Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Fou Ts'ong (1934 - 2020)

I was about twelve when I was taken to my first piano recital. The pianist was Fou Ts’ong. I don’t know why, but I remember the programme – Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K. 511, Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque, and Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960. After that initial encounter, I had opportunities to hear the pianist on several occasions, and I still treasure the half dozen or so recordings of his in my library. 


Fou lived through tumultuous times in China’s history – growing up in pre-revolutionary China, he witnessed the tragedies of the Sino-Japanese war, the Chinese Civil War, and the greatest tragedy of Mao Tse-Tung’s so-called “liberation” of the country. He had the opportunity to study in Poland, winning third prize at the Fifth International Chopin Competition and the special prize for his playing of the mazurkas. He remained highly regarded in Poland, and served as jury member at the Chopin Competition on many occasions. He concertized extensively throughout the Soviet Bloc countries, but managed to escape to England (that in itself is a story worthy of a movie), narrowly avoiding what would have been humiliation and certain death had he returned to China. His own parents committed suicide in the 1960’s, unable to bear the shame and dehumanization of the person during that time. Fou quickly established himself, first in England, and then throughout the world of music with the sensitivity and poetry of his playing, and had been performing and teaching throughout the world. 


Somehow, critics (except on rare occasions) had refused to acknowledge him as a truly great pianist and musician. But he certainly had his friends and admirers among his musical colleagues – Martha Argerich, Radu Lupu, Leon Fleisher, Sviastolav Richter, Daniel Barenboim, and Vladimir Ashkenazy, to name just a few. He performed with some legendary artists – Yehudi Menuhin (his one-time father-in-law), Benjamin Britten, Hugh Maguire, Jacqueline du Pre, Kyung Wah Chung, and the aforementioned Argerich, one of his closest musical friends.


Although known for his poetic interpretations of Chopin, Fou was equally at home with Mozart, Scarlatti, Schubert, and Debussy – composers whose music made up the core of his concert and recorded repertoire. His deep knowledge and appreciation of Chinese classical literature and poetry gave him a unique window to look at the canon of western musical literature with fresh perspectives. 


Fou had never been a barnstorming virtuoso. A relatively late starter at the piano, Fou himself freely admitted to be technically inferior to the many young pianists he taught, and struggled with pianistic technique his entire life. Some of his performances could be technically disastrous – this was true of many pianists in the last century – Schnabel and Cortot were notable examples. I remember a Vancouver recital where he sounded distinctly uncomfortable in Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 110. On another visit, his all-Chopin recital at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts was memorable, especially his performance of the Préludes, Op. 28. And yes, his playing of Chopin’s very elusive mazurkas is truly magical, capturing the rhythmic and musical essence of these dances of the soul. What Fou Ts’ong always had to offer was the originality of his interpretation, the poetry, the soul, of his playing, and his ability to reach the emotional core of the composer’s sound world. 


Fou Ts’ong did not have a large discography, but he did make some fine recordings. Among his recordings, I treasure his set of Chopin Nocturnes (Sony Classical), playing that is pure poetry. There is also some wonderful playing in his recording of the Chopin Mazurkas, but the record suffers from an overly resonant and bright-sounding piano. He also recorded a beautiful disc of 32 Scarlatti Sonatas, playing that captures the humour, romance and quirkiness of the composer’s keyboard writing. In his Debussy albums, one on Collins of the Images and Estampes, another of Book I of the Préludes and Book I of the Études, recorded in the studios of Polish Radio (Ermitage Concerto) we hear the almost Oriental aesthetics of the composer’s creativity. He had always been a very fine Schubert interpreter, as is evident in a live 1998 recording of the composer’s autumnal Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960, recorded at London’s St. John’s Smith Square (Meridian).


In an age where originality is often sacrificed for technical polish and, sometimes, clinical perfection, Fou Ts’ong will remain in my mind an artist whose imagination, poetry and sensitivity animate that music that he played. I shall cherish in my mind the many fine performances I witnessed over the years. 


During his life, Fou Ts’ong had suffered many setbacks as well as personal tragedies. At the end of this long journey, may he now finally Rest in Peace.



Monday, December 14, 2020

Thinking of John le Carré

The imaginary world of David Cornwell, better known by his pseudonym John le Carré, is decidedly grey.


Not only when he is writing about the autumnal mist over Hampstead Heath, but even with settings in Central America and the Caribbean (as in The Tailor of Panama) or Africa (as in The Mission Song and The Constant Gardener), nothing is really black and white. 


From his earliest works such as Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, le Carré sets himself apart from authors such as Ian Fleming, in that the former deals with battles of the mind and the intellect, without resorting to fast cars and fancy gadgets. I remember reading le Carré reference to James Bond, probably the world most famous fictional spy, as an “international gangster” and someone without a single shred of conscience. 


A recurring theme that runs through much of le Carré’s works is the morality, or lack thereof, of spying. George Smiley, the author’s most famous hero, does battle not only with the Soviet spymaster Karla, but also with the hypocrisy as well as the stupid, self-serving individuals that run the British secret service. Indeed, he seems to hold a very cynical view of the competence and intelligence of (oxymoron indeed) those who operate within the “intelligence” world. In The Tailor of Panama, le Carré’s homage to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, and probably his most entertaining novel, a MI-6 agent is sent to Panama to gather intelligence and protect British interest. He in turn recruits the services of a well-connected tailor, and his completely fabricated intelligence reports lead to a U.S. invasion of Panama at the end of the story.


