Monday, November 11, 2019

An Astonishing Debut

Lightning struck the audience at the Vancouver Playhouse yesterday afternoon when pianist Zlata Chochieva played her debut recital for The Vancouver Chopin Society.

At risk of merely writing a string of superlatives, her playing of Chopin’s Etudes Op. 25 stands comparison with that of Alfred Cortot in inspiration. Technically and pianistically, the finish of her playing stands on a class of its own. 

After a beautifully euphonious performance of the Etude in A-flat (No. 1), Chochieva took my breath away with the nimbleness and agility in her playing of the Etude in F minor (No. 2). Her sparing use of pedal (indicated by Chopin) gave the music a rarely heard clarity and crispness. After technically impregnable playing in the Etude in F major (No. 3) and Etude in A minor (No. 4), Chochieva truly brought out the scherzando quality in the Etude in E minor, and her playing of the E major middle section was absolutely ravishing, and beautifully shaded. 

Another highlight of the afternoon was her miraculous playing of the Etude in G-sharp minor (No. 6), with playing of thirds that sounded more like splashes of colours, and an effortlessness that gave the music a rarely heard mischievous quality. Moreover, she made us aware of the beauty of Chopin’s writing for the left hand. The pianist’s playing of the Etude in C-sharp minor (No. 7) was deeply felt, with a left hand that truly sounded like a cello. There was an engaging lightness in her playing of the Etude in D-flat major (No. 8) and G-flat major (No. 9). The octaves at the beginning of the Etude in B minor were truly thunderous and fiery, and her playing of the octave melody in the middle section gave the music a real sense of melancholy. She was in control of every note in her playing of the Etude in A minor (No. 10), a work that strikes fear into the heart of less intrepid pianists. A rousing and rich-toned performance of the Etude in C minor (No. 12) ended the first half of the recital on a real high note, and left us already wishing for more.

Rachmaninov is a composer that is obviously close to Zlata Chochieva’s heart, and it really showed in her performance of the composer’s music in the second half. The works that she chose revealed the many facets of the composer’s own musical influences. The Bach-Rachmaninov Violin Suite is actually a transcription of the PreludeGavotte and Giga of the Violin Partita in E major, BWV 1006. Chochieva’s playing brought out the joyful spirit of this music, the relentless feeling of chase in the Prelude, a real sense of bounce in the Gavotte, and an almost reckless abandon in the Giga. Rachmaninov’s transcription gives this originally sparse music a fuller harmonic palette, something that Chochieva exploited - in the best sense of the word - to the fullest. Her playing of Rachmaninov/Bizet’s Minuet from the “L’Arl├ęsienne” Suite gave the music its requisite sweetness and Gallic charm. 

Rachmaninov’s transcription of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of the most incredible pianistic “stunts” ever conceived by any composer. Chochieva’s playing of this work matched the original orchestral version in the colours she conjured from the keyboard. Most incredibly – and this is true throughout the afternoon – the word “technique”, or the thought of how “well” she was playing the piano – was far from my mind, so thoroughly compelling her music-making was. I had long admired rather than loved Rachmaninov’s Variations on a theme by Corelli, Op. 42, until yesterday afternoon. I believe this is a work that needed the hands of a truly great pianist to bring off, and Chochieva was that pianist yesterday. Pianist Glenn Gould expressed Rachmaninov’s skills in writing in variation form, and had actually considered performing the composer’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini - it is tantalizing to think how such a performance would have come off. Indeed, in this set of Corelli variations, one hears similarities in the piano writing to the celebrated Paganini variations. In the twenty or so minutes of the work, the composer thoroughly exploited every aspect of the theme by Corelli. And yesterday, Chochieva herself exploited every aspect, every colour and shading that the composer had written. It was without question an electrifying performance of this rarely heard work. 

I am certain that the audience would have willingly stayed for many encores after such a performance. Chochieva gave us a deliciously played Etude in G-flat major (Op. 10, No. 5) by Chopin, the so-called “Black key” Etude.

What a way it was to begin a concert season. This is one of the most thoroughly technically perfect, and musically insightful performances, from a musician of any age, I have heard in a long time. Chochieva is already a master artist, and we look forward to hearing much more from her in future, and we hope that her first visit to Vancouver will not be her last.

Patrick May

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