Friday, February 3, 2012

From Paris, With Love

In this age of mass-marketing of music, it is refreshing to encounter a performance that comes to the audience from the heart of the musician, and gets into the heart of the music. The latest CD release from pianist Henri-Paul Sicsic, a 2009 live recording from Paris’ famed Salle Cortot, delivers such a performance. The programme includes a generous helping of Chopin, including the Mazurka, Op. 59, No. 1, Impromptu No. 1, Op. 29, Nocturne, Op. 48, No. 1, Valse, Op. 42, and the Sonata No. 2, Op. 42, and continues with Toronto composer Alexina Louie’s I leap through the sky with stars, Maurice Ravel’s Ondine, and Évocation and Triana from Isaac Albeniz’s monumental and fiercely difficult Ibéria Suite.

While each composer challenges the performer in different ways, no composer of piano music is more difficult to play, technically as well as intellectually, than Chopin. Arthur Rubinstein confessed, “I could play a pyrotechnical Liszt sonata, requiring forty minutes for its performance, and get up from the piano without feeling tired, while even the shortest étude of Chopin compels me to an intense expenditure of effort.” The difficulty of Chopin’s music, though, lies within the inherent structure of the music. The many technical and musical challenges in Chopin’s music are never written for the sake of challenging the manual dexterity of the pianist – even though many world-famous pianists treat it as such. To be sure, it takes a virtuoso to play Chopin, but it takes so much more than a virtuoso to bring out the beauty and integrity of the music.

There is a sense of rightness in the style and flavour of Sicsic’s Chopin interpretation that is very much his own. Chopin wrote more than fifty Mazurkas, and they are the most elusive of his compositions. George Sand quipped, not without malice, that there is more music in one Chopin Mazurka than in all the operas of Meyerbeer. Perhaps more insightful is Liszt’s observation that one has to harness a major pianist to play a Mazurka of Chopin. The later Mazurkas are especially intricate to play, and calls for a balance of rhythm, timing and silence. I would agree with Liszt’s comment, and say that Henri-Paul Sicsic is a major pianist indeed. The rest of the pianist’s Chopin group is no less remarkable than the Mazurka performance. In the Impromptu, he captured the elfin lightness of the music. In the Nocturne, the other-worldly beauty of Chopin’s music is made all the more apparent. The Op. 42 Valse is probably the most difficult of the waltezs, and Sicsic once again rose to the occasion, capturing the many shifts in mood as well as the spirit of the dance.

Ever since the work was written, many pianists have attempted Chopin’s second sonata, but there is always room for another valid interpretation. Sicsic’s performance of the great Funeral March sonata is stunning. He takes the opening movement at a whirlwind tempo, which suits the impetuousness that the music calls for. The sounds he created in the shattering climaxes of the movement are overwhelming. There is relentlessness in his playing of the famous (and much maligned) Funeral March, and the lyrical middle section has never sounded more beautiful. In spite of having heard this work so often, the last movement of this work never fails to send chills up my spine. Sicsic’s playing of this movement is spooky indeed, and brings out the weirdness and the death-haunted feeling of this music.

Alexina Louie, no stranger to Canadian audiences, must be somewhat of an unknown quantity to the Parisian audience. Perhaps because of the title of the music, I have often thought of this work as having a very visual quality to it. It reminds me of the paintings of Marc Chagall, with people (and cows!) flying through the night sky. Henri-Paul Sicsic exploits, in the best sense of the word, the large palette of colours the composer put at his disposal, and paints a picture as vivid and vibrant that the music calls for.

In Ondine, the first movement of Maurice Ravel’s tone poem for piano, Gaspard de la nuit, Henri-Paul Sicsic effectively recreates the composer evocation of shimmering waters and its strange and beautiful watery spirit. There are pianists today who can play this difficult music as if it were child’s play, but not everyone can successfully capture the sonic ambience of this music. It struck me, at this point in the recital that Sicsic has, without us realizing it, taken us into a sound world that is so radically different from that of Chopin.

With the two pieces from Albeniz’s Iberia Suite, Henri-Paul Sicsic takes us into yet another realm of sound. This is not the sun-drenched Spain of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, which is a much more descriptive piece of music, or even the Spain of Bizet’s Carmen. In Iberia, Albeniz gives us an evocation of a landscape filled with shadow and mystery. Like the Chopin Mazurkas, there is a real danger of playing this music with a “foreign accent”. This is not the case here, for Sicsic’s playing of these two masterpieces is highly idiomatic, capturing the essence of the Spanish rhythm as well as the ever changing colours, and the lightness and shadow in the music.

Sicsic rewarded this enthusiastic audience was rewarded with an encore – Chopin’s Étude in A-flat Major, the first of the Op. 25 set of Études. The pianist’s playing of this euphonious music brings out the richness and beauty of Chopin’s harmonic and melodic inventiveness.

Henri-Paul Sicsic used to be an active member of the Vancouver music scene, but now teaches at the University of Toronto. One city’s loss, as they say, is another’s gain. I look forward to this wonderful pianist’s next return home.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful review. I'm a current student of Dr. Sicsic, recently got this disc, and was just curious who out there might be talking about it. Do you know him?