With the fall of the Soviet bloc, the author turns his attention to the rest of the world, constantly reinventing himself. In The Little Drummer Girl, le Carré’s first non Cold War novel, an Israeli spymaster recruits a young actress to discover the whereabouts of a Palestinian terrorist. She succeeds, but not before suffering a mental breakdown due to contradiction of her divided sympathies. In The Constant Gardener, a mild-manner Foreign Service diplomat in Kenya investigates the murder of his activist wife, exposing a sinister conspiracy connected to an international pharmaceutical firm and corrupt British politicians. In much of le Carré’s writings, I detect a deep-seeded anger against the stupidity of men in power and men of power, and he uses his stories to lash out in anger against the selfishness and shortsightedness of humanity. 


As a rule, film adaptations of le Carré’s novels never really do them justice. There are simply too many layers in the stories that are literally lost in the transference from print to celluloid. The film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is simply a travesty. For me, the most successful adaptions of his novels have been in television, namely the BBC’s wonderful television adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. Television allows the luxury of time to tell the whole story, and the BBC captures the faded colour of the secret world and the tragic existence of men who operate in shadows. To top it off, there is the magisterial performance by Alec Guinness, who, in the author’s words, “Stole the character from me.”


Like any great writer, le Carré’s fiction is a mirror for the age we live in. Through his stories, he shines a bright light on the dark recess of our conscience and our soul, and presents a unique perspective into the moral conundrum we face in our own existence.


David Cornwell, may you rest in peace.



Friday, November 27, 2020

Virtual Recital - Eric Lu

I had been looking forward to Eric Lu’s recital in Vancouver, especially after hearing his stunning performance of Beethoven’s 4thpiano concerto at the finals of the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition, where he emerged as the gold medalist. Lu’s performance of that elusive concerto gives the impression of an old soul, in spite of his tender age. 


For this virtual recital, recorded after his recital here had to be cancelled because of the Corona virus, Lu’s main offering is Schubert’s Sonata in A major, D. 959, one of the many miraculous works written in the Annus mirabilis of the composer’s final year.


Lu’s luminous tone and beautiful touch at the piano are apparent from the outset of his performance. He wisely chooses not to over-dramatize the opening of the first movement – Schubert’s indication is only forte – but, like a good storyteller, allows the drama to develop on its own. Lu deftly prepares our ears for the emergence of the tranquil E major theme at m. 55, which he imbues with a palpable spiritual quality. There is another magical moment towards the end of the exposition (m. 121), where Lu gives us a true pianississimo. In the extended development, the pianist leads us on an exploration of the myriad of tone and sound colours, as well as all the harmonic changes, the shifts between light and darkness, laid down by Schubert. In contrast with the opening of the movement, the first chords of the recapitulation is imbued with a sense of majesty and drama. That said, Lu never loses sight of the intense lyricism that is the underlying thread of this sonata. In the final appearance of the opening theme, now to be played pianissimo, there is kind of a veiled quality in the sound. 


In the astounding second movement, Lu understands the madness that lies beneath the fragile beauty of the music, and the feeling that the music is just hanging on to the remnants of sanity by a thread. His handling of the buildup to the veritable storm of the middle section is quite masterful. With the C-sharp major theme at m. 148, Lu’s playing fills the music with an intensely reverential quality. 


The young musician plays the scherzo with palpable lightness, as well as with an impish quality. His sense of timing is impeccable. In the trio, Lu gives the music a great deal of breathing room. He is not a rigid-tempo man – more of a Furtwängler than a Toscanini. Lu plays the opening of the 4th movement simply, with a feeling of complete contentment and happiness. He plays this music with a great deal of naturalness and masterful timing, allowing the surprises to unfold on their own, and acts as an expert guide taking us through Schubert’s ever-changing sound colours, as well as the myriad harmonic and melodic landscapes.


It is only at the conclusion of Lu’s performance that I realized that I have been living with this sonata a great deal lately, by way of Krystian Zimerman’s very beautifully played performance, and one of the most beautifully recorded album I had heard in a long time. Zimerman’s interpretation is that of a master musician, looking at the music at the height of his artistic powers and maturity. Lu’s view of this sonata is one of a young artist, albeit a supremely talented one, at the outset of his artistic journey. There is indeed a feeling of wonder and discovery with Lu’s playing. In time, his view of the music would change (I do not want to use the word depth here, because it would imply that only older artists can have “depth”, a oft-made statement that is both meaningless and unfair) and that would surely be something to look forward to.


In spite of, or perhaps because of its brevity, the challenge that lies within Chopin’s Prelude in E minor (Op. 28, No. 4) is to have this continual buildup of the music, from its very understated opening to its shattering climax. Lu acquits himself very well in this work indeed, and he beautifully shapes the ebb and flow of the melodic line, as well as Chopin’s subtle and continuous harmonic changes. In the Prelude in A-flat major (Op. 28, No. 17), a perfect foil to the intense tragedy of the E minor prelude, Lu plays with great depth of sound as well as beauty of this unique key colour. He plays the A-flat pedal note towards the end like distant tolling bells, and allows it to underscore the harmonic changes above.


I hope that Eric Lu returns to Vancouver with a live performance. This is clearly a young man that we need to keep our eyes on. I pray for continuing growth in his artistic journey and we, the listener, will be eagerly waiting for the next chapter.





Monday, October 19, 2020

Kate Liu, Before the Grand Competition

Ever since capturing the attention of the music world with her performance at the 2015 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Kate Liu has been very much in the thoughts of music and piano lovers the world over. Just as many in the piano world, I was concerned when she was forced to halt her performance activities because of a hand injury. I am happy that Kate Liu seems to be back, and in great form, as evident in her recent performance in Poland.


