Saturday, April 04, 2009

Brian Ganz gives Chopin recital at Dumbarton in Washington DC


On Saturday April 4, 2009, the Dumbarton Concert Series presented Brian Ganz in an all Chopin piano recital. I got mailed an extra ticket for this when I ordered the ticket for the Feb. 21 chamber concert, so here I was. I peaked at the piano at Intermission, and it is a Steinway.

Some of the concert called to mind my high school piano days, particularly the Nocturnes from Op 27 (numbers 1 and 2) in the enharmonic c-sharp minor and D-flat keys. Number 1 gets into a violent middle section that continues almost to the end. Chopin was a master of the simple three part ternary form and the use of the middle section. I had a mono Columbia recording of the Nocturnes, that I remember playing a lot my senior year of high school, even for company during chess games. The record got destroyed by worn sapphire needles – this was 1961, after all.

Chopin, in fact, was the master of the use of the black keys – many of his compositions are in keys that start on black keys or that naturally use all of them – so many sharps and flats – fingering is easier on them. The same was true of Liszt to some extent – when we got to Rachmaninoff it was less true (although the last Rachmaninoff Prelude from Op. 32, which I learned as a senior in high school, was heavy into D-flat major resonance).

Okay, get back to Chopin – I tended to see his music as a bit frivolous and even effeminate – except for the Sonatas (and Ballades and Scherzos). The second piano teacher I had, starting in Ninth Grade (after my first teacher died suddenly of cancer in 1958) used to say you can’t give Chopin sonatas to people before college. Beethoven, yes. I’m not sure that makes sense. (Remember how an episode of WB’s Everwood had the prodigy character Ephram learning the Beethoven Appasionata in one day?)

Ganz played the B-flat minor sonata (number 2), one of Chopin’s most “virile” pieces. The first movement has an expansive architecture and rhythmic drive that foreshadows the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in the same key – reaching a thundering B-flat major climax. Ganz took the repeat. I’ve always thought this particular movement is masterful in its design and emotional momentum – and yet it’s “just” the opening movement. The scherzo is violent and then sentimental, and we all know the funeral march, which here sounded a bit salon-like. (Remember Beethoven also gave us a funeral march in A-flat minor in one of his middle sonatas.) The finale is gossamer, rather a coda to the whole piece, to crash down on a single B-flat minor chord. I’ve always wondered what the significance of the “etude-like” finale is. Some observers say it is almost atonal, although not in the same way as the later music of Viennese composers (it’s more Parisian).

He picked the best of the scherzo’s, number 3 in C-sharp minor (again), that is nothing less than heroic. (I wondered if he would pick the G-minor Ballade – used in the Dutch horror film “Mill of the Stone Women” and late in a climactic scene in Roman Polanski's "The Pianist", where the hero impresses a Nazi soldier by playing the piece) – he didn’t, but it has one of the most violent conclusions in all of romantic piano literature. It would have made an excellent audition piece for Ephram in “Everwood” if the character hadn’t blown it – a tragedy.)

Ganz played four mazurkas, and substituted an earlier one in B-flat minor for the one that was printed. He took them all somewhat dutifully. He opened the program with two polonaises from Op 40 (the A Major is the “Militaire” and the C minor is slow and emphasizes bass lines, that didn’t always come out well). The concluding work was the Heroic Polonaise in A-flat. He played the Aeolian Harp Etude as an encore.

One other piano piece, not on the program, comes to mind here. Brahms wrote three piano sonatas, all when he was young, but number 2, in F-sharp minor, has always struck me as strange, especially the enigmatic conclusion. I wonder if we’ll hear that at Dumbarton some time.

I see that Dumbarton will have the Miro String Quartet perform Tudor Dominik Maican’s “String Quartet #5” on April 10, 2010. I don’t know what happened to Quartet #4. I’d love to hear Dumbarton do Dohanyi’s youthful and expansive Piano Quintet, Op. 1.

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