Monday, April 23, 2018

Celebrating Twenty Years

How fortunate we are in Vancouver to have had the opportunity to hear performances from two distinguished pianists, one at the height of his maturity, and the other one still at the early stages of his journey in music. Early this month, Sir András Schiff gave a magnificent recital under the auspices of the Vancouver Recital Society. Yesterday afternoon, Rafal Blechacz gave an equally memorable performance to celebrate the 20thanniversary of The Vancouver Chopin Society.

The common work between the two concerts was Mozart’s late masterpiece, the Rondo in A minor, K. 511. Like Schiff, Blechacz did not fall into the trap of lugubriousness, and wisely kept the impetus of the music. Uncommon in someone so young, Blechacz has a real sense of the architecture of the work, and his playing gave me the feeling of a connection between the first and last note of the music. This was apparent in every work, large or small, that he played yesterday.

Blechacz gave an inspired reading of Mozart’s great Sonata in A minor, K. 310, one of the composer’s most technically challenging and dramatic works. In the opening, the young artist managed to avoid making the left hand chords sound percussive, very difficult on the modern piano, by making those chords part of the larger texture of the music, rather than treating them as mere accompaniment. It is remarkable that so young an artist can infuse the music with a palpable simplicity and naturalness, as he did in this work. In the second movement, he perfectly balanced the contrast between the lyrical and the very dramatic. It is perhaps no accident that the pianist’s most recent recording was devoted to the works of Bach. In the third movement, there was a lightness and textual clarity in his playing that reminds me of how he approached the dance suites of Bach in his recording.  There was a real balance in the vertical and horizontal in the music in the way he approached this final movement. 

I am personally in awe of Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, Op. 101, one of the composer’s most original works. It takes any pianist real courage to tackle this musically and technically challenging sonata. Although regarded as one of Beethoven’s late sonatas, I feel that, conceptually and musically, it is closer to the “experimental” sonatas like Op. 81a. Blechacz availed himself magnificently in this incredible work. Once again, there was a sense of connection between the simple rocking motive of the opening measures and the triumphal final chords in the third movement. In the left hand octaves at mm. 7 to 11 of the first movement, he conjured an almost organ-like sound. The last time I heard a sound like that on the piano was from Alfred Brendel, when he gave an unforgettable performance of Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat, Op. 110 (in the left hand octaves of the final fugue.) In the second movement, which almost foreshadows the march from Schumann’s Fantasy in C major, Op. 17, Blechacz was technically impregnable, and there was an effortlessness that came across in the music. His acute sense of rhythm served him well in the dotted-rhythmic figures throughout the movement. So wonderful was his sense of musical timing that the brief Adagio, ma non troppo, con affecttomovement became a perfect intermezzo, a sort of musical Segway, before the final movement. His playing of the brief return of the first movement’s opening theme, lasting only seven measures, was charged with meaning. In the final movement, there was a Glenn Gould like clarity in how he handled the musical texture. Blechacz’s playing of the fugue was exhilarating.

The second half of the recital began with Robert Schumann’s Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22. To me, this work often sounds like four beautiful but disparate character pieces rather than movements of a sonata. It is a credit to the artist that he managed to once again highlight the architecture of the overall work. Blechacz captured the fever, the sense of urgency and desperation in the first, third, and final movements. For me, the highlight was his playing of the gorgeous second movement, where he shone a light on the music like a precious gem. 

I am sure many people went to yesterday’s performance to hear Blechacz’s Chopin, and he certainly did not disappoint. In his performance of the composer’s Mazurkas, Op. 24, I was very much reminded of the playing of Arthur Rubinstein. There was again this feeling of simplicity and naturalness that was beguiling. His timing in each of the four dances was impeccable; as was his sense of rubato, not exaggerated or contrived, but giving the sense that it was just as the music should be. I was particularly taken with his interpretation of the Mazurka in C major, Op. 24, No. 2, where he took a slightly slower tempo than usual, but did not take away any of the music’s natural flow. 

Blechacz concluded his recital with Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53. Yes, under the hands of a great artist, it is possible to make this work sound fresh and original. He played the famous opening theme with great simplicity and lightness, but with no lack in the dignity and pride that are so inherent in this music. As in the mazurkas, his sense of musical timing was palpable throughout this performance. His playing of the octave passage in the B section was breathtaking, but not showy. 

