouts of a Palestinian terrorist. She succeeds, but not before suffering a mental breakdown due to contradiction of her divided sympathies. In The Constant Gardener, a mild-manner Foreign Service diplomat in Kenya investigates the murder of his activist wife, exposing a sinister conspiracy connected to an international pharmaceutical firm and corrupt British politicians. In much of le Carré’s writings, I detect a deep-seeded anger against the stupidity of men in power and men of power, and he uses his stories to lash out in anger against the selfishness and shortsightedness of humanity. 

 

As a rule, film adaptations of le Carré’s novels never really do them justice. There are simply too many layers in the stories that are literally lost in the transference from print to celluloid. The film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is simply a travesty. For me, the most successful adaptions of his novels have been in television, namely the BBC’s wonderful television adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. Television allows the luxury of time to tell the whole story, and the BBC captures the faded colour of the secret world and the tragic existence of men who operate in shadows. To top it off, there is the magisterial performance by Alec Guinness, who, in the author’s words, “Stole the character from me.”

 

Like any great writer, le Carré’s fiction is a mirror for the age we live in. Through his stories, he shines a bright light on the dark recess of our conscience and our soul, and presents a unique perspective into the moral conundrum we face in our own existence.

 

David Cornwell, may you rest in peace.

 

 

Friday, November 27, 2020

Virtual Recital - Eric Lu

I had been looking forward to Eric Lu’s recital in Vancouver, especially after hearing his stunning performance of Beethoven’s 4thpiano concerto at the finals of the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition, where he emerged as the gold medalist. Lu’s performance of that elusive concerto gives the impression of an old soul, in spite of his tender age. 

 

For this virtual recital, recorded after his recital here had to be cancelled because of the Corona virus, Lu’s main offering is Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 959, one of the many miraculous works written in the Annus mirabilis of the composer’s final year.

 

Lu’s luminous tone and beautiful touch at the piano are apparent from the outset of his performance. He wisely chooses not to over-dramatize the opening of the first movement – Schubert’s indication is only forte – but, like a good storyteller, allows the drama to develop on its own. Lu deftly prepares our ears for the emergence of the tranquil E major theme at m. 55, which he imbues with a palpable spiritual quality. There is another magical moment towards the end of the exposition (m. 121), where Lu gives us a true pianississimo. In the extended development, the pianist leads us on an exploration of the myriad of tone and sound colours, as well as all the harmonic changes, the shifts between light and darkness, laid down by Schubert. In contrast with the opening of the movement, the first chords of the recapitulation is imbued with a sense of majesty and drama. That said, Lu never loses sight of the intense lyricism that is the underlying thread of this sonata. In the final appearance of the opening theme, now to be played pianissimo, there is kind of a veiled quality in the sound. 

 

In the astounding second movement, Lu understands the madness that lies beneath the fragile beauty of the music, and the feeling that the music is just hanging on to the remnants of sanity by a thread. His handling of the buildup to the veritable storm of the middle section is quite masterful. With the C-sharp major theme at m. 148, Lu’s playing fills the music with an intensely reverential quality. 

 

The young musician plays the scherzo with palpable lightness, as well as with an impish quality. His sense of timing is impeccable. In the trio, Lu gives the music a great deal of breathing room. He is not a rigid-tempo man – more of a Furtwängler than a Toscanini. Lu plays the opening of the 4th movement simply, with a feeling of complete contentment and happiness. He plays this music with a great deal of naturalness and masterful timing, allowing the surprises to unfold on their own, and acts as an expert guide taking us through Schubert’s ever-changing sound colours, as well as the myriad harmonic and melodic landscapes.

 

It is only at the conclusion of Lu’s performance that I realized that I have been living with this sonata a great deal lately, by way of Krystian Zimerman’s very beautifully played performance, and one of the most beautifully recorded album I had heard in a long time. Zimerman’s interpretation is that of a master musician, looking at the music at the height of his artistic powers and maturity. Lu’s view of this sonata is one of a young artist, albeit a supremely talented one, at the outset of his artistic journey. There is indeed a feeling of wonder and discovery with Lu’s playing. In time, his view of the music would change (I do not want to use the word depth here, because it would imply that only older artists can have “depth”, a oft-made statement that is both meaningless and unfair) and that would surely be something to look forward to.

