Brian Ganz takes a wordy approach to Chopin, but his playing is masterful

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By Robert Battey
Sunday, January 23, 2011; 6:56 PM

If there was ever a composer who truly needs no introduction, it would have to be Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). This genius produced music that blended popular and high art in a synthesis that no one achieved before or since. His seemingly myopic focus on producing Polish dance music on the piano instead reveals the widest canvas of feeling, drama and the human spirit, one that pulls an emotional response out of any listener regardless of his or her musical sophistication.

These thoughts went through my head Saturday night as Brian Ganz began his third lecture of the evening two hours into his all-Chopin recital at the Music Center at Strathmore. Audiences have filled concert halls for all-Chopin recitals for centuries now; did Ganz really feel the composer needed any more verbal advocacy? Does a discussion of the Lydian mode really enhance the layman's enjoyment of a mazurka?

Ganz's remarks were as heartfelt as his playing, but if he plans to continue this practice in future installments of his projected 10-year, 15-concert traversal of the master's complete works, he would be well advised to calculate the talking time when planning programs (as of 10:30, he was still playing encores - etudes, both with extended spoken introductions).

With the recent departure of Santiago Rodriguez to Florida, Ganz is probably the D.C. area's most celebrated resident concert pianist. He appears frequently at Strathmore, which was packed to the rafters on Saturday, and received several standing ovations. His strong identification with this repertoire yielded performances of warmth, affection and security.

At 50, Ganz is a seasoned artist, though still a boyish one. He brings a young man's delight to his work, which can be limiting as well as energizing. He can't seem to play a loud chord without a jerk of his head, and ornaments sometimes get more ostentatious attention than the less sexy work of shaping a long line.

Ganz's technique is well tuned to Chopin's athletic demands, although there was some strain in the gnarly scherzo from the "Funeral March" sonata and uneven repeated notes in the Waltz in E Flat, Op. 18. One might have wished generally for more imagination in repetitive material. But this was masterful Chopin playing overall, often deeply beautiful. He offered a particularly impressive Scherzo No. 2; despite a few missed notes, it was his best outing of the evening, with splendid virtuosity in the middle section and perfectly judged rubato throughout.

Battey is a freelance writer. Ganz's survey will resume in February 2012.


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