Monday, May 22, 2023

A Stunning Debut

There are many pianists who play Chopin. There are far fewer, in spite of the high level of piano playing today, who can really play Chopin. Happily, pianist Kyohei Sorita clearly belongs to this small second group, as he amply demonstrated in his all-Chopin recital yesterday, his Vancouver and Canadian debut. It was piano playing and music making that sought to move, rather than to impress, and he succeeded beyond our highest expectations. 


I don’t remember any pianist who would begin – or have the courage to begin - his or her recital with the Polonaise in A-flat Major (Op. 53), nor do I remember any pianist who made the great polonaise theme dance quite so vividly, or infused a lightness to the dance rhythm. And in the left-hand octave passage in the E Major section, Sorita tossed it off with nary of its demands, and managed the feat without pounding the piano. In the melancholic C section, he brought out details in the left hand that I had not noticed before. From there, he managed an incredible build-up of tension toward the incredible coda of the piece. 


Sorita played the Waltz in F Major (Op. 34, No. 3) with a breathtaking lightness, and managed it with a magical display of incredible finger-work. In the ascending series of grace notes (mm. 83-84) and the descend following it (mm. 87-88), he brought out the music with great charm and a true sense of humour. This was a masterful performance of one of Chopin’s most rhythmically challenging works. 


In the technically challenging Rondo a la Mazur, Op. 5, Sorita towered over the pianistic hurdles, and showed that he truly feels the mazurka rhythm, as well as bringing out the charming, almost music-box like quality of the music, that one felt like one was hearing the composer improvising on the piano. 


The opening section of the Andante spinato and Grande Polonaise, Op. 22 contains one of Chopin’s most beguiling melodies (and that is really saying a great deal), and Sorita played it with a most beautiful, most liquid legato. As in his performance of the “Heroic” polonaise that opened the recital, the young artist again brought to life Chopin’s dance rhythm. With a less-than-perfect realization of this work, the listener is sometimes made to feel that the theme comes back perhaps once too often. Not so with Sorita’s sweeping performance, which somehow made each appearance of the polonaise theme slightly different and renewed energy.  


Before the audience had an opportunity to catch its breath, Sorita returned after intermission with a performance of all four Ballades. To play a single ballade is a challenge, but to play the entire set takes an artist who possesses the technique, the stamina, the musicality and understanding, not to mention the courage, to attempt this feat. Sorita showed that he possesses all of the aforementioned qualities, in spades. In each of the four Ballades, very familiar music indeed, Sorita managed to find new ideas, and new beauty not heard before. 


Even the much played and much heard Ballade No. 1 in G minor (Op. 23) sounded fresh under his hands. Each of these four large scale works was played, not as a series of beautiful episodes, as it is so often done, but with an organic unity, with the sense of one idea melting into another, and yet being part of the larger design. 


With each of the pieces, Sorita was the master storyteller, a great bard regaling us with tales from long ago times and far away lands. In the Ballade No. 2 in F Major (Op. 38), I had rarely heard the bell-like sonorities of the opening chord voiced quite so beautifully, or with such a contrast to the Presto con fuoco section, that it was, in the best sense, a rude awakening from a beautiful reverie. 


The Ballade No. 3 in A-flat Major (Op. 47) was played with an overwhelming feeling of joy, and of elation, as well as a palpable musicality. The bell-like sonorities in the right hand that opens the Ballade No. 4 in F minor (Op. 52) was played as if coming from nowhere, giving us a feeling that the music had been going on long before we heard it. And the great coda was performed with sweep, but at the same time with clarity, as well as an obvious awareness of the contrapuntal complexities that is such a part of Chopin’s late works. 


The performance of these four great works certainly gave the audience a reason to cheer, and cheer they did, long and loud. Sorita graciously granted this appreciative audience three encores – Chopin’s Etude in C minor, Op. 25, No. 12 and Mazurka in C Major, Op. 56, No. 2, as well as Schumann’s Widmung – the composer’s great love song for Clara Schumann - as transcribed by Liszt. In the mazurka, Sorita brought out the fragrance of earthiness in the music. And in Schumann/Liszt’s Widmung, he downplayed Liszt’s invitation for virtuoso display, but gave the music a true sense of ardour and quiet ecstasy. 


The all-too-short afternoon was one that was filled with beauty and inspiration, leaving everyone with an overwhelming impression of communion into something very special. 


The performance confirmed my impression from the 2021 Chopin Competition in Warsaw, that Kyohei Sorita was and is the true artistic find from that very high-level competition. It was a real coup for The Vancouver Chopin Society to have engineered the Canadian debut of this outstanding young artist. Surely the sky is the limit in what will surely be an interesting artistic journey for this young musician. May he always reach for the stars.

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