From the first notes of Händel’s Suite in E major, HWV 430, I was captivated by her sound, how she allows the sound to develop and envelop the space around her.  She does not hesitate to use the pedal generously to play this music, and her playing, especially of the Praeludium, has a great deal of freedom and space. At the same time, I find the performance completely idiomatic. In the Courante, the music really floats and dances. In the famous Air and “Harmonious Blacksmith” variations, there is a sense of playfulness in the way she plays it, as well as a real organic connection between the theme and the variations. The fast-moving 3rd, 4th and 5th variations are simply exhilarating and breathtaking under her fingers. 


I had the good fortune to hear her play Chopin’s Op. 59 mazurkas in her Vancouver recital. I believe her interpretation of these late masterpieces has matured. In the Mazurka in A minor, Op. 59, No. 1, she took time for the music to speak for itself, and she seems to play the work like reliving a dream. One of the remarkable things about Liu’s is that she draws the listener into the core of Chopin’s soul, and in the process reveals to us the deep sadness inherent in the music. I was deeply moved by her performance of the Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 59, No. 2. Her interpretation goes far beyond the outward charm of the music, and reveals the dignity and heartbreak of the music. Liu brings out the earthiness of the opening of the Mazurka in F-sharp minor, Op. 59, No. 3. I held my breath as I beheld the unbelievable beauty of the B section. Throughout the performance of these three works, I was completely captivated by her playing, and was absolutely drawn into Chopin’s emotional and sound world.


The second half of her recital, dedicated to the works of Robert Schumann, began with a moving rendition of the Arabesque in C major, Op. 18. Once again, my ears were captured by the depth and beauty of her sound, as well as the euphoniousness of her rendition of this charming work. As well, she brings out the unique and contrasting character of each section, as well as the dreamy nature of Schumann’s creativity. I find her playing of the work’s ending (Zum Schluss, Langsam) overwhelmingly beautiful.


The concert ended with an impassioned reading of the monumental Fantasy in C major, Op. 17. As in the Chopin, Liu completely draws the listener into Schumann’s inner world. Liu’s sound is now bigger and bolder since I last heard her and she is even more able to bring out the extremes in sound demanded for this music. Throughout the performance, I felt that Liu was someone who both lost herself in the music, but who also saw clearly the way before her. In the Im Legendenton section, her interpretation had a kind of dreamy, faraway (almost fairy tale) quality to it. The final Adagio, when the composer quotes from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, was emotionally shattering.


Liu observed Schumann’s mf marking in the beginning of the second movement, and let the music build. I also appreciate her pacing in this movement, and how she does not overplay the music, or uses it as a vehicle for her virtuosity. She acquitted herself brilliantly in the treacherous coda. 


Once again, her musicality and artistry are evident with the profound and otherworldly beauty of the third movement. Liu plays this movement as one enormous buildup to the tremendous climax at the end. The quality of her pianissimo in the beginning of the A-flat major section is quite extraordinary. The final buildup – Nach und nach bewegter und schneller – was overwhelmingly emotional, and the Adagio in the final measures sounded like a closing benediction.


With Schumann’s Fantasy as well as the Kreisleriana, Op. 16, we feel the creativity of the composer operating at a fever pitch. Kate Liu’s artistry recreated for us this white heat of the composer’s creative genius with her rendition of the Fantasy. Even experiencing this concert online, one feels the audience in communion with the artist as she embarks upon this aesthetic experience.


In Schubert’s Ungarische Melodie, D. 817, which she played as an encore, Liu captured to perfection the shifting shades of light and darkness so inherent in Schubert’s music.


I do not believe that Kate Liu will ever become the kind of barnstorming, note-perfect pianist we see so much of today. As Theodor Leschetizky said to Arthur Schnabel, “You will never be a pianist; you are a musician”, Kate Liu is a musician and artist, with her own original and highly personal voice. We, the music lovers, wait with anticipation for the next chapter of her artistic journey.



Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Chasing Chopin

 In the last decade, writers and music scholars seem to have devoted much effort on the life and music of Chopin. Starting with the 2011 update of Adam Zamoyski’s Chopin, to Paul Kildea’s Chopin’s Piano: A Journey Through Romanticism, and to Alan Walker’s masterful and unsurpassable Fryderyk Chopin: A life and Times, these writers address many aspects of the composer’s life and art.


Most recently, we have Annik LaFarge’s Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions (Simon & Schuster, 2020), a book that is more difficult to categorize, or to write about.


The book grew out of the author’s love of and fascination for Chopin’s famous funeral march, the third movement of his Sonata in B-flat minor, Op. 35. This is a more personal journey of the writer in trying to understand Chopin’s elusive work, a musical creation that, in spite of its title, had no precedent. Throughout the book, the author, I believe, tries to discuss the relevance of the work, and Chopin’s music in general, in today’s world. If we were able to bring Chopin back to our own time, LaFarge, he would, “encounter a world that has much in common with his own: countries invade their neighbors, people flee their warn-torn homelands, often unable to return; barricades go up in city streets; nationalism rages around the globe; new technology brings wave after wave of cultural and social changes; dictators bloviate; individual voices are amplified.” Chopin, she adds, would find his music being “reinvented and reclaimed in so many surprising ways and unusual places.”


Indeed, ethnomusicologist and folk music specialist Maria Pomianowska and her folk band attempt to do exactly this, to “reinvent” the music of Chopin. Playing with instrumentalists from many different cultures and ethnicities, she explores how his music might sound in today’s multicultural world, with the influences of music from a myriad of inspirations.


In terms of information or knowledge, there isn’t very much here that cannot already be found elsewhere. But then this isn’t meant to be a conventional biography, but an author’s “take” on how Chopin’s music relates to her own life and that of the world around her. 


