Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Polish Romantics

Last evening, Tobias Koch played the second of his two recitals in Vancouver. While his first recital featured music extremely familiar to everyone, last night’s recital highlighted composers, I would venture to guess, few in the audience had heard about.
The title of the recital indeed describes it all – The Polish Romantics – a concert of 19th century Romantic piano music from Poland. Rather, music from the Poland in people’s heart. As Professor John Glofcheskie writes in his excellent programme notes, “The programme of keyboard music by Polish Romantics might also be called Music of Stateless Poland.” Poland lost her independence in 1795, and the arts; music, in particular, became a point of refuge for stateless Poles, living in their own land perhaps, but under the subjugation of other empires. Composers, both professional and amateur, wrote mazurkas and polonaises, quintessentially Polish dance forms, as a sublimation of their patriotic feelings as well as a lament for Poland’s tragic history.
Michal Kleofas Oginski’s 1794 Polonaise in A minor, subtitled “Farewell to the Homeland,” was the first such piece performed last night. All the pieces Koch played last night were charming, sentimental, and melancholic, especially interesting was Jozef Elsner’s Rondo à la Mazurka in C major, an utterly simple and charming piece – the word “cute” almost comes to mind. Elsner was Chopin’s composition teacher, and hearing that piece by the older composer really highlighted the difference between mere talent and towering genius. In the first half, Koch also performed the earliest polonaise by Chopin, the Polonaise in B-flat major, KK IVa-1, written in 1817 when he was seven. Hearing that early work was almost like hearing the earliest symphonies and concerti by Mozart. The forms may be simple, and the scope may be small, but the seeds of genius were already present.
Edward Wolff’s Hommage à Chopin: Rêverie-Nocturne was beautiful, and came close to capturing the mood of Chopin’s own masterful Nocturnes. In Glofcheskie’s notes, he writes that Wolff was for a time Chopin’s copyist, but he would “pinch something and print it” as his own composition! Perhaps he did learn a thing or two from the master in all his “borrowings”.
The pianist-composer Maria Szymanowska, whose reputation extended beyond her native Poland, was represented by a Polonaise in F minor, written 1820. Chopin heard and apparently admired Szymanowska when he attended one of her Warsaw concerts.
In the second half of the concert, Koch played pieces by composers that came after Chopin, but had obviously been influenced by him. The two mazurkas, one by Karol Mikuli, Chopin’s own student, and another by Ignacy Friedman, were for me the largest in scope and inventive. The two pieces by Paderewski were charming examples of the famous pianist-composer’s many miniatures.
By way of contrast, Koch played a small sampling of works by Chopin; the first half ended with the Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 50, No. 3, and the evening ended with the monumental canvas of the Polonaise in F-sharp minor, Op. 44.
Koch bid farewell to Vancouver with a generous four encores – a polonaise by J. S. Bach, from the Anna Magdalena Notebook, Egon Petri’s transcription of Bach’s Sheep May Safely Graze, and two more Chopin – the Waltzes in A minor and F minor {Op. Posth.)
In general, Koch seemed a little more restrained in his use of rubato last night. While I found his playing on Friday evening beautiful indeed, Koch’s playing of these morsels equally valid and justifiable. Throughout the evening, his playing of the mazurkas and polonaises was idiomatic and filled with genuine feeling for the music.
We must thank Tobias Koch for giving us this very interesting and important programme, and for introducing us to works that are new to us. This was not just a concert of charming salon music. Hearing music by precursors of Chopin, his contemporaries and near-contemporaries, as well as composers who were influenced by him, really highlights Chopin’s own unique and inimitable genius and places his compositions within historical perspective.
I certainly look forward to Mr. Koch’s next appearance in Vancouver.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Chopin's Last Concert

For the second year in a row, Early Music Vancouver and The Vancouver Chopin Society jointly host a period piano specialist in a Chopin recital. This year, pianist Tobias Koch graced the stage of Christ Church Cathedral with two programmes. Last night’s recital was a “reimagining”, or recreation of the last recital Chopin played on October 4, 1848 in Edinburgh. Appropriately, Koch played on a restored 1852 Broadwood Boudoir Grand piano, as did Chopin (not the same Broadwood obviously), the same programme that was on that last recital.

Even though there were no “big” works presented – no “Heroic” Polonaise, noSonatas, no Scherzi– the programme was a formidable one, especially considering Chopin’s extremely weakened state. The composer was apparently so weak at this point that he had to be carried up the stairs. For a man with such delicate health, the evening must have presented an enormous physical challenge. 

Mr. Koch appears to be a man of robust health, but his playing throughout the evening recalled for me the delicacy of how Chopin must have played. Mazurkastook the pride of place in last night’s concert – Mazurkain A-flat major, Op. 7, No. 4, 3 Mazurkasfrom Op. 7, and all three Mazurkasfrom Op. 59. Koch’s playing of the Mazurkas was, to my ears, idiomatic and completely convincing. The artist plays these “dances of the soul” with much rubato, probably more than we are used to today. In many ways, his playing of Chopin probably harkens back to the days of Cortot and Paderewski, in the freedom of expression, as well as the generous use of breaking the notes between the hands, something that is frowned upon by some today. In these Mazurkas, Koch also made us aware of the element of silence, and the idea of punctuating the music with it. He brought out the heartbreak in the Mazurka in A minor(Op. 59, No. 1), the Gallic elegance in the Mazurka in A-flat major(Op. 59, No. 2), and the robust energy of the Mazurka in F-sharp minor(Op. 59, No. 3).

