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Gorgeous Playing from Levinson, Transporting Reconstruction, at Chopin Symposium


Several remarkable lectures and three concerts took place the past weekend (June 19, 20) as part of the Chopin Symposium at Rivers School in Weston. The symposium, honoring Chopin in his bicentennial year, was the brainchild of pianist Roberto Poli, who ran a similar event last year. A self-described “passionate advocate of the music of Chopin,” the indefatigable Mr. Poli is clearly an ideal advocate. The symposium gathered together some of brightest of Chopin aficionados for talks, master classes, and concerts.

Friday night’s opening concert featured the Boston-based pianist Max Levinson, whose program alone this reviewer would have walked 10 miles to hear. The first half, Chopin’s Four Ballades, was played with tremendous power, when needed, and poignant delicacy and sweetness at other times The Second Ballade was dedicated to Robert Schumann. Mr. Levinson is well-known for his formidable technique; hardly a concert or a review goes by when it’s not mentioned. What is worth noting is that this renowned technique (and what big name pianist doesn’t have one?) is really at the service of a sophisticated musical mind that gets exactly what it wants from Levinson’s fingers. There was little to watch; Mr. Levinson sits rather still most of the time, seeming somewhat delighted to be having so little trouble executing these very difficult pieces. Were the ballades gorgeously played? Yes. Were they as good as my many recordings by Chopin superstars? Yes. The audience, full of pianists, went wild, which was the only sensible reaction to such glorious playing of such wonderful music.

For the second half, Mr. Levinson effortlessly tackled the virtuosic Kreisleriana : Eight Fantasies for Piano after E.T.A. Hoffmann, Op. 16 which Robert Schumann (1810-1856) dedicated to Chopin. Mr. Poli’s beautiful program notes — so readable and so consistently interesting — refer to this lengthy piece as a cyclical character piece, written by Schumann at the height of his powers. The triptych of characters who “appear” in this piece, the impulsive, passionate Florestan, the dreamy Eusebius, and Master Raro, who acts as mediator between the other two, are understood to be projections of the troubled (bipolar it is thought today) Schumann’s mind, full of contradictions, a psyche so often on the verge of madness.

Schumann knew he had created something great when he wrote the semi-autobiographical Kreisleriana, which he wrote for his beloved Clara during their separation before they were finally married in 1840, after a long legal battle with her father. Of this piece, Schumann wrote to Clara, “My music… seems so simply and wonderfully intricate… so eloquent and from the heart; that’s the way if affects everyone for whom I play it, which I enjoy doing quite frequently.” Mr. Levinson captured all the mood and color changes in a powerful performance. But for this listener, the most beautiful moments of the evening came in his encore, Schumann’s Träumerei, played with calm simplicity, no fuss, just a few moments of quiet loveliness after an evening of spectacular fireworks.

Sunday night’s concert was an entirely different sort of event, an attempt to recreate and reconstruct the last concert Chopin played at Pleyel Salon on February 16, 1848. Mr. Poli’s research into which of his compositions Chopin  played on that famous evening was frustrating since most of the pieces were never written down in a program or documented in letters or in the press.  Performers at that time often decided what they would play at the last minute. The program book for this (and Mr. Levinson’s) concert was extraordinary, as it tried to replicate the original program, stating only Chopin Etudes, Preludes, Mazurkas, Waltzes or Aria for mezzo-soprano. A copy of the original program is in the program book, as well as biographies of its musicians. The lights were dimmed and three votive candles sat on each of the five windowsills.

The evening began with a lovely reading of the Mozart Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano in E Major, K. 542, a piece Chopin adored. (Piotr Buczek was the violinist, Ronald Lowry the cellist). It was Poli’s night, and he covered himself in glory. His Mozart was simply beautiful. The co-star of the evening was a 1845 Pleyel piano borrowed from the Frederick Collection, a piano very similar in sound to the one Chopin played at his last concert. It took this listener a while to get used to its sound, which was described as having a veiled silvery quality. Chopin preferred the sound of Pleyels to Erards, while the more extroverted Liszt insisted on using Erards with their more open and commanding sound.

The program was a diverse one. There were two arias for mezzo-soprano (Colleen Palmer) by Bellini and Mozart, “Air nouveau” from Robert le Diable for tenor and piano by Giacomo Meyerbeer (Gregory Zavracky) and Chopin’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in g minor, Op. 65 in an excellent performance by cellist Ronald Lowry and Poli. But the star of this concert and the brains, energy, and dedication was Poli, whose two Etudes, Berceuse, Nocturne, Preludes, two wonderful Mazurkas, and Waltzes were played, in each set, one seamlessly following the other. Poli has been pursuing a recording project of all the works of Chopin and he has his own unique way of playing Chopin, not at all generically. What stuck me as this concert was ending was how in his last set, I was no longer thinking about how odd the piano sounded, or about who was playing it. I was simply listening to Chopin. And it was simply wonderful. I was transported, if not back to 1848, then to a place where it’s just a privilege to be in the audience.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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  1. It was a pleasure to read Susan Miron’s appreciative, informative write-up of performances given in the context of Roberto Poli’s excellent Chopin Symposium. The playing was clearly intended to convey sensitivity and musicianly protein, despite the concommittant feux d’artifice such repertoire brings with it.

    Ms. Miron elected not to describe the power of expression, musically communicative or otherwise, of the fine, subtle 1845 Pleyel salon grand lent to the Symposium by Patricia and Michael Frederick, other than to label its unfamiliar sound as “odd”. It is certainly not unusual for modern performers and reviewers not to have encountered or to have become curious about the pianos (or winds, strings, organs, brass, tympani, etc.) whose technical and sonic characters paved the way for the polished and, I must say, rather bland timbral palette required of most instruments today. However, I am sorry that, in her otherwise exemplary review, she did not feel that the special opportunity of hearing an authentic and visceral voice from Chopin’s own era and artistic milieu merited a small evaluative remark or two. A puzzlingly missed opportunity!

    This particular salon grand, which I have delighted in recording a number of times in excellent concert conditions, immediately brings to mind those famous hallmarks of “the Pleyel sound” Chopin took care to jot down for the enlightenment of friends, and therefore for the eyes of discerning posterity. The original construction and Michael Frederick’s curatorially responsible voicing (in the course of a notably non-invasive restoration) of this modest-sized instrument result in detailed, gently veiled, and quite sweet tonal production. Not every pianist can make full musical sense of the particular keyboard scale and different key dip, pedaling sensitivity, and una corda use that this sort of just-pre-modern piano requires. Roberto Poli evidently brings flexibility and insatiable curiosity to bear when approaching any instrument, even a 160-year-old transitional Parisian piano by one of the celebrated makers of Chopin’s day.

    Perhaps the New York Steinway, the de rigeur standard of our day, is the measuring staff by which, by default, all we hear is to be judged. How sad, though, not to seize and relish these precious, seldom-occuring opportunities for broadening, even deepening, our listening palette.

    (Chamber music sessions this winter, in which Andrew Willis’s lovely 1845 Pleyel figured, thoroughly convined me that the 1840 Pleyel in the Frederick Collection indeed produces exactly the right sound for music of the period, be the scores French, German, or elsewhat. Either instrument’s extraordinarily easily moulded dynamics and deft evocation of voicing make for astonishing, irresistible results in collaborative music making.)

    Comment by Christopher Greenleaf — June 22, 2010 at 11:30 am

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