 

In spite of, or perhaps because of its brevity, the challenge that lies within Chopin’s Prelude in E minor (Op. 28, No. 4) is to have this continual buildup of the music, from its very understated opening to its shattering climax. Lu acquits himself very well in this work indeed, and he beautifully shapes the ebb and flow of the melodic line, as well as Chopin’s subtle and continuous harmonic changes. In the Prelude in A-flat major (Op. 28, No. 17), a perfect foil to the intense tragedy of the E minor prelude, Lu plays with great depth of sound as well as beauty of this unique key colour. He plays the A-flat pedal note towards the end like distant tolling bells, and allows it to underscore the harmonic changes above.

 

I hope that Eric Lu returns to Vancouver with a live performance. This is clearly a young man that we need to keep our eyes on. I pray for continuing growth in his artistic journey and we, the listener, will be eagerly waiting for the next chapter.

 

 

 

 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Kate Liu, Before the Grand Competition

Ever since capturing the attention of the music world with her performance at the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Kate Liu has been very much in the thoughts of music and piano lovers the world over. Just as many in the piano world, I was concerned when she was forced to halt her performance activities because of a hand injury. I am happy that Kate Liu seems to be back, and in great form, as evident in her recent performance in Poland.

 

From the first notes of Händel’s Suite in E major, HWV 430, I was captivated by her sound, how she allows the sound to develop and envelop the space around her.  She does not hesitate to use the pedal generously to play this music, and her playing, especially of the Praeludium, has a great deal of freedom and space. At the same time, I find the performance completely idiomatic. In the Courante, the music really floats and dances. In the famous Air and “Harmonious Blacksmith” variations, there is a sense of playfulness in the way she plays it, as well as a real organic connection between the theme and the variations. The fast-moving 3rd, 4th and 5th variations are simply exhilarating and breathtaking under her fingers. 

 

I had the good fortune to hear her play Chopin’s Op. 59 mazurkas in her Vancouver recital. I believe her interpretation of these late masterpieces has matured. In the Mazurka in A minor, Op. 59, No. 1, she took time for the music to speak for itself, and she seems to play the work like reliving a dream. One of the remarkable things about Liu’s is that she draws the listener into the core of Chopin’s soul, and in the process reveals to us the deep sadness inherent in the music. I was deeply moved by her performance of the Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 59, No. 2. Her interpretation goes far beyond the outward charm of the music, and reveals the dignity and heartbreak of the music. Liu brings out the earthiness of the opening of the Mazurka in F-sharp minor, Op. 59, No. 3. I held my breath as I beheld the unbelievable beauty of the B section. Throughout the performance of these three works, I was completely captivated by her playing, and was absolutely drawn into Chopin’s emotional and sound world.

 

The second half of her recital, dedicated to the works of Robert Schumann, began with a moving rendition of the Arabesque in C major, Op. 18. Once again, my ears were captured by the depth and beauty of her sound, as well as the euphoniousness of her rendition of this charming work. As well, she brings out the unique and contrasting character of each section, as well as the dreamy nature of Schumann’s creativity. I find her playing of the work’s ending (Zum Schluss, Langsam) overwhelmingly beautiful.

 

The concert ended with an impassioned reading of the monumental Fantasy in C major, Op. 17. As in the Chopin, Liu completely draws the listener into Schumann’s inner world. Liu’s sound is now bigger and bolder since I last heard her and she is even more able to bring out the extremes in sound demanded for this music. Throughout the performance, I felt that Liu was someone who both lost herself in the music, but who also saw clearly the way before her. In the Im Legendenton section, her interpretation had a kind of dreamy, faraway (almost fairy tale) quality to it. The final Adagio, when the composer quotes from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, was emotionally shattering.

 

Liu observed Schumann’s mf marking in the beginning of the second movement, and let the music build. I also appreciate her pacing in this movement, and how she does not overplay the music, or uses it as a vehicle for her virtuosity. She acquitted herself brilliantly in the treacherous coda. 