It had been a very generous afternoon of music making, but after much urging from the audience, Blechacz granted us an encore of Brahms’ Intermezzo in A major, Op. 118, No. 2, a work that Schiff also played in his recital. Blechacz’s beautiful and thoughtful playing of this beautiful autumnal work by Brahms was a perfect ending to this very memorable of great performances of great music. 

In a world that is full of technically perfect pianists, it is refreshing to hear an artist, especially one so young, who does not make technical proficiency his primary concern. Throughout the afternoon, I never thought of how “well” he played the piano, but how beautiful the musicwas. Certainly I cannot think of a higher tribute to this supremely gifted young artist.

April 23, 2018


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Songs of Farewell

Sir András Schiff made one of his always-welcomed visits to Vancouver and gave us a magnificent recital of music that centers on the idea of farewell.

In each half of the concert, Schiff made the request that there would be no applause until the end. This certainly made for an intense exercise in concentration and stamina not just for the artist, but the audience as well. 

Schiff began his performance with Robert Schumann’s rarely played Variations on an Original Theme in E-flat major (“Ghost Variations”), WoO 24. With the exception of the 5thvariation, I found this music, written when the composer was already exhibiting obvious signs of severe mental illness, much more classically oriented and less “hallucinatory” than earlier works such as Kreisleriana. Schiff has reached a stage in his artistic development where he is now like a master actor, whose smallest gestures – the wink of an eye, the move of a finger - convey volumes. With this work, and with every work in last night’s recital, the music came across with a naturalness and simplicity that was astounding. 

The artist must have given much thought to the structure of his programme, for there was not only a recurring leitmotif in all the pieces performed, but also logic in the key relationship of the order of the works. The next work on the programme, Brahms’ Drei Intermezzi, Op. 117, begins with the heavenly lullaby in E-flat major, the same key as the Schumann just played. Schiff played this familiar work somewhat faster than Brahms’ Andante moderatoindication, probably to avoid the trap of lugubriousness so many pianists fall into, thereby keeping the impetus of the music and infusing it with a lightness not often found in performances of this work. The Intermezzo in B-flat minorthat followed was played with textual clarity and an acute awareness of the beauty of the many subtle harmonic shifts. In the Intermezzo in C-sharp minor, Schiff voiced the opening octave passage beautifully. In the Piu moto ed espressivosection, the layering of the musical texture was deftly and masterfully handled.

Almost as a sorbet to clean the palate between courses, Schiff then moved on to Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511. A minor is of course the submediant chord of the key of C-sharp minor, the key of the previous work performed. I appreciated the pianist’s tempo choice for this work, which brought out the dance-like character of the music. When the theme returns at the end (m. 163), I was surprised to hear the artist giving much prominence to the arpeggiated left hand “accompaniment”, thereby creating almost a lovely countermelody to the by-now-familiar theme.

Schiff ended the first half of his recital by returning to Brahms, with the Sechs Klavierstüke, Op. 118. The first of the six pieces, not surprisingly, is in the key of A minor. In this opening Intermezzo, Schiff seemed to aim to downplay the dramatic elements of the music, focusing instead of the beauty of the music’s many harmonic shifts. Surprisingly, the music did not come across with less sweep and passion. When I looked at the score, I discovered that Schiff was merely observing Brahms’ indication of only fortein the dramatic opening of the work. In fact, there was not one single indication of fortissimoindication from beginning to end, a surprisingly discovery considering how this work is generally played with much force and sound by many pianists. The popular and justly famous Intermezzo in A majorwas played with a flowing quality and a tenderness that was palpable. Schiff beautifully brought out the countermelody in the F-sharp minor middle section, and the voicing of the piu lentochords was nothing short of masterful. The Ballade in G minor was played with a lightness not often found in performances of this extroverted work. The B major section was played with an astounding degree of subtlety as well as beauty of sound. The difficult return to the opening G minor section was masterfully handled. In the Intermezzo in F minor, for me the most elusive of the set, there was a logic and clarity of intent that gave this music a naturalness not often found in many performances. I was very moved by Schiff’s account of the Romanze in F major. He brought out an inner beauty and glow of the music that I had not heard before. It was astoundinghow he played the tricky D major middle section with an absolutely breathtaking lightness. In the opening of the E-flat minor Intermezzo, Schiff magnificently brought out the stunning swirling harmonic clouds of the left hand like a great painter of sound. The artist also perfectly captured the music’s bleakness, the barren musical landscape created by Brahms. Not even in the middle octave section, where most pianists would let loose, did Schiff lose sight of the highly intimate nature of the work. 