According to the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, “the idea of Poland constituted the nation itself in the hearts of its own people, and that idea could live on, no matter what.” On top of the composer’s genius, the most potent inspiration for Chopin’s creativity is probably the idea of exile, the love of his homeland that is sublimated in his musical creations. This “idea” of Poland permeates every one of the composer’s works, but it is perhaps this very idea that makes Chopin’s music so universally appealing. 


The author does address some interesting aspects of Chopin’s art. She devotes some pages to the evolution of the piano up to Chopin’s time, and the composer’s love for the Pleyel piano – perhaps the most famous endorsement of an artist for a brand of instrument. In Chopin’s words, the Pleyel was the instrument for “the enunciation of my innermost thoughts.” 


Also important in the current volume’s narrative is Chopin’s love for opera. Chopin arrived in the Paris of Berlioz and Meyerbeer. His love for opera inspired not only his melodic creation but his approach to piano playing. It was, as the author states, also the time of the birth of programmatic music, the year 1830 was the year when Berlioz programmatic Symphonie Fantistique was premiered. For me, it seems ironic that, with all of Chopin’s love for the narrative nature of opera, he resolutely resisted any hint of story-telling in his own music. Unlike his famous contemporary Liszt, none of Chopin’s works carry any programmatic titles. None of Chopin’s compositions would paint any pictures, or tell any story. In this way, Chopin is very much a classicist, leaving the interpreters to draw upon his or her own imagination in playing his music.


Perhaps because she herself is a dedicated piano student, LaFarge is also fascinated with Chopin’s teaching. In the midst of the craze for the piano, Chopin also tried to codified his own teaching by writing a piano method, a project he left unfinished. The author addresses many aspects of Chopin’s teaching, from his emphasis on a singing tone as well as comfort of the hands, the use of the wrist to express “breathing” in a musical phrase, and his aim to foster individualism and freedom in his students. 


Naturally, no story involving Chopin would be complete without discussing his relationship with George Sand, their infamous trip to Majorca, and their life together at Sand’s house in Nohant. It was in Nohant that Chopin completed work on the Op. 35 sonata. The author suggests that Chopin’s inspiration and model for the sonata could have been Beethoven’s Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 26, one of his favourite Beethoven sonatas, and a work that also included a grand funeral march as its third movement - “Trills on the keyboard evoke drumrolls…and the slowly rising and falling crescendos and decrescendos give the march a sense of dignity and importance” - a description that could also easily fit Chopin’s funeral march. The first public performance of the funeral march was at the composer’s own funeral at La Madeleine church, in an orchestration by the composer Henri Reber, one of the composers to whom Chopin bequeathed his piano method.


There are other personal and intriguing stories surrounding and involving the music of Chopin, and the author should be commended in looking hard for evidence of the relevance today of Chopin’s music. Perhaps she needs look no further than to just think about the enduring popularity of his music. From the struggling amateur pianists to towering artists like Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, and Sergei Rachmaninoff, Chopin’s music remains a touchstone of their repertoire. 


LaFarge’s book is a personal journal of musical discovery, a result that grows out of her love for the music of Chopin. It is not, nor does it try to be, a comprehensive overview of the composer’s life, but a highly personal glimpse into various aspects of his art, and a book that betrays the writer’s passion and curiosity for the subject matter.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Revisiting a special Brahms First PIano Concerto

Shortly before the end of his long performing career, Arthur Rubinstein made a final recording of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15, with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.  Mr. Rubinstein had been playing the concerto since he was around twelve years old. According to My Young Years, the first volume of the pianist’s memoirs, his teacher laughed when he expressed the wish to learn this work, but then young Rubinstein brought it to the subsequent lesson and played it to his teacher’s amazed satisfaction. 


The recording also represents Mr. Rubinstein’s only appearance on London-Decca. Special arrangements had to be made at the time to temporarily release the pianist from his contractual obligations to RCA Victor. 


My first live performance of this concerto was with Claudio Arrau, and it has remained one of my favourite symphonic works. I somehow felt the need to hear that recording again this morning, First off, if you are looking for a note-perfect, silken smooth performance of this concerto, this is not for you. Mr. Rubinstein was close to 90 when he played this performance, and hitting all the correct notes was certainly not his primary goal.


I found this performance incredibly moving, and felt that it represents a wonderful bookend to Mr. Rubinstein’s artistic and musical life. For him, to play this concerto with Mehta, an old friend, and this “orchestra of exiles” from the nation of Israel, whom he loved, made for very special music making. 


Having played chamber music all his life, Mr. Rubinstein does not make the superhuman demands of this enormous work a showcase for himself, but takes an almost chamber music like approach to make the piano’s musical line an organic component of the giant orchestral fabric. As well, there is a real give and take, a real feeling of dialogue between him and Mehta. Mr. Rubinstein had said that it was always a feast to play with Mehta, as it was with George Szell before that. 


In the slow movement, Mr. Rubinstein plays the music in a reflective manner, and imbues the music with an inner glow, while in the outer movements, the sound evokes a feeling of ruggedness. In addition, the relatively modern recording technology (or perhaps it was the London engineers) captures the pianist’s piano sonorities, much more so than in his earlier RCA recordings. His earlier recording with Fritz Reiner, long considered a classic, seems more “light-weight” compared with this Israel recording, which really has a sense of weight in the sound.  


Mr. Rubinstein’s performance with Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic evoke in my mind the image of magnificent granite. To be sure, the musicians in this recording bring out the epic quality of Brahms’ great concerto.


With the state our world is in – challenges and stress during this pandemic, political division in the United States, and the hopelessness of the fight for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong - hearing this deeply moving performance was for me a cathartic experience, as well as one that gave me hope during this bleak time.