 

Once again, her musicality and artistry are evident with the profound and otherworldly beauty of the third movement. Liu plays this movement as one enormous buildup to the tremendous climax at the end. The quality of her pianissimo in the beginning of the A-flat major section is quite extraordinary. The final buildup – Nach und nach bewegter und schneller – was overwhelmingly emotional, and the Adagio in the final measures sounded like a closing benediction.

 

With Schumann’s Fantasy as well as the Kreisleriana, Op. 16, we feel the creativity of the composer operating at a fever pitch. Kate Liu’s artistry recreated for us this white heat of the composer’s creative genius with her rendition of the Fantasy. Even experiencing this concert online, one feels the audience in communion with the artist as she embarks upon this aesthetic experience.

 

In Schubert’s Ungarische Melodie, D. 817, which she played as an encore, Liu captured to perfection the shifting shades of light and darkness so inherent in Schubert’s music.

 

I do not believe that Kate Liu will ever become the kind of barnstorming, note-perfect pianist we see so much of today. As Theodor Leschetizky said to Arthur Schnabel, “You will never be a pianist; you are a musician”, Kate Liu is a musician and artist, with her own original and highly personal voice. We, the music lovers, wait with anticipation for the next chapter of her artistic journey.

 

 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Chasing Chopin

 In the last decade, writers and music scholars seem to have devoted much effort on the life and music of Chopin. Starting with the 2011 update of Adam Zamoyski’s Chopin, to Paul Kildea’s Chopin’s Piano: A Journey Through Romanticism, and to Alan Walker’s masterful and unsurpassable Fryderyk Chopin: A life and Times, these writers address many aspects of the composer’s life and art.

 

Most recently, we have Annik LaFarge’s Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions (Simon & Schuster, 2020), a book that is more difficult to categorize, or to write about.

 

The book grew out of the author’s love of and fascination for Chopin’s famous funeral march, the third movement of his Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35. This is a more personal journey of the writer in trying to understand Chopin’s elusive work, a musical creation that, in spite of its title, had no precedent. Throughout the book, the author, I believe, tries to discuss the relevance of the work, and Chopin’s music in general, in today’s world. If we were able to bring Chopin back to our own time, LaFarge, he would, “encounter a world that has much in common with his own: countries invade their neighbors, people flee their warn-torn homelands, often unable to return; barricades go up in city streets; nationalism rages around the globe; new technology brings wave after wave of cultural and social changes; dictators bloviate; individual voices are amplified.” Chopin, she adds, would find his music being “reinvented and reclaimed in so many surprising ways and unusual places.”

 

Indeed, ethnomusicologist and folk music specialist Maria Pomianowska and her folk band attempt to do exactly this, to “reinvent” the music of Chopin. Playing with instrumentalists from many different cultures and ethnicities, she explores how his music might sound in today’s multicultural world, with the influences of music from a myriad of inspirations.

 

In terms of information or knowledge, there isn’t very much here that cannot already be found elsewhere. But then this isn’t meant to be a conventional biography, but an author’s “take” on how Chopin’s music relates to her own life and that of the world around her. 

 

According to the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, “the idea of Poland constituted the nation itself in the hearts of its own people, and that idea could live on, no matter what.” On top of the composer’s genius, the most potent inspiration for Chopin’s creativity is probably the idea of exile, the love of his homeland that is sublimated in his musical creations. This “idea” of Poland permeates every one of the composer’s works, but it is perhaps this very idea that makes Chopin’s music so universally appealing. 

 

The author does address some interesting aspects of Chopin’s art. She devotes some pages to the evolution of the piano up to Chopin’s time, and the composer’s love for the Pleyel piano – perhaps the most famous endorsement of an artist for a brand of instrument. In Chopin’s words, the Pleyel was the instrument for “the enunciation of my innermost thoughts.” 

 

Also important in the current volume’s narrative is Chopin’s love for opera. Chopin arrived in the Paris of Berlioz and Meyerbeer. His love for opera inspired not only his melodic creation but his approach to piano playing. It was, as the author states, also the time of the birth of programmatic music, the year 1830 was the year when Berlioz programmatic Symphonie Fantistique was premiered. For me, it seems ironic that, with all of Chopin’s love for the narrative nature of opera, he resolutely resisted any hint of story-telling in his own music. Unlike his famous contemporary Liszt, none of Chopin’s works carry any programmatic titles. None of Chopin’s compositions would paint any pictures, or tell any story. In this way, Chopin is very much a classicist, leaving the interpreters to draw upon his or her own imagination in playing his music.

