Tomasz Ritter, the distinguished young Polish pianist, winner of the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments, made his Vancouver and Canadian recital debut yesterday, under the auspices of The Vancouver Chopin Society, celebrating its 25th Anniversary season. Ritter performed on an 1819 Conrad Graf fortepiano, built by Paul McNulty, and I am as fascinated by the sonorities evoked by Ritter on the instrument as I am by his interpretation of the music.
In the two Chopin Nocturnes (Op. 15, No. 1 and Op. 9, No. 1), one is struck by the beauty and absolute softness of the piano’s sonority. Unlike a modern concert grand, the sound does not “hit” you like an arrow out of a bow. Rather, the sound of the instrument draws one in and compels one to really listen intently. With an artist who knows how to exploit – in the best sense of the word – the instrument, Chopin’s ppp markings, in, for instance measures 24 and 61 of the B-flat minor Nocturne (Op. 9, No. 1), were truly realized. In the beginning of the same Nocturne, as well as when the main theme returns at measure 70, the sound drifts in as if from nowhere, creating a magical effect. That said, this is not to say that the instrument is incapable of power, but the power of the sound comes not from volume, but from the contrast in the sound, as was fully evident in the stormy middle section of the F Major Nocturne (Op. 15, No. 1).
Beethoven’s Sonata in E Major, Op. 109 was another wonderful demonstration of the capabilities of the Graf fortepiano, and the gently rippling opening theme of the 1st movement never sounded more tender and loving than it did yesterday under Ritter’s hands. I appreciated the sense of totality with which Ritter handled the theme and variations of the 3rdmovement. In the same movement, I was astounded by the clarity of texture in the many layers of sound in especially the 4th, 5th and 6th variations. As well, Ritter fully evoked the other-worldly beauty of the theme of the 3rd movement, both in its initial appearance as well as in its heartbreakingly poignant return at the end.
For me, the highlight of the afternoon was Ritter’s tour-de-force performance of Brahms’ transcription of Bach’s monumental Chaconne. This was a masterful reading of this challenging work, but our young artist rose far above Bach and Brahms’ musical and technical challenges. It was a perfect balance between clarity of the vertical texture and a sense of horizontal forward motion. The performance was so compelling that one almost doesn’t miss Busoni’s more well-known technicolour transcription. In fact, under Ritter’s hands, Brahms’ more austere transcription comes much closer to the spirit of Bach’s original.
After the interval, Ritter delivered a compelling performance Mozart’s great Fantasie in C minor, K. 475, taking us on a journey through the work’s kaleidoscopic range of colours and emotions. In the forte-piano contrast at the very beginning of the piece again took on a sense of light and shadow. Ritter conveyed the angst-ridden Allegro section (m. 42) by exploiting the different colours of the Graf. As well, he highlighted a contrasting sense of repose in the Andantino section (m. 91). On the instrument, the descending octave scale at m. 90 had a lightness one does not always hear on a modern piano.
Likewise, Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D. 784, highlighted both Ritter’s musical gifts as well as the beauty of the instrument. The hushed quality with which Ritter played opening pianissimo unison theme captured my attention right from the first notes. Even with the relatively softer sounds of the Graf, the fortissimo passages, like the octave restatement of the opening theme, were no less powerful. The chords of the E Major second theme took on a magical floating quality, with a sound that seemed to have come from nowhere. In the slow movement, Schubert’s indications of both ppp as well as sordini (m. 4, 15, 18, 34, 38 and finally 59) really became possible. In the final movement, Ritter really highlighted the feeling of a chase between the two hands in the opening measures. This feeling of restlessness effectively contrasted with the relative sense of repose in the second theme (m. 51). All in all, it was a very convincing, and absolutely committed, interpretation of this great work.
Ritter chose, appropriately, to end the afternoon’s performance with Chopin as his encore – the now very popular Nocturne in C-sharp minor, Op. posth. Surely, a highly successful debut by one of today’s most distinguished exponents of the period piano. With the second edition of the International Chopin Competition for Period Instruments coming up this October, we can perhaps expect more performance on historic instruments in Vancouver?
As much as I love the Steinway piano, Sunday’s performance certainly gave us a different and unique perspective on music that we all love and know so well. For that we can be grateful to Mr. Ritter’s visit to our city.