Saturday, April 9, 2016

Chopin and Scriabin Preludes

Pianist Dina Yoffe presented the Preludes, Op. 28 of Chopin as well as the Op. 11 Preludes of Alexander Scriabin in her Vancouver recital last evening, under the auspices of the Vancouver Chopin Society. Rather than playing the respective sets of preludes on their own, Yoffe alternated one Prelude by Scriabin, and then one, in the same key, by Chopin. Such originality in programming is certainly not found in many recitals. In some of the pairing of the pieces, the moods of the works match one another. More often than not, each composer has very different inspirations in writing for the same key colour.

In the first Prelude by Scriabin, the composer really emancipated the melody from the tyranny of the bar lines. The work is made up of phrases of four (and up to eight) groups of five eighth notes each, straddling across bar lines. The mood of this particular work matches that of the one by Chopin. Yoffe captured the essence of both works that began her recital. Her playing of this very tricky miniature by Chopin was perhaps slightly cautious in the beginning, but I did not notice any feeling of hesitancy in her playing of the subsequent pieces.

Yoffe beautifully highlighted the colours and shading of the A minor Prelude by Scriabin, so tinged with sorrow, as well as the very subtle shifts in colours and pulse of the almost sinister-sounding one by Chopin. She produced a beautiful tone in her playing of Scriabin’s G major Prelude. In the Chopin Prelude of the same key, I was wishing for a slight bit more leggiermente in the left hand, but she certainly captured the quicksilver feeling of the work.

I was really moved by her deeply felt reading of the pair of Preludes in E minor. In the Chopin, the built-up to the shattering climax at m. 17 was impeccably done. Yoffe’s playing of Scriabin’s D major Prelude had a lovely sense of flow. This is the one work where Chopin’s influence is really apparent, especially harmonically. In the Chopin work of the same key, she beautifully captured the joyful impetuousness of the music. In Scriabin’s B minor Prelude, I appreciated the pianist’s always round and musical tone in this octave-laden work, no matter how big the music was. In the work by Chopin, there was a hushed quality in her playing of this very familiar work, as well as a feeling of quiet relentlessness. I again appreciated the beauty of her left hand in Scriabin’s A major Prelude, as well as how she illuminated the simple beauty of a jewel of the little 16-bar Prelude by Chopin.

The artist captured the rapidly but subtly changing moods in the almost expressionistic Prelude in F-sharp minor by Scriabin. In the horribly difficult Chopin Prelude of the same key, she imparted the inner voices with great clarity, rather than playing them like a harmonic blur. Perhaps there could have been greater build-up to the ff at m. 15, but her playing of this fierce pianistic hurdle was beyond reproach. The pianist’s playing of Scriabin’s E major Prelude had a feeling of quiet eloquence. In the Chopin, her tempo was a little slower than that of many other pianists, but under her hands it worked; further, she chose to emphasize the lyricism rather than grandeur of the music. It is a slightly different take on this work, but certainly a valid interpretation.

It is remarkable that in the 20-measure Prelude in C-sharp minor by Scriabin, there are a total of 11 dynamic indications, from pp to fff. Yoffe was certainly cognizant of every one of the composer’s instructions, from dynamic to tempo shifts, and observed them to the letter. In Chopin’s equally brief Prelude of the same key, she perfectly captured the breathless quality of this music, a work that ended when it had seemingly just begun.

Dina Yoffe lovingly realized the almost Faure-like shifts in harmonies in Scriabin’s Prelude in B major. In Chopin’s euphonious Prelude of the same key, she produced a wonderfully liquid sound in this flowing work.

The first half of the concert ended with the pair of Preludes in G-sharp minor. In the Scriabin, where the only dynamic indication throughout the work is pp, she perfectly realized the sotto voce quality called for by the composer. In the Chopin, I thought that the anger and violence in the music was perhaps overly downplayed, even in the ff climax of m. 37, which made the abrupt ff ending a little less effective.

For the pair of Preludes No. 13, Scriabin writes the music in G-flat major, whereas Chopin writes it in F-sharp major. Even though the enharmonic equivalent keys give the two works slightly different colours, the mood of these works are remarkably similar. In both pieces, Yoffe made the chords in the right hand float, and gave both works a wonderful sense of forward motion. In her playing of the Chopin, there was a beautiful sense of quiet when the theme returns at m. 29. The Preludes in E-flat minor by both composers are dramatic in very different ways – Scriabin by the use of chords and octaves, Chopin by the two hands playing rapidly in unison, like the finale of his Sonata in B-flat minor. I thought that Yoffe’s pedaling in the Chopin was remarkable, magically underpinning the composer’s very dark harmonies.

In the rich-sounding key of D-flat major, Scriabin almost paradoxically gives the music a sparse texture, with the accompaniment making up of just thirds and sixths, in the left hand, then in the right. Yoffe captured the stark beauty of the music very effectively. In the justly famous Prelude in D-flat major by Chopin, the pianist again chose to underplay the dramatic outbursts in the C-sharp minor middle section, but the voicing of the chords was very beautiful.

Scriabin’s Prelude in B-flat minor, marked misterioso, alternates between 5/8 and 4/8. Yoffe deftly captured both the mysterious quality of the music, as well as the constant meter shifts. In the Chopin, she was effective in conveying the relentless, almost obsessive quality of the music. Scriabin’s brief (12 measures) A-flat major Prelude was again filled with tempo and dynamic indications, difficult to observe within such a small canvas. Yoffe managed all these subtle changes in sound and speed beautifully. In Chopin’s Prelude in A-flat major, she maintained the sense of forward motion in the music, and conveyed a sense of buoyancy in the chords.

Yoffe effectively brought out the wildness of the music in Scriabin’s F minor Prelude. In the Chopin pairing, she successfully conveyed the rhetorical nature of the melody, especially in the passages where the two hands play in unison. In Chopin’s E-flat major Prelude, the pianist played with an incredible sense of lightness, and conveyed the image of a bird in flight in this technically challenging work.

In the C minor pairing of the two composers’ Preludes, Yoffe captured the rhapsodic nature of the Scriabin, and gave a deeply affecting reading of the Chopin. I was particularly moved by her playing of the final iteration of the theme, in pp; likewise, she conveyed the gentleness and delicacy of Scriabin’s Prelude in B-flat major. In the Chopin, I was taken by her beautiful playing of the intervals in the left hand, which gave the music a sense of weightlessness. The artist effectively highlighted the flexibility of the right hand melody in Scriabin’s G minor Prelude, as well as the violent contrasts in the Chopin.

There is a gentleness in both composers’ writing of the Prelude in F major, a feeling of blue skies and gentle breezes. For me, Yoffe’s absolutely gorgeous playing of Chopin’s Prelude in F major was the highlight of the evening. Scriabin’s D minor Prelude, very Rachmaninoff-like in its chordal writing, and Chopin’s work in the same key, ended the concert in a dramatic fashion. Her playing of Chopin’s challenging work is note-perfect, which wouldn’t mean very much if the music making were not on an equally high level, which it was.

After the drama of the Preludes, Dina Yoffe graced us with one encore, Chopin’s wistful Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17, No. 4. I feel that Chopin’s true genius lies in the 50 or so Mazurkas he wrote throughout his life, and her playing of it was, as they say, to the manor born.

Dina Yoffe’s performance last night was pianistically, musically and emotionally satisfying. I am especially grateful to her for giving us the less familiar Preludes of Scriabin, and also to the Vancouver Chopin Society for bringing this remarkable artist back in our midst.

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