Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Jakub Kuszlik - Canadian Debut

As the cliché goes, life is indeed full of wonderful surprises. I thought I knew the works performed at last night’s recital backwards and forward, and then someone comes along playing these same pieces, and sweeps you off your feet and captures your heart.


Which was how it was with the Vancouver recital debut of pianist Jakub Kuszlik, in an all-Chopin recital. He commenced his performance with the three waltzes, Op. 34, a spritely performance of the Waltz in A-flat (No. 1), a deeply felt reading of the Waltz in A minor (No. 2), and a performance of the Waltz in F major (No. 3) that highlighted the rhythmic quirkiness of this very original work.


Perhaps more than any of his other creations, the mazurkas of Chopin most embody the element of zal, that almost untranslatable Polish word that contains a whole host of meanings, but can be generally described as a bittersweet melancholy. Kuszlik’s performance of the Four Mazurkas, Op. 30, captured the essence of this elusive quality. I was especially touched by his performance of the Mazurka in C-sharp minor, Op. 30, No. 4, with its combination of deep sadness, anguish, and defiance. 


Kuszlik’s beautifully played the Nocturne in E major, Op. 62, No. 2, with an almost cinematic unfolding of the evolving stream of consciousness, from the calm, stately opening, to the agitato middle section with its complex polyphony, and to the flowing cantabile of the closing.


The young artist gave a masterful performance of the Scherzo in C-sharp minor, Op. 39, immediately conveying the restless quality of the music in the opening bars, as well as highlighting the stark contrast between light and shadow throughout the work. Amazingly, Kuszlik shaded the chorale theme and made it different with each appearance. The rippling descending broken chords that follow the chorale theme were played with a beguiling lightness, like shafts of lights shining through the clouds. The tempestuous and fiercely difficult coda was absolutely thrillingly played.


The second half of Kuszlik’s recital began with the Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49, the only work of Chopin’s with this particular title. For me, a successful performance of this work has to have a storytelling quality, a feeling of, “Long ago, and far away…” To my ears, Kuszlik’s performance had this quality of a continuing narrative through the music many disparate episodes, but also a feeling of wholeness, or organic unity.


Kuszlik’s performance of the Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58 was simply masterly. It had nobility, beauty and a sense of freshness, of discovery, all the more remarkable given our familiarity with this music. In the first movement, the sense of urgency in the opening flowed very nicely into the beautiful D major theme. Indeed, he made the move from one of a wealth of melodic ideas to the next completely natural and logical, and gave the movement a sense of cohesiveness, rather than meandering from one beautiful idea to another. In the brief scherzo, the enharmonic change that marked the transition from E-flat major to B major was absolutely magical. Kuszlik made this short scherzosounded like a logical intermezzo that took us from the opening movement through to the Largo that follows. This Largo movement was played with much attention to detail, beauty of sound, but with a flowing quality that again took us through Chopin’s many melodic ideas. I was particularly taken with the pains Kuszlik took to highlight the beauty of the composer’s writing for the left hand. He gave the presto non tanto movement an incredible urgency (without any feeling of rushing), a relentless quality, with almost a feeling of desperation, all the way until the work’s cataclysmic ending.


At the conclusion of the sonata, the audience gave Mr. Kuszlik a rousing and well-deserved ovation, whereupon he granted us two encores – Brahms Rhapsody in E-flat major, Op. 119, No. 4, which he played with brimming enthusiasm, an infectious vigor and youthful ardour (different from my own view of this work), and the same composer’s Intermezzo in A minor, Op. 116, No. 2, highlight the grey-tinged autumnal colours of the work.


In additional to the many of the aforementioned musical qualities of Mr. Kuszlik’s performance, it was, above all, music-making that moves. There is a depth of quality as well as an emotive quality in Mr. Kuszlik’s playing that drew me into his, and Chopin’s, sound world – a rare gift indeed.


Illness prevented Rafal Blechacz from fulfilling his engagement in Vancouver, but The Vancouver Chopin Society scored a real coup here in having found Mr. Kuszlik. We look forward to being witnesses to the many subsequent chapters in his artistic journey.



Saturday, April 2, 2022

Music of Exile

I returned to the Orpheum Theatre last night to hear cellist Mischa Maisky as guest soloist with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.


The originally scheduled conductor had to cancel in the very last moment because of a family emergency, and the orchestra was fortunate in having secured the services of Stefan Asbury, a highly experienced conductor.


Perhaps it was Mr. Asbury’s experience that allowed him to put together this challenging programme in such short notice. Verdi’s I Vespri Siliani Overture and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D major were both well played by the orchestra. The Verdi was, however, curiously lacking in tension throughout, a “pleasant” reading rather than one that gets one’s pulse going. I had the same impression with the performance of the Beethoven, an interpretation that looks back at the genial music of Haydn rather than the revolutionary sounds of the Eroica; last night’s performance lacked a tautness in the musical fabric.


For the performance of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor, I have a feeling that the musicians of the orchestra were inspired, and really rose above themselves because of the presence of a great soloist. The missing musical tension in the first half of the concert was suddenly there, in spades.


Mr. Maisky gave a big, bold, heroic and ardent performance of the concerto, painting on an extremely large canvas. An experienced and avid chamber musician, he took pains to blend his own sound with that of the orchestral fabric, and conductor and soloist worked to make the work a symphonic experience. The range of sounds and colours he got from his instrument was nothing short of astounding. In the beautiful and soulful second theme, Maisky drew us into his emotional and sound world with playing that was both ardent and confiding. His playing of the second movement – music inspired by the illness of Dvorak’s sister-in-law and true love - was deeply heartfelt and overwhelmingly moving. In the third movement, he played with a rousing virtuosity that was breathtaking. 


Mr. Asbury should be given much credit for his role in the performance, for the Dvorak concerto is one that is littered with many potential ensemble pitfalls, all of which he and the orchestra deftly negotiated. He managed to give the work an organic whole. 


I was extremely touched by the entire performance, not only because of the great performance by this great musician. The Dvorak concerto is music of exile, as the composer had written it while living in America, far from his beloved Czech homeland. Throughout the work, there is a palpable sense of longing, a longing for home. 


Musical works created in exile and by exiles are often the most powerful – this would explain the power of the music of Chopin. 


In these last few years, when political persecution by ruthless dictatorships, and illegal war by a brutal dictator, had driven countless people from their homeland – in Hong Kong, in Syria, and of course Ukraine - last night’s performance of this Dvorak concerto became, for me, not only moving but extremely relevant. 


I do not know whether Mr. Maisky had any of these thoughts last night, but perhaps his choice of his only encore was telling – the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite in C minor – a performance filled with dark colours and meaningful silences, one that had the audience holding their breath. Maisky, wisely, did not make any announcement or pronouncement, perhaps leaving it up to the imagination of the audience whom this mournful music was meant for.


All of a sudden, the world became a better place.