I am still young enough to remember that every Rubinstein recording was a special occasion, something to celebrate. The music world has changed much since those innocent days. At least we have this unforgettable artistic memento by the great Arthur Rubinstein, someone who to this day represents for me what it really is to be a musician.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Poet of the Piano

Although not a medal winner at the 1st International Chopin Competition for Period Instruments, Dimitry Ablogin has been enjoying a busy post-competition career. His recital at this year’s Chopin and His Europe Festival clearly shows not only a highly talented pianist, but also a musician and artist with artistry and maturity far beyond his tender years. 


The opening piece, Mendelssohn’s Andante cantabile e Presto Agitato, WoO 6, from 1838, as well as the Chopin selections, were played on an Érard piano. The intense lyricism of his playing was immediately apparent with the first notes of the Mendelssohn. He appears to be one of those musicians capable of producing liquid sound, many different shadings of piano, as well as whispering pianissimo. In the presto section, I was captivated by the clarity, lightness (especially in the bass notes) and quickness (not just tempo-wise) of his playing, capturing the essence of the keyboard figurations so typical of Mendelssohn. His playing of this presto section reminded me very much of the scherzo from the composer’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Ablogin gave deeply felt performances of his choice of Chopin, beginning with the Etude in C-sharp minor, Op. 25, No. 7. I admire the flexibility of his line, playing the melody very much like a string instrument, as well as the beauty of his phrasing, allowing the music to unfold naturally. Throughout this short work, there were many moments of heart-piercing sadness. 


In the Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2, probably the one piece that is most identified with what is Chopin, his legato playing was simply astounding, almost letting one note melt into another. He played the coda like a beautiful operatic duet. The entire piece, from first notes to last, was played almost like one enormous arch. 


The Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61 equally captured my attention. It was very much an inward-looking interpretation, allowing us to have a glimpse into the very heart of the music as well as making us feel its heartbreaking beauty. In the opening, he managed to paint the music with many shades of sound colours, all within a fairly narrow dynamic range. This large work, elusive to many pianists, did not come across as a series of disjoined (albeit very beautiful) episodes, but was played with a real sense of organic unity. In the softer parts of the work, Ablogin infused the music with an inner glow. 


After intermission, the young artist performed Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Op. 126. For this work, Ablogin chose to play on a copy of a Buchholtz piano, built by master instrument builder Paul McNulty. 


Ablogin played the waltz theme, written in a childlike, almost childish fashion, with great humour, and a real “bounce” to the dance. On this beautiful period instrument, Beethoven’s hallmark accents did not come across with any less impact. If Beethoven thoroughly exploited – in the best sense of the word - every aspect of Diabelli’s simple waltz theme, Ablogin certainly succeeded, with his astounding pianism, in bringing out the humour (a vital factor in playing these variations, I think) and unique character of each variation. Ablogin really knew how to work with the instrument, and as I listened to his playing, I actually forgot that I was hearing an “old” instrument. Under the hand of a lesser artist, a performance of this extended work would seem interminable, but Ablogin managed to give Beethoven’s massive construction a sense of coherence and unity. This is a magnificent performance of this Mount Everest of the piano literature, a towering achievement for any pianist, let alone one so young.


As if the giant set of variations was not sufficient, Ablogin generously granted us an encore, Beethoven’s charming Rondo in C major, Op. 51, playing this lighthearted work with great flexibility of line - this appears to be a hallmark of his musicianship - and as much lightness, grace and charm as called for by the music.


Every artist will have his or her own path. In a recent performance, I had also been moved by the Chopin performance of Tomasz Ritter, the gold medalist of the aforementioned Chopin competition for period instruments. Of course, no one could tell how these very different musicians will mature and develop. But I can say for certain that Ablogin is an artist we should all keep an eye on. I believe that we will be hearing much more from this young poet of the piano in the decades to come. With young musicians like Ritter and Ablogin, the future of music appears to be in good hands.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Final Concert of the 75th Duszniki Festival

There seemed to have been an embarrassment of musical riches from Poland this past weekend. There was Nelson Goerner’s beautiful performance at Warsaw’s “Chopin and His Europe” Festival and, almost at the same time, pianist Kevin Kenner’s outstanding recital at the prestigious Duszniki Festival.


Kenner began his performance with Ned Rorem’s Barcarolle No. 2, the second of a set of three Barcarolles written in a period of ten days (November 17 to 26) in 1949. Each Barcarolle is dedicated to a pianist personally close to the composer, and the one performed at Kenner’s recital is dedicated to Rorem’s close friend, pianist Shirley Rhoads. The splendor and warmth of Kevin Kenner’s sound highlighted Rorem’s beautiful harmonies as well as the introspective, almost hymn-like nature of this gorgeous work.


The atmosphere evoked by the Rorem work continued with music by Robert Schumann, beginning with the Romance in F-sharp major, Op. 28, No. 2. Kenner certainly heeded Schumann’s marking of Einfach (simply) for the work, playing it with disarmingly directness and simplicity. In the outer sections of the short work, he infused the music with an inner glow, just as he effectively underscored the darker, slightly more turbulent harmonies of the middle section. Kenner’s interpretation of the work reminded me very much of a classic performance by Benno Moiseiwitsch, in sound as well as pacing.


The recital continued to draw upon music from Schumann’s inner world, with the Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6, for me one of the composer’s most personal and revealing works. From the first notes of the first section’s opening piece, Kenner’s playing of this large work was deeply felt; he certainly highlighted the very intimate, very inward-looking nature of the entire score, and brought out the character of the two-sided nature – the boisterous and passionate Florestan versus the shy and reticent Eusebius – of the composer’s creative genius. In movements 3 (Mit Humor) and 4 (Ungeduldig), he certainly brought out the spirit of the dance, whereas in the introspective movements 2 (Innig), 5 (Einfach), 7 (Nicht schnell) he played it as if he was the composer improvising at the piano. In movement 6 (Sehr rasch), he highlighted the fever and almost hallucinatory nature of the music. Kenner’s playing of movement 8 (Frisch) brought out the feeling of a chase in the music. 