 

Perhaps because she herself is a dedicated piano student, LaFarge is also fascinated with Chopin’s teaching. In the midst of the craze for the piano, Chopin also tried to codified his own teaching by writing a piano method, a project he left unfinished. The author addresses many aspects of Chopin’s teaching, from his emphasis on a singing tone as well as comfort of the hands, the use of the wrist to express “breathing” in a musical phrase, and his aim to foster individualism and freedom in his students. 

 

Naturally, no story involving Chopin would be complete without discussing his relationship with George Sand, their infamous trip to Majorca, and their life together at Sand’s house in Nohant. It was in Nohant that Chopin completed work on the Op. 35 sonata. The author suggests that Chopin’s inspiration and model for the sonata could have been Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 26, one of his favourite Beethoven sonatas, and a work that also included a grand funeral march as its third movement - “Trills on the keyboard evoke drumrolls…and the slowly rising and falling crescendos and decrescendos give the march a sense of dignity and importance” - a description that could also easily fit Chopin’s funeral march. The first public performance of the funeral march was at the composer’s own funeral at La Madeleine church, in an orchestration by the composer Henri Reber, one of the composers to whom Chopin bequeathed his piano method.

 

There are other personal and intriguing stories surrounding and involving the music of Chopin, and the author should be commended in looking hard for evidence of the relevance today of Chopin’s music. Perhaps she needs look no further than to just think about the enduring popularity of his music. From the struggling amateur pianists to towering artists like Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, Chopin’s music remains a touchstone of their repertoire. 

 

LaFarge’s book is a personal journal of musical discovery, a result that grows out of her love for the music of Chopin. It is not, nor does it try to be, a comprehensive overview of the composer’s life, but a highly personal glimpse into various aspects of his art, and a book that betrays the writer’s passion and curiosity for the subject matter.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Revisiting a special Brahms First PIano Concerto

Shortly before the end of his long performing career, Arthur Rubinstein made a final recording of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.  Mr. Rubinstein had been playing the concerto since he was around twelve years old. According to My Young Years, the first volume of the pianist’s memoirs, his teacher laughed when he expressed the wish to learn this work, but then young Rubinstein brought it to the subsequent lesson and played it to his teacher’s amazed satisfaction. 

 

The recording also represents Mr. Rubinstein’s only appearance on London-Decca. Special arrangements had to be made at the time to temporarily release the pianist from his contractual obligations to RCA Victor. 

 

My first live performance of this concerto was with Claudio Arrau, and it has remained one of my favourite symphonic works. I somehow felt the need to hear that recording again this morning, First off, if you are looking for a note-perfect, silken smooth performance of this concerto, this is not for you. Mr. Rubinstein was close to 90 when he played this performance, and hitting all the correct notes was certainly not his primary goal.

 

I found this performance incredibly moving, and felt that it represents a wonderful bookend to Mr. Rubinstein’s artistic and musical life. For him, to play this concerto with Mehta, an old friend, and this “orchestra of exiles” from the nation of Israel, whom he loved, made for very special music making. 

 

Having played chamber music all his life, Mr. Rubinstein does not make the superhuman demands of this enormous work a showcase for himself, but takes an almost chamber music like approach to make the piano’s musical line an organic component of the giant orchestral fabric. As well, there is a real give and take, a real feeling of dialogue between him and Mehta. Mr. Rubinstein had said that it was always a feast to play with Mehta, as it was with George Szell before that. 

 

In the slow movement, Mr. Rubinstein plays the music in a reflective manner, and imbues the music with an inner glow, while in the outer movements, the sound evokes a feeling of ruggedness. In addition, the relatively modern recording technology (or perhaps it was the London engineers) captures the pianist’s piano sonorities, much more so than in his earlier RCA recordings. His earlier recording with Fritz Reiner, long considered a classic, seems more “light-weight” compared with this Israel recording, which really has a sense of weight in the sound.  

 

Mr. Rubinstein’s performance with Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic evoke in my mind the image of magnificent granite. To be sure, the musicians in this recording bring out the epic quality of Brahms’ great concerto.

