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.

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