In the opening movement of the second section (Sehr rasch), Kenner captured my attention with the skills of a master storyteller. Moreover, he successfully weaved his way through Schumann’s complex web of counterpoint and syncopation in the movement. He effectively captured the ticklish humour in movement 3 (Mit Humor) and the more unbuttoned hilarity in the outer sections of movement 4 (Wild und lustig). Movement 5 (Zart und singend) was played with disarming simplicity as well as the most gorgeous singing tone. The coda was played with sudden indelible warmth. Kenner played the B section of movement 6 (Frisch) with a lovely bel canto, highlighting this aria-like nature of the music. I found his playing of the 8th movement (Wie aus der Ferne) incredibly moving. The return of the theme from movement 2 of the first section brought us back to the dream-like nature of the music. In the final movement (Nicht schnell) Kenner kept us in this beautiful dreamlike state by drawing us even more into the innermost core of Schumann’s fertile imagination. This was truly masterful and very moving interpretation of this exceedingly difficult score. 


Kenner devoted the second half of his programme to some earlier mazurkas and a polonaise by Chopin. But he opened with the very popular and familiar Nocturne in E minor, Op. posth., not falling into the trap of sentimentality but infusing the music with dignity and depth of feeling.


In the mazurkas, Kenner highlighted the joy, innocence and, in some cases, the earthiness of these early composition, before the composer was exposed to the tragedy and vicissitudes of the world outside Poland that were to colour his later works. Again, Kenner played these dances without pause, and as if he were improvising at the piano; his understanding of, as well as his uncanny feeling and love for this music, playing them to the manor born, so to speak, was infectious. 


I was especially grateful to him for concluding his recital with the very rarely played Variations on "Là ci darem la mano", Op. 2. This was of course the piece that so captured the imagination of Robert Schumann, for him to coin the now classic phrase, “Hats off, gentlemen – a genius”, in his review of the work. Again, Kenner obviously identified with this music, playing it not only with towering and rousing virtuosity, but also with a great sense of fantasy. His interpretation prompted in my mind of the words of Schumann in his fanciful and imaginative review, of how the dramatis personae in Mozart’s opera came alive before his eyes when he hears this music.


Kenner remained with Chopin in his encore, and generously gave us the (Liszt) transcription of Wiosna (Spring), one of the composer’s Polish songs, playing it with the same directness and simplicity that appear to be the hallmark of his music making.


During this time of isolation, I am indeed grateful for these musicians and music festivals for making available these memorable musical experiences, and I ponder with wonder at the technology that enables us to bring such beauty to every corner of the globe.






Sunday, August 16, 2020

Opening Concert at the Chopin and His Europe Festival

On August 15th, pianist Nelson Goerner played the opening recital at the 16th Chopin and His Europe in Warsaw. I had had the pleasure of hearing Goerner in recital several times, and yesterday’s performance only reinforced my certainty that he is indeed a master pianist and artist.


Goerner opened the concert with Beethoven’s Sonata in E-flat major, Op. 81a (Les Adieux). The chords of the opening captured my attention immediately, with the pianist beautifully playing the horn-like descending chords. In those brief sixteen measures, Goerner lavished the music with a wide range of sound colours. In the Allegro, he effectively highlighted the shape of the arch-like opening theme, as well as the constantly shifting moods of the movement. In the second movement (Abwesenheit), he brought out the bleakness of the opening measures and the warmth and sense of yearning of the second theme. Goerner played the opening run of the third movement (Das Wiedersehen) with supreme confidence, rushing us headlong into the joys of the opening theme.


In the 15 Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme, Op. 35 – the so-called ‘Eroica’ Variations - that followed, we can surely say that Beethoven exploited (in the best sense of the word) every compositional possibility of that simple theme. In yesterday’s performance, the performer took the composer’s notes and recreated this masterpiece for us by exploiting every pianistic and musical challenge laid down by the composer, bringing out the humour, bravura, orchestral effects, as well as the unique character of each variation. In the final fugue, Goerner successfully navigated the fine balance between clarity of line and the forward surge of the music.


The Ballade in A-flat major, Op. 47, was the only offering by Chopin in yesterday’s performance. To my ears, it was an introspective performance that highlighted the structural integrity of this large work, without sacrificing the beauty and colours of Chopin’s writing.


In Liszt’s Valse oubliée, S. 215, Goerner brought out the charm as well as the quirkiness of this miniature masterpiece, giving us sparkling passagework that was crystalline in its clarity. In the Rhapsodie Espagnole, S. 254, Goerner did not draw my attention to the virtuosity the works demand – which is considerable – but emphasized the dignity and nobility inherent in this music. His performance of this Liszt work reminded me of the title of one of Alfred Brendel’s essays on Liszt, where he referred to Liszt’s “nobility of spirit”. This nobility of spirit was certainly clearly apparent in Goerner’s Liszt interpretation.


Goerner’s encore was Paderewski’s Nocturne in B-flat major, Op. 16, No. 4. Kevin Kenner introduced me to this charming work when he played it, also as an encore, after his Vancouver recital last year. Kenner applied a lighter touch to this music, and the music came across as beautifully limpid and delicate. I thought that the depth of sound Goerner employed when playing this music gave it an extra dimension as well as a more velvety sound colour. 


I was very envious of the (sparsely spaced) audience in Warsaw, who had the privilege of not only witnessing this masterful performance, but also being at a concert hall, hearing this music live. I was really very much bowed over by Goerner’s performance yesterday. I am grateful that he is a young man still, which means we can expect many more years of continued artistic growth, as well as many more memorable performances from this artist.