 

With the state our world is in – challenges and stress during this pandemic, political division in the United States, and the hopelessness of the fight for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong - hearing this deeply moving performance was for me a cathartic experience, as well as one that gave me hope during this bleak time.

 

I am still young enough to remember that every Rubinstein recording was a special occasion, something to celebrate. The music world has changed much since those innocent days. At least we have this unforgettable artistic memento by the great Arthur Rubinstein, someone who to this day represents for me what it really is to be a musician.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Poet of the Piano

Although not a medal winner at the 1st International Chopin Competition for Period Instruments, Dimitry Ablogin has been enjoying a busy post-competition career. His recital at this year’s Chopin and His Europe Festival clearly shows not only a highly talented pianist, but also a musician and artist with artistry and maturity far beyond his tender years. 

 

The opening piece, Mendelssohn’s Andante cantabile e Presto Agitato, WoO 6, from 1838, as well as the Chopin selections, were played on an Érard piano. The intense lyricism of his playing was immediately apparent with the first notes of the Mendelssohn. He appears to be one of those musicians capable of producing liquid sound, many different shadings of piano, as well as whispering pianissimo. In the presto section, I was captivated by the clarity, lightness (especially in the bass notes) and quickness (not just tempo-wise) of his playing, capturing the essence of the keyboard figurations so typical of Mendelssohn. His playing of this presto section reminded me very much of the scherzo from the composer’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

 

Ablogin gave deeply felt performances of his choice of Chopin, beginning with the Etude in C-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 7. I admire the flexibility of his line, playing the melody very much like a string instrument, as well as the beauty of his phrasing, allowing the music to unfold naturally. Throughout this short work, there were many moments of heart-piercing sadness. 

 

In the Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2, probably the one piece that is most identified with what is Chopin, his legato playing was simply astounding, almost letting one note melt into another. He played the coda like a beautiful operatic duet. The entire piece, from first notes to last, was played almost like one enormous arch. 

 

The Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61 equally captured my attention. It was very much an inward-looking interpretation, allowing us to have a glimpse into the very heart of the music as well as making us feel its heartbreaking beauty. In the opening, he managed to paint the music with many shades of sound colours, all within a fairly narrow dynamic range. This large work, elusive to many pianists, did not come across as a series of disjoined (albeit very beautiful) episodes, but was played with a real sense of organic unity. In the softer parts of the work, Ablogin infused the music with an inner glow. 

 

After intermission, the young artist performed Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Op. 126. For this work, Ablogin chose to play on a copy of a Buchholtz piano, built by master instrument builder Paul McNulty. 

 

Ablogin played the waltz theme, written in a childlike, almost childish fashion, with great humour, and a real “bounce” to the dance. On this beautiful period instrument, Beethoven’s hallmark accents did not come across with any less impact. If Beethoven thoroughly exploited – in the best sense of the word - every aspect of Diabelli’s simple waltz theme, Ablogin certainly succeeded, with his astounding pianism, in bringing out the humour (a vital factor in playing these variations, I think) and unique character of each variation. Ablogin really knew how to work with the instrument, and as I listened to his playing, I actually forgot that I was hearing an “old” instrument. Under the hand of a lesser artist, a performance of this extended work would seem interminable, but Ablogin managed to give Beethoven’s massive construction a sense of coherence and unity. This is a magnificent performance of this Mount Everest of the piano literature, a towering achievement for any pianist, let alone one so young.

 

As if the giant set of variations was not sufficient, Ablogin generously granted us an encore, Beethoven’s charming Rondo in C major, Op. 51, playing this lighthearted work with great flexibility of line - this appears to be a hallmark of his musicianship - and as much lightness, grace and charm as called for by the music.

 

Every artist will have his or her own path. In a recent performance, I had also been moved by the Chopin performance of Tomasz Ritter, the gold medalist of the aforementioned Chopin competition for period instruments. Of course, no one could tell how these very different musicians will mature and develop. But I can say for certain that Ablogin is an artist we should all keep an eye on. I believe that we will be hearing much more from this young poet of the piano in the decades to come. With young musicians like Ritter and Ablogin, the future of music appears to be in good hands.