Pianist Brian Ganz played the sixth concert of his decade-long survey of the works of Chopin at Strathmore on Saturday night, presented by the National Philharmonic. His partner for the evening was the Polish American mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór, with whom he collaborated in 10 of Chopin’s songs.
Ganz is a modest, self-effacing musician who loves communicating with his audience. He does it easily and engagingly, both at the keyboard and speaking from the platform. His great strengths as a Chopin pianist are shown best in pieces of a lyrical and poetic nature. His dynamic compass is a marvel. Just when you think he can’t possibly play more softly, Ganz takes it down a couple more notches, leaving you to wonder how it’s still audible.
Listening to the little album leaf “Cantabile” in B-flat that opened the program and the Nocturne in C minor, Op. Posth., I couldn’t help but reflect on Ganz’s piano lineage. He was a pupil of Leon Fleisher, who studied with Artur Schnabel, who studied with Theodor Leschetizky. The ravishing sensual beauty of Ganz’s sound, not to mention the elegance of his delivery, is the best testimony I can think of for a “living tradition.”
In a fully realized genius of Chopin’s stature, few artists can claim equal facility in representing all facets of his personality. Ganz was less successful in “presto leggiero” playing, very fast passage work that is made to sound easy. The Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat, Op. 29, was quick but less than distinct. The furious drama that unfolds in the middle section of the Nocturne No. 1 in F, Op. 15, lacked clarity. Ganz is also partial to the sudden, explosive fortissimos beloved by Vladimir Horowitz. These sorts of eruptions are not possible on the early-19th-century pianos that Chopin knew. But who is to say that contemporary Chopin interpretation needs to be bound by such historical constraints?
The second half of the program was devoted to grand-scale, heroic Chopin, with the Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58. Ganz’s natural tendency to savor tender, lyrical passages sapped the first movement of some of its structural cohesion and momentum. On the other hand, in the relentless Presto finale, which leaves most pianists wishing there were a gurney waiting in the wings, Ganz was powerful, direct and overwhelming. In the concluding pages, which suddenly shift to the major and suggest a fireworks display in the night sky, he had energy left to burn. It was impressive.
As were the songs, all the more striking because they are so seldom heard. Wór stood in at the last moment for Iwona Sobotka, who had encountered visa difficulties. But because Wór is such a consummate artist, no one seemed to care. She has that kind of velvety rich mezzo that makes you want to follow her anywhere. She and Ganz fully inhabited each song, which ran the gamut from naive folk poetry to miniature romantic tragedy. Pungent, fresh and beguiling, they complemented and balanced an otherwise satisfying and enjoyable evening.
Rucker is a freelance writer.