Monday, August 3, 2020

Leon Fleisher

I was four years old when Leon Fleisher lost the use of his right hand.


To me, the name of Leon Fleisher is really just that – a name. Of course, his Beethoven and Brahms concerti recordings are, or should be, parts of every music lover’s collection. Of course I knew about his playing of the left hand piano repertoire, as well as his careers as conductor and teacher. But as a young music lover and music student, Fleisher remained for me a historic figure. 


I had read with interest about his “come back” as a two-handed pianist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Sergiu Comissiona in Franck’s Symphonic Variations, and I knew that he had done some performing of the standard repertoire since that occasion.


In the 1990’s, when Comissiona was music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Leon Fleisher came and was soloist in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. Of course I had to go.


I attended that concert with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation - anticipation because I would finally get to hear this legendary musical figure perform in person, and trepidation because I couldn’t help wondering how he would manage with this treacherously difficult piece lasting a good three quarter of an hour. 


Fleisher came and played. And played it he did. It was a glorious and glowing performance of the concerto. I must add that I had a ten-second encounter with Fleisher backstage, but all I could manage was to stammer something to the effect of, “It’s an honour meeting you.”


What I remember was being so very moved, not just by the performance, but also by the courage it must have taken for him to do it. For any pianist, the Brahms concerto remains a formidable musical and technical challenge. But for someone who hadn’t been regularly performing for a couple of decades, it must have taken incredible determination, will, and an overwhelming love for the art of music. It is an experience that remains with me to this day.


Rest in peace, Leon Fleisher. 

Sunday, August 2, 2020

A Recital from Żelazowa Wola

I have been enjoying many of the recitals from Żelazowa Wola, Chopin’s idyllic birthplace outside Warsaw, which comes to us on Sunday afternoons. Today’s artist was the distinguished Polish pianist and pedagogue, Zbigniew Raubo.


The opening work, the Mazurka in A-flat major, Op. 50, No. 2 was played with a dignity, an elegance, richness of tone and depth of sound, as well as a complete identification with the style of this music. The rubato was natural and never sounding affected. In the Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 50, No. 3, Chopin’s supreme masterpiece amongst all the mazurkas, Raubo effectively contrasted the range of moods laid out by the composer, taking us all through a panoramic sonic and emotional journey.


The artist continued his performance with the Ballade in F minor, Op. 52, playing the opening theme with simplicity, but a panoply of sound colours and tones. Raubo was in complete control of every element of this large work, clearly threading his way through the work’s complex polyphony, and imbuing the work with absolute organic unity, rather than merely a disparate series of beautiful moments. His playing here highlighted the otherworldly beauty of Chopin’s melodic invention, especially in the late works. The treacherously difficult coda was played with a resounding virtuosity and absolute confidence. I found his playing of this great late work of the composer supremely moving.


Raubo continued his recital with the Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 34, No. 1, playing this light-hearted work with an easy elegance and effectively conveying the high-spirits and overwhelming joyousness of this music. 


In the Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48, No. 1, Raubo’s playing brought across the gravity, high tragedy and utter seriousness of the music. The depth of sound and full tone in his playing served this work particularly well. In the middle chorale-like section, he voiced the chords beautifully, and effectively paced the build-up to the cataclysmic climax before the return of the opening theme, painting a picture of an utterly and completely desolate landscape. 


The sadness of the nocturne is immediately dispelled by the beautiful opening passage of the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise, Op. 22, for me one of Chopin’s most technically and musically demanding works. Raubo understood the bel canto nature of the Andante section completely, playing the Bellini-like melody with a beguiling beauty of sound. The transitional section was played with a complete identification with the rhythmic intricacies of the music, and transitioning into the brilliance of the Polonaise with complete logic. The Grande Polonaise was played with supreme elegance, as well as utter brilliance and resounding virtuosity.


How fortunate we are that even in this time of isolation and uncertainty, we can still enjoy the musical offerings from faraway places, thanks to the wonders of technology. I was thankful for Raubo for his memorable performance. This wonderful series of recitals has brought us performances by many highly gifted young performers. But Raubo’s playing demonstrated an artistry of a higher order, as well as an understanding of the composer’s aesthetics and musical invention that comes from a lifetime of study, practice and maturation. For me, this was and is an artist and musician that shows a complete identification with the music of Chopin. 


I had been saddened by news of the postponement of the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, as I was looking forward to my first visit to Poland. I hope that medicine and science will give us the solution to overcome the Corona virus, so that I will have an opportunity to visit the fabled land of Chopin, Arthur Rubinstein and Saint John-Paul II.






Saturday, June 27, 2020

An Online Musical Experience

Pianist Tomasz Ritter, winner of the 1st International Chopin Competition for Period Instrument, gave an online all-Chopin recital under the auspices of The Vancouver Chopin Society and Early Music Vancouver. 


Even in an age where there are so many excellent, outstanding pianists, true Chopin interpreters are relatively rare. 


Tomasz Ritter is a true Chopin player.


Playing on an 1847 Broadwood piano – the same manufacturer of piano Chopin used for his final concert tour of England and Scotland – Ritter draws a rich sound and a diverse palette of colours from this instrument. Unlike modern instruments, period pianos call for an artist who knows how to work with the instrument.


Ritter’s playing captured my attention right from the first chords of the Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. Posth. I love his pacing of this intimate work, transitioning from the lyrical opening, to the more animated middle section, and returning to the opening theme. 