It is of course always a treat to hear András Schiff play Bach, as he did last night with the Prelude and Fugue No. 24 in B minor, BWV 869. This work, the last of Book One of the Well Tempered Clavier, fitted in well with the general “mood” of the recital. In the Prelude, Schiff created an almost orchestral texture by playing the left hand with incredible lightness, almost like the pizzicato of violins, and colouring the right hand theme as if played by woodwinds. In the Fugue, Schiff wisely did not overplay the tragedy of the music, with all those falling minor seconds, but injecting it with a kind of wistfulness. 

The programme then returned once again to Brahms, with the Vier Klavierstüke, Op. 119. In the Intermezzo in B minor(again the key relationship with the previous work performed), the opening falling thirds were played with a great deal of resistance. I always feel that these falling thirds shouldsound slower as they descend, and I was grateful that Schiff did just that. In the Intermezzo in E minor, the opening was played with incredible lightness and subtleness, almost like the gentle palpitations of the heart, perfectly conveying the composer’s indication of poco agitato.In the Andantino graziososection, this great master once again brought out the inner beauty of Brahms’ writing. In a word, Schiff’s playing of the Intermezzo in C majorwas simply breathtaking. In the glorious Rhapsodie in E-flat major, Schiff played this music with a quiet resolution, and gracefully conveyed the dense texture of the A-flat major middle section.

Continuing on the idea of farewell, Schiff concluded his recital with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 26 in E-flat major, Op. 81a (“Les Adieux”). His performance of this experimental sonata by Beethoven had an overarching logic and conveyed the sense of connection between the first note to last. In the opening Adagio, there was a feeling of simplicity, but at the same time highlighting all the musical details Beethoven lavished on these mere sixteen measures. At measure 8, Schiff placing of the C-flat major chord was just perfectly done. In last night’s performance, he made me aware of the ingenuity of the writing in the left hand. His playing of the two-note motifs in the left hand (mm. 95 to 109) gave the impression of the sound of the clacking sound of the horse’s hooves. In the second movement, the emotional core of the entire sonata, Schiff perfectly conveyed the stark beauty of the music. I loved the lightness with which he played the 32ndand 64thnotes at m. 33. His playing of the opening of the third movement reminded me of Hans von Bülow’s admonition to a pupil who tried to play this work, “Stop! In the joy of reunion, you rush off, get entangled in the train of your dress, crash down, and smash all the flowerpots in the garden!” Indeed, Schiff brought forth the humour of this movement like a master storyteller. I loved the sound he conveyed in the staccato octaves at mm. 37 to 44, and again at mm. 130 to 137. Throughout the movement, the overwhelming joy of the reunion was constantly palpable. 

This wonderful artist’s thoughtfulness in programming extended even to his encore, where he gave us J. S. Bach’s early and rarely played Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo, BWV 992. The work, inspired by the departure of his brother on a long journey, is, in spite of its title, filled with good humour, from the well-wishers’ descriptions of the dangers of the journey, to the sound of the horse carriage, and finally to the fugue based on the notes played by the post horn. Schiff did not pretend the work to be greater than it is, but played it with his usual beauty of sound, perfection in articulation, and relished in the humour inherent in the music.

Throughout this unforgettable evening, there was a sense of communion between artist, composer and audience. What a privilege for all of us who were there, to be able to partake in some share of András Schiff’s artistry, and to have glimpse into his inner world, as well as the inner world of the composers.

Patrick May
April 11, 2018

Monday, March 5, 2018

Marc-André Hamelin - Recital at the Chan


In the music world, there are pianists, and then there is Marc-André Hamelin. This incredible musician has the ability to make the most difficult, complex music sound easy, even effortless. Yesterday’s recital by the great Canadian pianist was one of the greatest feats of piano playing I had heard in a long time.

