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.