Tuesday, October 18, 2016

First Lady of the Piano

Even with the large number of excellent pianists in today’s musical world, the number of artists who are true Chopin players constitutes a far smaller number. After her performance in Vancouver last Friday, I am happy to report that Ewa Poblocka is a true artist as well as a true Chopin player.

Madame Poblocka opened her performance with Mozart’s Fatansie in D Minor, K. 397, a curious work that the composer left unfinished. Within a mere 107 measures, Mozart manages to lead us through a myriad of moods and colours. Poblocka led us through this brief musical journey with great technical ease and musicality. The final Allegretto section was played with delectable lightness.

The recital continued with Franz Schubert’s Four Impromptus, D. 899 (Op. 90), written in the final annus mirabilis. Poblocka is not a pianist with a big sound, but everything she plays she does so with consummate taste and musicality, as was the case with these four Schubert works. It makes sense to play these pieces as a set, because as a whole they convey the feeling of a larger work, in the sense of the key relations between pieces as well as the contrasts in mood between them.

I always find it interesting to hear how different pianists observe Schubert’s staccato (m. 5) marking at the beginning of the Impromptu in C minor. Poblocka pedaled these chords, but gave them a short attack and much lightness, confirming for me that staccato addresses the articulation of the note as much as the duration. As in the Mozart, this Impromptu conveys the feeling of a journey, especially with the “walking tempo” (Allergo molto moderato) maintained throughout the work. Poblocka handled the journey beautifully, and I felt that she played especially effectively the tricky transition from triplets to groups of four 16th-notes (m. 125), with the offbeat left hand notes in the bass. The second Impromptu was played with a great sense of joy and zest, and wonderful finger work. In the heavenly third Impromptu, Poblokca conveyed the necessary sense of peace and repose. I personally would have liked to hear the broken chords in the middle layer a little more clearly, rather than having it as a blend of sound colours. I loved the sound she drew from the instrument in the fourth Impromptu, especially in the descending rippling chords in the opening of the A section. The transition into the C-sharp minor Trio section was also magically achieved.

Ms. Poblocka announced from the stage that she was adding two more pieces before the interval – two miniatures by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a Nocturne in B major and the Minuet in G. She did not try to make these pieces greater than what they are, but played them with great charm, and with much beauty of sound.

Poblocka devoted the second half of her recital to the music of Chopin, and opened her second half with the two Nocturnes, Op. 55. Both Nocturnes were beautifully played, but I especially appreciated the way she approached the Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55, No. 1. Under the wrong hands, the opening melody could easily sink into lugubriousness. Poblocka successfully maintained the impetus of the music, and kept my interest from first note to last. In the Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 55, No. 2, her expert pedaling really underscored the exquisite beauty of the harmony in this work.

She continued her programme with the justly famous Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23. From first note to last she very successfully conveyed a sense of totality, as opposed to a meandering through a series of lovely episodes. Her playing of the composer’s Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 29 was beautiful, with the beguiling lightness in the rapid finger work of the opening section. In the F minor middle section, she did not get bogged down by the attractive melody, but kept a sense of forward motion in the music. In the A section, she shaped each small phrase exquisitely, but amazingly made those small phrases part of the larger phrase structure.

The recital continued with a set of six of Chopin’s Waltzes, beginning with a charming interpretation the very rarely played or recorded Waltz in A-flat major, Oeuvre posthume, a work not published until 1902. The rest of the Waltzes were much more familiar. I wasn’t sure which version of the Waltz in B minor (Op. 69, No. 2) she played, since it has elements of the Oxford edition of the work. In the version she played, there is an “exotic” element in the melodic writing. In the “Minute Waltz”, Poblocka did not fall into the speed trap that so many pianists succumb to, but managed to bring out the beauty of the writing, especially in the middle section. I think I heard one of the most satisfying Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2 under Poblocka’s hands. She managed to discover for me something fresh into the return of every section. Her playing of the Waltz in F minor (Op. 70, No. 2) and Waltz in F major (Op. 34, No. 3) gave us a glimpse into how Chopin could infuse an infinite number of ideas into the smallest musical canvas.

Madame Poblocka’s recital ended with Chopin’s Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20, a work that, in the words of Vladimir Horowitz, shows both the demonic and angelic sides of the composer. I could not help but think how absolutely original, even strange, this music must have seemed to 19th century audiences. The opening of the work already foreshadows the much later Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39, with its hallucinatory outbursts. Her playing of this challenging work was technically impregnable, and she effectively conveyed the meltingly beauty of middle section, where Chopin borrowed from the Polish Christmas song Lulajże Jezuniu.

After much urging from the enthusiastic audience, the artist graced us with a performance of Chopin’s Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 6, No. 2, one of the composer’s earliest published works. Her interpretation of the work was pitch perfect, and highlighted the exotic beauty of the Chopin’s mazurkas.

There is a beautiful true story about a man who was about to commit suicide, and heard one of Ewa Poblicka’s Bach recordings. The beauty and power of her playing were such that it changed the man’s idea about taking his own life.

It is a strange phenomenon in the music “business” that an artist and musician like Ewa Poblocka is not more of a household name, at least in North America, when far inferior artists are receiving so much of our attention. Her performance left me with the impression that she is not a flashy player, but a musician that practices her art with integrity and solid musicianship. Let us hope that she will grace our stage with more of her musicianship in future years.

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