The first half of Hamelin’s recital was devoted to the music of Franz Liszt. In the opening work, the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 13 in A minor, Hamelin conveyed the improvisatory feeling of the opening measures (malinconico). It was in the vivace section that we first witnessed Hamelin’s effortless virtuosity, tossing off the runs (e molto leggiero) and the repeated notes (leggiero molto) with a lightness that was breathtaking. Hamelin’s technical abilities were so far above the challenges of the music that the closing octave and chordal passages sounded positively exhilarating.

The third work in Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, the Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude is, for me, one of the composer’s most profoundly beautiful works. In the opening, Hamelin made the awkward right hand accompaniment sound smooth and floating, at the same time projecting the gorgeous left hand melody. More importantly, the artist conveyed the spiritual core of the music. The climatic passages sounded absolutely exultant, but never forced.

The Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H once again reminded us of Hamelin’s awesome command of the keyboard as well as his awareness of the architecture of the work. Under his hands, this somewhat loosely constructed work took on a logic that is sometimes missing. In the more dramatic passage, Hamelin conjured up such massive sonorities that the sound of the piano took on orchestral qualities. It reminded me of the incident when Liszt himself played his transcription of Belioz’s March to the Scaffold, from his Symphonie Fantastique. Under Liszt’s hands, the work became more effective on the piano than even the orchestra.

In all three Liszt works that made up the first half of his recital, Hamelin held the music within a tight rhythmic framework, thereby giving the music an appealing restraint and a sense of nobility.

With any Hamelin recital, there would always be the new and unexpected, and the discovery in the second half had to be Samuil Feinberg’s Sonata No. 4 in E-flat minor, Op. 6. A Russian pianist and composer who lived between the years 1890 to 1962, Feinberg’s work is stylistically reminiscent of Scriabin. A one-movement work of about 10-minute duration, there is, within that relatively short time, a myriad of moods, textures, and tempi. Once again, Hamelin was able to make sense of, or allow us to see the logic behind, this complex work. Regardless of how dense the pianistic forest is, this remarkable artist always seemed to see his way clearly through.

Hamelin continued the second half with Claude Debussy’s Images, Book 1. The entire performance was ravishing, in a cool, objective kind of way. It was not the kind of beauty with great splashes of colour, like a Monet or a Renoir, but one of absolute textual clarity, and an unerring evenness of touch and tone. He played Reflets dans l’eau with little of the rubato that the composer indicated. Hamelin seemed to be operating within a rather narrow range of sonorities. Even the big transition to E-flat major was somehow underplayed. That said, it was a performance that has its own logic and exquisiteness. In Hommage à Rameau, Hamelin conveyed the feeling of emptiness and nothingness in the opening of the work. He evoked beautiful sonorities from the piano in Commeneer un peu au dessous du mouvement, building the music up to its incredible climax before returning to the desolate landscape of the opening. In Mouvement, Hamelin played the triplets with the most incredible lightness and evenness that took one’s breath away. The decrescendo towards the end of the work (presque plus rien) was the most beautiful I had ever heard.

Not surprisingly, Hamelin pulled out all his pianistic stops with the final work on the programme, Leopold Godowsky’s Symphonic Metamorphosis of Wine, Women and Song. Hamelin is one of the few contemporary pianists with the courage, not to mention the superhuman pianistic chops required to play these Godowsky “reworkings” of Johann Strauss. Needless to say, the playing was both musically impeccable and pianistically stunning. My only quibble was that it was a little lacking in a sense of fun, or the feeling that he was pulling an incredible stunt (which he was).

Under the urging of the appreciative audience, he gave us what would probably have been the Vancouver premiere of his own Toccata “L’Homme armé”. Written as the commissioned piece of the 2017 Van Cliburn Competition, Hamelin’s work tests to the limit every pianist’s technical and musical ability. Throughout the recital, I had the feeling that Hamelin approaches each work with the insight of a composer. Here, we were witness to a composer giving us his take on his own composition. It was a satisfying end to an incredible afternoon of piano playing and musicianship.