The artist’s playing of the Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat major, Op. 29 gave the impression of one long breath from beginning to end. In the Op. 25 Etudes(Nos. 1, 2, 7 and 5), the legato playing was quite remarkable, with one note seemingly dissolved into, or fused with, the next. Under Koch’s hands, I heard, especially in these Etudes, completely new colours. In the E minor Etude(Op. 25, No. 5), the opening 16thnote-8thnote motifs sounded like splashes of colours. The gorgeous left hand melody at m. 45 was played with palpable warmth and a glowing beauty in the sound.

In the Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 1, Koch really gave the sense of the music floating and the melody gliding along with it. The dynamic at the passionate outburst at m. 49 (marked fff) sounded less forceful because of the limited dynamic, but no less passionate. In the two Op. 27 Nocturnes, the Nocturne in B major, Op. 62, No. 1, as well as the Berceuse, Op. 57, there was truly remarkable legatoand cantabileplaying throughout.

It was said that Chopin never gave two performances that were the same, and that he would always give the impression that he was improvising. In the 19thcentury, pianists would sometimes interpolate notes into certain passages when they played Chopin. Koch observed this tradition (again, something almost no modern pianists would attempt, or would have the know-how to do so) in his playing of the Grand Valse Brillante in E-flat major, Op. 18 as well as in the Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2, but doing so always very much within the bounds of good taste, and with a sense of appropriateness. 

In the Prelude in E major, Op. 28, No. 9, the dynamic range was a little narrower than what we are used to with performances on a modern instrument, but without sacrificing the sense of drama or grandeur. The Prelude in C-sharp minorthat follows was played with a breathtaking lightness.

Koch’s playing of the Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45 really highlighted the inner beauty of this remarkable and very forward-looking miniature. In the Ballade in A-flat major, Op. 47, he brought out the intricate design, as well as many inner voices that are so often buried. I really liked his pacing in this long and tricky work, as well as the characters he brought to each section of the music. I was first surprised by the relatively subdued way he played the coda and ending. However, when I examined the score, I noticed for the first time that the composer only marked fortethroughout.

Throughout the evening, Koch’s playing was imaginative, idiomatic, soulful and always musical. The relatively soft sound of the Broadwood piano made me feel as if I was eavesdropping on someone’s playing for oneself. Through a combination of the much-darkened hall, the beautiful sound of the Broadwood, and Koch’s playing, the result was a truly magical evening. 

In the pre-concert talk, Koch spoke about his choice of playing with the printed music, indicating that it really had been the tradition until Liszt, who started playing “by heart”. In addition, Koch shared with the audience that he always learns something, even in the middle of a performance, when he has the score in front of him. Indeed, playing from the heart is always more important than playing by heart. 

While we would, regretfully, never know how Chopin really played, Koch’s magical performance made me feel that we had been transported back in time. Judging from the inspiring silence throughout the evening, I have a feeling that the audience felt the same as well.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Auspicious Debut

Yesterday afternoon pianist Lukáš Vondráček made a highly successful Vancouver recital debut under the auspices of The Vancouver Chopin Society. The fact that a sizable audience came out for the concert – even on Super Bowl Sunday - gives us the hope that the solo recital is very much alive and well.

The young artist began his formidable programme with Franz Schubert’s massive Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960. It has been a few years since every pianist seemed to be playing this sonata in recitals, and so I was eager to reacquaint myself with this old friend. 

The first thing I noticed with Vondráček’s playing is clarity of textures. His use of pedal was sparse, and he really allowed us to hear Schubert’s subtle harmonic changes in the left hand. The G-flat major theme was not played in the dreamy way as many pianists would. The crescendochords (mm. 34-35) that transitions back to the opening chorale theme was played with a sharper attack than I have heard, and the return of the chorale sounded almost heroic (Schubert’s marking was forte). I liked the balance between the left hand theme and the right hand harmonic changes in the F-sharp minor theme (m. 48). Vondráček chose to play the repeat of the exposition – I believe he wanted to maintain the balance and architecture of the movement - thereby allowing us to hear Schubert’s quite extended first ending to the section. The ffand ffz outbursts before the return of the exposition were very effectively done indeed. Schubert lavished the coda with an incredible number of dynamic indications, all of which were realized by the pianist. 


Vondráček’s playing of opening of the Andante sostenutomovement reminded me of a string quartet, with the violas and celli playing pizzicato notes while the 1stand 2ndviolins give us the main theme. Certainly he made this very clear for us with the clarity he lavished on the left hand staccatos. The A major section was played with a feeling of repose, and I liked the way he projected the theme with the sextuplet accompaniment. In the return of the C-sharp minor section, the pianist certainly painted a picture of bleakness that I feel was Schubert’s intention. 

