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.

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