Patrick May
March 5, 2018

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Perry So with the VSO

Conductor Perry So made a welcomed return to Vancouver this weekend, conducting the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. I was moved by So’s music-making at his first Vancouver appearance, when he substituted for the scheduled conductor. He was a sensitive partner to Louie Lortie in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, and gave an incandescent reading of Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1 in E minor. This time around, the programme chosen probably had less popular appeal, which unfortunately accounted for the many empty seats in the Orpheum Theatre last evening.

The first piece on the programme last night was Jocelyn Morlock’s Earthfall. Morlock is the orchestra’s Composer in Residence, and many of her compositions have been performed often by the orchestra. Earthfall is a brilliantly colourful and evocative work - one that I hope will be repeated often. In her talk before the performance, the composer shared her experience playing in a gamelan ensemble, which influenced her composition of the present work. Indeed, the gentle, rhythmically pulsating beginning of the work did indeed remind me of that beautiful instrument from Bali. The opening of the work is almost minimalistic in style, with changes taking place slowly over time and with slowly building tension. The texture and tension build to a climax, after which came a quieter section (the tension remains though), with violins playing in the high register, almost to provide colours, set against the woodwinds and brass. There was a beautiful theme for the second and then first violins, and the music came to a tranquil ending with the lower registers of the violins set against the fluttering sounds of the winds.

It is often difficult to judge a performance based upon a first hearing of an unfamiliar work, but I believe So and the orchestra captured the essence, the changing moods, as well as the colourful nature of the work. Yesterday’s performance confirmed my impression of So as having a great command of the orchestral resources. The orchestra responded well under his direction, and all its “departments” outdid themselves with their outstanding playing in this technically demanding and musically challenging work.

Violinist Alexandra Soumm made her debut with the orchestra in the same concert with Edouard Lalo’s colourful and virtuosic Symphonie espagnole, Op. 21. I was as impressed with So as a gallant accompanist as I was with Soumm’s tempestuous playing.

I loved the weighty string tone So evoked at the beginning of the 1st movement (Allegro non troppo). For the first time, the strings were well balanced against the brass instruments of the orchestra. Soumm has a rich, luxuriant and vibrant sound that could cut through the orchestral texture, and she certainly rose to the challenge of the colourful and demanding string writing with aplomb.

Similarly, I was taken with the quality of the string tone at the quiet beginning of the 2nd movement. In this movement (Scherzando: Allegro molto) I appreciated the soloist more for the virtuosity of her playing than for capturing the Spanish flavour and rhythm of the music. Her playing in this movement was somewhat metronomic and did not “move” enough rhythmically.

The orchestra began the 3rd movement with great energy, and again with a sense of weight in the string tone. Soloist, conductor and orchestra captured the inflections of the Spanish rhythm, and the timing between soloist and conductor was perfect. Here, Soumm also highlighted the richness of her tone, especially in the lower register of the instrument, and she also highlighted the more rhetorical nature of the music.

I appreciated the spaciousness of the opening of the 4th movement. In fact, I think I heard some of the best brass playing by this orchestra in a long time. Here, our soloist showed her lyrical side, playing with a wonderful intimacy. The few brief orchestral outbursts were also wonderfully played.

I would have wished for a little more lightness in the joyful 5th movement of the work. The playing was colourful and exciting here, and the orchestra, under So, highlighted all the rhythm and colours inherent in the music.

Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 is, I believe, a challenge for conductor, orchestra, and audience. A great performance of this work requires virtuosic playing from every member of the orchestra. Last year, I heard a never-to-be-forgotten performance of this same work by the Chicago Symphony under Ricardo Muti, a performance whose sound I have been carrying in my head.

I believe So’s interpretation of this difficult work is an indication of a young musician still figuring things out. Yes, he is enormously talented and musical, but I believe he is now thinking through his interpretations.

But, better this than taking the easy way out for any musician.

I thought that the slow introduction of the 1st movement (Ziemlich langsam) called for far more tension than the musicians delivered. The descending scale at mm. 18 to 21 should be played with far more intensity and greater weight in the sound. As well, I missed a real sense of build-up in the few brief measures (mm. 22 to 28) to the 1st theme (Lebhaft) at m.29. At m. 29, the articulation needed to be clearer in the strings, because there was some muddiness in the sound, and the off-beat accents at m. 35 should have been much sharper. I believe that at Letter E, there could have been more of a sense of forward propulsion.