The third movement was played with just the right degree of skittishness, and Schubert’s indication of delicatezzawas very evident in the playing, and Vondráček brought out the humour of the off-balanced, almost limping theme of the Trio.


I was interested in the way he played the left hand fpoctave G that opens the fourth movement. A true fpis almost impossible to achieve on the piano, since the sound could not be changed once it is made on the instrument. I think Vondráček tries to achieve this quasi-accent by deliberately playing it softer, thereby contrasting it with the theme that follows. The playing in this movement had the requisite brilliance the music calls for. In my mind, the coda and the almost triumphal nature of the ending should be played almost like a Pyrrhic victory – like the ending of Shostakovich’s 5thsymphony. I do not think that was how Vondráček thought of this, because he certainly brought the sonata to a resoundingly brilliant conclusion. 


Throughout the performance, I found myself being fascinated by the pianist’s perspective even more than Schubert’s design. It was a fascinating look at this all-too-familiar work, bringing our attention to the amazing details within the score, rather than conveying the valedictory mood as most pianists would – a Toscanini rather than a Furtwängler approach to this music.


Our young artist began the second half with Schumann’s lovely Arabeske, Op. 18, and played it with a charm and disarming simplicity completely opposite to the Schubertian sound world of the first half.


The performance continued with the composer’s Carnaval, Op. 9. Once again, Vondráček’s conception of this work forced me to re-examine the details in Schumann’s score. 


Most pianists play the opening of the Préambulewith a full fortissimo, perhaps forgetting that there is a crescendoonly a few measures later. Vondráček seemed to underplay the opening I – IV progression, and then really took the crescendo that leads up to the end of m. 6. I also noticed that the composer indicated Quasi maestosofor this movement, quasibeing the operative word here. Again, in the Più moto(m. 25), he underplayed the brilliance and vividness of the music and then let it build – again a very Furtwängler-like approach, and one that Vondráček employed for many movements in the work. In Arlequin, the two-note rising motif is followed by a 16th-note rest; Vondráček made use of this rest to give the music a sort of hesitation. 


In Valse noble(Un poco maestoso), Vondráček again allowed the music to build by underplaying the rising theme of the opening. The molto teneramentesection (Schumann indicated this twice within a few measures) was truly beautifully and indeed tenderly played. It was only at the return of the main theme that he really allowed the emotion to pour forth. He gave us a serious rather than dreamy Eusebius, and he really contrasted the impetuousness of the opening in Florestanwith the lyricism of the Papilliontheme (m. 19). Vondráček really observed the many LuftpauseinCoquette (and also in Réplique), indeed brining out the “coquettish” character of this movement. 


Vondráček conjured up a real storm in Papillons, thereby really contrasting it with the scherzandonature – played with amazing lightness – of the A.S.C.H.-S.C.H.A.(Lettres dansantes) movement. At the end of Chiarina, he held on to the final notes slightly, transitioning it without a pause to, and almost allowing the harmonies to “dissolve” into the first bass notes of Chopin(a devastating caricature of the composer). In Chopin, many pianists play the repeat with a contrasting dynamic, something not indicated by the composer. Vondráček played the repeat of the movement with the same dynamic level, but managed to lavish different details within the music. Reconnaissancewas played with amazing finger control, perfectly conveying Schumann’s sempre staccatoindication, something that can also be said about the Pantalon et Columbinemovement.


It came as no surprise that the Paganinimovement was played with a resounding virtuosity and note-perfect accuracy – normally playing all the notes is of secondary importance, but Vondráček’s incredible playing of this movement did remind me of Auden’s phrase, “Every high C accurately struck demolishes the theory that we are the irresponsible puppets of fate or chance.”


I liked how Vondráček brought out the hurrying-scurryingcharacter of Pause, effectively leading us, with a real sense of inevitability, into Marche des “Davidsbündler” contre les Philistins. Again, Vondráček did not “go all out” at the beginning of the movement, but allowed the music to build until its incredible conclusion. The pacing as well as the many shifts in mood within the music were done to perfection.


To those who are familiar with this music, Vondráček’s approach may seem very different at first hearing. I did, however, feel that his musical decisions were not arbitrary, being different for the sake of it. I believe that this young musician, still at the outset of his musical development, was really trying to offer us a re-examination of this very familiar music. It was only when I “hear” the concert again with the score that I found that he was really trying to play what the composer wrote. 


As an encore, Vondráček offered us a relative novelty – Josef Suk’s Piseň lásky(translated as “Song of Love” or “Love Song”), Op. 7, No. 1. It is a beautiful work, and was beautifully played. Vondráček obviously felt strongly about this music, and lavished it with a depth of feeling as well as a large palette of sound colours. 


All in all, a very auspicious debut by a major young artist; whether or not we agree with his interpretation, Vondráček is obviously a serious musician and musical thinker, and I believe that his artistic journey is one that we would do well to follow.