Not long into his quest to perform the complete works of Frederic Chopin, pianist Brian Ganz discovered there was one piece he’d never be able to play. While he — and most people — thought the Polish composer included piano in every single one of his approximately 250 works, it turns out that Chopin wrote a piece for an unaccompanied singer, Mazurka in G major for Vaclav Hanka.
“I really can’t sing,” Ganz says, so he updated his goal. “Now, I’m performing Chopin’s complete works for piano.”
He’s doing it through annual performances, a series Ganz calls “Extreme Chopin.” Saturday’s edition, “Chopin: Recollections of Home” at Strathmore, will nudge Ganz just past the halfway mark — even if you don’t count that unaccompanied song, which will be performed by mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wor.
“As far as we know, Brian’s the first pianist to attempt this,” says National Philharmonic music director Piotr Gajewski, who pitched the idea to Ganz in 2009. “We were coming up on the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth and I wanted to do something to honor him, a sort of grand gesture, but I wasn’t sure there’d be an audience for it.”
He needn’t have worried. “Extreme Chopin” has been a huge hit since its very first, sell-out installment, in 2011. Gajewski credits Ganz’s sensitive playing and natural storytelling ability.
“Brian has an infectious personality that draws people in. He basically has a cult following,” Gajewski says.
Ganz, who’s been obsessed with Chopin since he started playing piano at age 9, says that all the credit should go to the composer.
“There’s a tremendous amount of mystery in Chopin’s music, and he is constantly inviting the listener in to explore these things with him — things that can’t be expressed through words, like yearning and nostalgia, and the type of beauty that’s so beautiful it hurts,” Ganz says.
For each “Extreme Chopin” concert, Ganz selects pieces that tell a larger story about the composer’s life and music. Saturday’s performance, for instance, will focus on Chopin’s relationship with his homeland of Poland, which he left at age 20 for a career in Paris.
“Musically, though, he never really left,” Ganz says. Chopin loved turning famous Polish poems into songs (typically with vocals and piano accompaniment), and he also wrote many polonaises and mazurkas, pieces inspired by traditional Polish dances — nine of which Ganz will play on Saturday.
Using a technique he calls “musical gardening,” Ganz will juxtapose Chopin’s early pieces with mature works to illustrate how melodies and other musical ideas took root and flowered in Chopin’s fertile mind.
“I’m going to play an early polonaise that he wrote when he was 16 years old to honor a dear friend who was about to leave Warsaw. It’s a wonderful example of Chopin’s ability to express melancholy in music,” Ganz says. “I follow it with a piece that goes way beyond melancholy to a kind of despair — an even violent despair. It’s one of his mature polonaises that seems very much to be inspired by the Polish uprising — and the following crackdown of the uprising — against Russian occupation in 1830-31, which occurred just after Chopin left Poland for good.”
To conclude the program, Ganz will play Chopin’s Allegro de Concert, Op. 46, a propulsive, 11-minute piece that the composer famously proclaimed would be the first work he’d perform in an independent Poland.
“At first, I didn’t understand why he said that, but now I think I know,” Ganz says. “It crescendoes into a kind of unbridled joy, like a Fourth of July fireworks display.”
Chopin never got a chance to see an independent Poland before he died at the age of 39. But although the composer was buried in Paris, his heart is in Warsaw — literally. “He had his sister take it back in a bottle of liquor, and now it’s in the wall of a church,” Ganz says.
As you might expect of the Chopin superfan, Ganz has been to both burial sites multiple times, but one visit to the Parisian graveyard, in the 1990s, was particularly memorable.
“It was a dark, cold winter day, and the cemetery was practically deserted, but when I got to Chopin’s grave, there was a little crowd. It was striking, this little oasis of human warmth, with flowers and candles,” Ganz says. “It really brought home to me what Chopin’s music means to so many people, what warmth it brings, even on the coldest, darkest days.”
Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda, Md.; Sat., 8 p.m., $34-$88. Free tickets for children age 7-17 can be picked up in person at the Strathmore ticket office or ordered by phone at 301-841-8595.