I missed the sense of inevitability in the transition to the second movement, a Romanze (Ziemlich langsam). I wished for more of a “glow” in the sound of the oboe solo, and more of a feeling of innigkeit in the playing. Also, the triplet figures of the 1st violins needed to be liberated a little, and perhaps more soloistic playing.

On the whole, the 3rd and 4th movement worked much better, and orchestra and conductor seemed to have hit their stride here. The weight of sound I missed in the 1st movement was evident from the outset of the 3rd movement. There was much more of a sense of urgency throughout the Scherzo (Lebhaft). The first violins played the eighth-note passage (m. 476) beautifully. I loved the wonderful transition into the 4th movement, as well as the build-up of tension into m. 660 (Lebhaft). Throughout the movement, the balance was good, and kudos to the brilliant playing of the VSO brass. The woodwind playing at m. 815 to 826 was magnificent. So led a great transition into the final bars of the movement at m. 831 (Schneller), and the orchestra in turn gave him truly wonderful playing here. I feel that the ending would have made a greater impact had the final chord been written as a quarter note instead of a long whole note.


The audience gave the orchestra and conductor what I would call an ambivalent ovation. This was unfortunate, because it really took courage to programme this difficult symphony, a bold movement by a guest conductor still making an impression. I hope that management of the VSO would invite him back as a guest conductor on a regular basis. I would be very interested to follow the career and artistic development of this young conductor and musician.

Patrick May
February 6, 2018

Monday, February 5, 2018

Janusz Olejniczak plays Chopin

To hear Janusz Olejniczak play Chopin is like hearing the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play Johann Strauss. There is a beguiling naturalness in the music making that makes it sound so “right” – in every inflection, every accent, every rubato taken. While it is true that great Chopin interpretation has extended far beyond the Polish border, it was obvious from Olejniczak’s playing this weekend that this music is in his blood, his body and soul.

The two concerts this weekend has been a first collaboration between Early Music Vancouver and the Vancouver Chopin Society. Part of Early Music Vancouver’s interest in this presentation lies in the fact that part of the recital was played on a beautiful 1852 Broadwood piano, lovingly restored by local piano restorer Marinus van Prattenburg. The idea behind the concert was for the audience to experience two very different sound worlds – the sound of a period instrument (Chopin died in 1849) as well as that of a modern Steinway grand. Other than the pleasure I derived from listening to this much loved music, hearing these two very different instruments had been in itself a fascinating experience.

Olejniczak began both recitals with Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth., first on the Broadwood, then on the Steinway, just to show the acoustical difference between these two instruments. The Broadwood has a narrower dynamic range but, under the hands of an artist who knew what he was doing with the instrument, not a narrower range of colours than the Steinway. The Steinway naturally had a much more commanding sound as well as a larger projection. With the Broadwood, I had the impression that I was eavesdropping on someone’s playing. Olejniczak created that intimate sound, or rather, created that palpable mood of intimacy, throughout the evening, and on both instruments, just a little more so on the Broadwood.

Between the two recitals, Olejniczak performed a good cross section of his more than fifty Mazurkas – Op. 17, No. 4, Op. 24, Nos. 1 and 2, Op. 30, No. 4, Op. 41, No. 2, and Op. 68, No. 2. There is a Polish word – zal – a word that represents the soul of a Pole. The basic meaning of the word is a bittersweet melancholy. But it also encompasses the feeling of suffering, sadness, of losing everything – a feeling that one sometimes feel when there is no sun and one is alone in a cold house. According to Liszt, the word can also mean “rage”, which is not only interesting but also paradoxical. Chopin’s music, even the most intimate ones, can have a lot of anger. Chopin himself admitted that most of his music is permeated with zal, and Liszt added that the word colours the whole of Chopin’s compositions.

It is also the music of exile, perhaps the most powerful source of inspiration for any artist.

Olejniczak’s performances of the Mazurkas contained all the aforementioned qualities. He employed much rubato in his playing of the Mazurkas, but always with impeccable taste, as well as a sense of - for lack of a better word - rightness.

