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Chopin: Beyond the Sound Barrier at Bard

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Aug 19th, 2017

Danny Driver

Bard’s sold-out Sosnoff Theater reveled in the varied artistry of Fryderyk Chopin this past Friday night. Six pianists offered a small anthology of some of Chopin’s major works. During this sampling each pianist provided different interpretive approaches to playing the great master.

Danny Driver opened with a pleasant ice-breaker, Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53. A regular performer at London’s Wigmore Hall Driver attempted No. 1, 3, 4, and 12 of Études, Op. 10. No. 3 and 4 are some of the most difficult pieces in the Chopin repertoire; he shone best in the more interior and emotional No. 4, while struggling somewhat with the other movements, especially the more extroverted No. 12, nicknamed “Revolutionary” which celebrated the Spirit of French and Polish rebellion against authority.

Young Charlie Albright played three movements from Études, Op. 25: Nos. 1, 7, and 12 with great interior emotion. Albright created an entirely new sound with the piano as he rode surging waves of interior, liquid emotion. This was a breath-taking performance of superior skill and delicate nuance. The Steinway managed to sound like a lighter, Italian piano, perhaps emphasizing Bellini’s influence. Albright’s highly mannered postures during this bravura performance were accentuated by his bright white jacket and it would have been better on the eye if he had doffed that jacket to play in his black shirt. Closing one’s eyes, one could appreciate better the magnificence of his oceanic sound and interpretation. The audience demanded a second bow. (A video of Albright playing Chopin appears below.)

Nimrod David Pfeffer played Nocturne in F-sharp Minor, Op. 48, No. 2. Pfeffer excelled in clarity of individual notes which heightened the melody. This was truly marvelous yet slightly cold in the manner of the Russian school of piano playing. His highlighting of the melody offered a more cerebral version of Chopin that stimulated thought, making one more aware of Chopin’s intellectual thrust.

Piers Lane tackled Chopin’s Scherzo in E Major, Op. 54 with brilliant gusto. Here were brusque changes of mood, rhythm, sudden dissonances, a tour-de-force dance that could swerve on a note or cluster of notes into another gear, somewhat like a child’s twirling kaleidoscope. Lane, with his trade-mark screaming socks and now sporting a Joe Cocker-like shoulder-length hairstyle of blond curls, appeared and sounded positively Lisztian in style and manner as he self-confidently nailed cascades of dazzling notes with aplomb and clarity in a scherzo that no composer could ever top.

After the break Anna Polonsky offered three pieces that emphasized the salon quality of Chopin. In Mazurka in F-sharp Minor, Op. 59, no 3, she inflected various textures of gravity and romance into the dance rhythm, concluding with a gentle seductive Romantic coda. With Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, no. 2 she honed in on the dreamy out-of-this-world quality that Chopin invested into John Field’s Romantic genre invention, perfecting the nocturne beyond mere nostalgia. With Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 45, Polonsky delved into shades of Romance and lost love so fully that I was in truth transported into another world.

Michael Brown played Barcarole in D-flat Major, Op. 60 with magisterial authority. One of Chopin’s most difficult pieces to play, Brown handled this late piece with great ease (especially those left hand reaches of over an octave) and subtle panache as he delivered those wistful rollicking rhythms of love’s mysterious past history as they lap and overlap in memory.

Piers Lane appeared once more to deliver the bravura performance of the evening in Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49. Lane managed to over-go his own previous performance as he conjured some idealized version of a Polish state built upon the shoulders of art as if he were building a tower up to the heavens with one magic note rushing pell-mell to replace its improvised predecessor. The startling, sheer genius of Chopin was laid bare as the piece seemed to cry out “who needs an orchestra when one has a piano, for is not a piano the foundation of all art!”

Ran Dank was to conclude the concert with Sonata in B-flat Minor, Op. 35, yet he was incapacitated by kidney stones. With just hours of notice, Danny Driver volunteered as replacement. Certainly Chopin’s most pessimistic piece, this funeral number rang changes on the famous Dies Irae motif as if Chopin lamented the death of the human species. Driver played with spontaneous zest and such inspiration that he caught the contemporary political nuance of our present quandary. This powerful performance earned three bows and sent everyone into the night that linked the Romantic past to our current predicament.

This was an anthology of superior performance of difficult works that showcased the variety of mood, style, and spectrum of Chopin’s achievement, an achievement so great that we are still plumbing its depths today. In a pre-concert talk Jonathan D. Bellman spoke eloquently on how Chopin transfigured every genre he touched, yet there was no representation of the ballade, a genre that Chopin invented, but has fallen out of fashion from current concert repertoire.

Yet on this memorable night, Sosnoff Theater was turned into a bare, bookless Parisian salon with a single spotlight on the piano and row upon row of empty orchestral seats ghostly mute in the background. Both extroverted social statements of Romantic rebellion were addressed with orchestral emanations, as well as the interior memory of aspiring intimacy and even love’s memories searingly recollected in soft candlelight by a brilliant parade of varied pianists who have made the past live again and made it so relevant to the present.