His playing of the opening of the Etude in E minor, Op. 25, No. 5 is a little more pedaled than I am used to hearing, thereby giving the music a slightly different, less scherzando-like character. The gorgeous middle section is played with a warm sound as well as an attention to details to the musical texture.


The pianist gives a deeply felt performance of the justly famous Etude in E major, Op. 10, No. 3. I have always found it interesting that Chopin originally indicated vivace (fast, lively) as a tempo marking for the work. Whether or not the composer was thinking of a very different character for the piece, or whether it was an error, we would never know. Perhaps the composer is warning future pianists not to “drag” the music, or to milk the beautiful melody for all that it is worth. I appreciate Ritter’s tempo choice in his performance. He brings out all the otherworldly beauty of the music, but keeps the horizontal flow of the musical line. 


Ritter’s keen sense of the musical line is again apparent in his performance of the Waltz in A minor, Op. 34, No. 2. Under the wrong hands, this music can end up sounding lugubrious. Not so under this young artist’s hands. He strikes a perfect balance between the melancholy colours of the music, but at the same time making the music float in air.


The Etude in C minor, Op. 10, No. 12 is given a highly dramatic reading. At the same time, no matter how heightened the drama may be, there is always an indelible sense of musicality in his sound.


His playing of the composer’s Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2 captures my attention not only in the richness and beauty of sound, but with a palpable sense of flow and in maintaining the forward motion of the music. 


In the three larger scale works that follow, Ritter really makes full use of the power and projection of the instrument. He plays the opening of the relatively rarely played Polonaise in E-flat minor, Op. 26, No. 2, with tremendous energy and sweep, and also captures perfectly the unique rhythmic character of the dance form, especially in the somewhat quirky middle section. 


Tomasz Ritter plays the Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, Op. 47 with a sense of buoyancy to the music, as well as with a sense of totality, not merely one episode after another of beautiful moments. He has an absolutely clear sense of the voice leading as well as the intricate counterpoint within the music. In the coda, he conveys the sense of an overflowing and overwhelming sense of joy.


In the Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20, Ritter captures both the demonic as well as angelic qualities that Chopin set as stark contrasts against each other. In the dramatic opening section, he conveys the frightful, phantasmagoric quality of the piano writing. I was deeply moved by his playing of the beautiful middle section, based on the Polish Christmas carol, “Sleep, Little Jesus”, and completely drawn into this incredibly intimate moment, where the composer appears to be baring his soul. From the first notes, to the cataclysmic coda that ends the work, Ritter is in complete control of both the pianistic and musical elements of this complex work. 


Even though I am hearing the music with the limited fidelity of my computer speakers, Ritter’s obvious pianistic talents, as well as the maturity of his musical thoughts, come through loud and clear. He captures every facet of Chopin’s creative genius, the organic unity of each work rather than a series of beautiful but unrelated moments. He captures the sentiments of the music, but without sentimentality.


At this point, we do not yet know when live musical performances will return. But we can avail ourselves, through technology, of the seemingly limitless musical offerings that we can find in cyberspace. 


Tomasz Ritter is obviously a young musician to watch. I look forward to the day when he will be able to come over to these shores and share his talent with us in person.




Friday, April 3, 2020

Glenn Gould and the Art of Social Distancing

During this strange period of “social distancing”, the one person I think of immediately is Glenn Gould.

Glenn Gould’s entire life was about self-isolation and social distancing, about being in the world and not of the world. He lived alone in one of his many abodes, and communicated with his friends and associates by letter, and – for those fortunate few – via telephone conversations lasting hours. Gould despised the idea of a live performance, the “non take-twoness” of a concert, and went through hell before each performance he had to give during his concert years. He thought of a live audience is “a force of evil”. He wrote an article entitled “Let’s Ban Applause”, and sincerely believed that recordings are the way of the future.

And of course there is his landmark and groundbreaking trilogy of radio documentaries, often referred to as the “solitude trilogy”. The first and arguably the most original, The Idea of North, reflects upon the idea of people who, for one reason or another, chose to live in the far north of Canada. The Latecomersaddresses the lives of people who live in Newfoundland out ports. Finally, The Quiet in the Land paints a portrait of Mennonite life in Red River, near Winnipeg, Manitoba. The “characters” in this final documentary talks about the influence of contemporary society on traditional Mennonite values.

In his own life, Gould was careful about whom he associated with. Even with his closest friends, there seemed to have been a bit of a barrier, a shield that prevented people from getting too close. Artist Cornelia Foss, wife of the great American musician Lukas Foss, who once left her husband, relocated to Toronto with her two children, and lived with Gould for years, until Gould’s later idiosyncrasies[1] made life with him impossible. I seriously doubt that Gould would have been capable of the routines involved in family life.

Even in his music making, there seems to be something aloof, something unreachable and otherworldly, about the beauty he created at the piano. Perhaps that is part of the appeal, what moves us so much about Gould’s playing. In the words of Yehudi Menuhin, “To contemplate Glenn is to ask why God had made the world, and why in just six days.”

I will forever remember the filmed performance of his final recording of the Goldberg Variations. At the end of the performance, we see Gould, alone in a darkened studio, slowly lifting his hands from the keyboard and then bowed his head as if in prayer. It is a supremely moving moment after a supremely moving performance, an artist alone in the world.

Gould would probably have been quite amused at people’s reaction to this enforced isolation, and wonder what the fuss is all about.

Perhaps we should heed Gould’s life and philosophy, and treasure this time of solitude as a time to think, to ponder, to pray.

Patrick May

[1] Gould was infamous for multi-doctoring, and would get multiple and unnecessary prescriptions for tranquillizers and other medications that - we now know - have serious central nervous system side effects. The great artists purported idiosyncrasies in his later life would have been, at least partly, a result of a drug-induced alteration of his personality.