In the two Mazurkas in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4, as well as Op. 68, No. 2, two works that contain some of the most desolate music the composer ever wrote, there was a feeling of deep sadness recollected from afar. In the Mazurka in C major, Op. 24, No. 2, Olejniczak conveyed the exoticism of both the opening Aeolian mode melody, which could be a rustic dance, or the singsong of a Polish street peddler, and the more lyrical, Lydian mode melody at mm. 21 to 36. Throughout both recitals, but especially during the Mazurkas, I had the feeling that Olejniczak was improvising, almost re-composing these works as he played.

This feeling of melancholy was carried through in Olejniczak’s choice of Waltzes he played, both on the Broadwood – the Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 69, No. 1 and Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2., the latter work being, for me, one of Chopin’s greatest works. In the difficult opening phrases of the Waltz in C-sharp minor, he had just the right amount of lilt as well as a beautiful inflection of those brief phrases. In the B section of the work, there was a gossamer lightness that was quite breathtaking. In Saturday’s performance, Olejniczak’s playing of the bass notes from m. 177 to the end, almost as a secondary voice, was particularly affecting.

In the Polonaise in A major, again played on the Broadwood on both evenings, there was a real feeling of dance in the opening measures, so often missing in performances bent on conveying the “bigness” of sound. In fact, Chopin expressly wrote only forte in the opening. I loved the way he played the opening trill at m. 41, with a palpable tension that immediately conveyed the drama of the entire section. In the tricky final measure of the Polonaise, Olejniczak added an extra bass octave before the A major chord to have more of a feeling of finality, something the composer may himself have done?

For the second recital, the artist played two of the Preludes, Op. 28 – the one in A major (No. 7) and the one in C minor (No. 20). In the C minor Prelude, Olejniczak beautifully but subtly brought out the middle register in the third iteration of the theme (m. 9).

O lejniczak’s playing of the Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1, again perfectly embodied the seemingly contradictory emotions in the word zal. From the somber opening chords to the frightening outburst of the B section, and back to the restless return of the opening theme, the pianist played as if taking us through the composer’s stream of consciousness. As well, his performance of the Nocturne in E minor, Op. posth., gave us a glimpse of the gorgeous sound he elicited from the Steinway, and brought out the otherworldly beauty of this early work.

On both evenings, the balance of the second half comprised of three large-scale works. I had not been so moved by the Scherzo in B-flat minor, Op. 31, for a long time, as I was this weekend. In his last Vancouver recital, Murray Perahia played a note-perfect but, for me, emotionally ambivalent performance. It was nothing like the range of emotions and colours Olejniczak took us through in his playing. Every note in the opening triplets could be clearly heard, yet he managed to bring forth Chopin’s sotto voce marking, as well as conveying a sense of urgency with these few opening notes. And there was an ardent quality in his playing of the beautiful con anima section at m. 65.

The artist brought an uncanny freshness I did not think possible with the oft-played Ballade in G minor, Op. 23. As with all great Chopinists, there was a sense of totality, of organic unity, in Olejniczak’s approach towards the Ballade. The danger with a powerful modern piano is the possibility of an ugly or percussive sound, when someone “pushes” the instrument hard. Olejniczak can be a powerful player when he chose to be, but even at the most dramatic moment of this already dramatic work, the pianist’s tone was never forced – colossal, yes, but always round and musical. In the treacherous coda, his playing was utterly confident, and never betrayed even for a moment the possibility of failure. There was also an incredible lightness in the playing that intensified the excitement and tension of the music.

The Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53, perhaps the unofficial national anthem of Poland, his playing was simply thrilling. The dignity, pride, power, beauty, and rhythmic acuity of his playing reminded me only of Arthur Rubinstein, and I can think of no higher compliment. In the beginning of the E major section, there was a roar in the sound of the sforzando chord – a most interesting aural sensation. In the coda, Olejniczak built the music to such a pitch of excitement that the final chords at m. 179 became a catharsis.

Incredibly, this was the first appearance in Vancouver of this great artist, a charming and soft-spoken man who gave the impression, when he played, that he was merely playing for a few friends. Earlier this season, the Vancouver Chopin Society presented Seong-Jin Cho, a supremely talented young artist at the outset of his career. Now, we have a very different kind of artist, at the full maturity of his musical development. With Marc-Andre Hamelin, Rafal Blechacz, Andras Schiff, and Alexander Gavrylyuk still to play in the coming months, Vancouver audiences will have much wonderful music-making to look forward to.


February 5, 2018