Israeli pianist Ran Dank delivered a concert-hall-sized performance in a chamber hall on Sunday afternoon at the Gardner Museum. So relaxed, so comfortable, the young pianist put everyone at ease, even as he savagely launched into the Chopin C-sharp Minor Polonaise, Op. 26, no. 1. There were huge sonorities and assertive melodies to follow and confident playing by a young artist who clearly loves to play.
His was not an out-of-the-box performance. That’s meant in a good way. Dank’s playing is honest, straightforward, in service of the composer. In the case of Chopin, whose music comprised the first and shorter half of the recital, we heard works that pay homage to Chopin’s homeland of Poland, three early Mazurkas followed the Op. 26, no. 1 Polonaise in C-sharp Minor. Then one of the most popular of Chopin’s works, the famous Polonaise in A-flat, Op. 53. After a short intermission, Dank played Rzewski’s hour-long set of variations, The People United Will Never Be Defeated.
There were no especially quiet moments in the Chopin. Where the first, proud theme of the C-sharp Minor Polonaise rises again, higher, before a tender, lilting fall in the major mode, some opportunity for intimacy—and weightlessness before being pulled back down—was sacrificed for the sake of projection of line. Where the music might have sighed, it simply sang. This was Chopin for a concert hall, not the salon.
Dank chose a mix of three Mazurkas from the two earliest sets, Op. 6, no. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 7, no. 2 in A minor, and Op. 7, no. 3 in F Minor, each rendered with a focus on producing soaring melodies, rich sounds, while expressing the many modulations (modal and tonal) and articulated dotted rhythms which abound in these little pieces. In the first mazurka, Dank made it clear that no other composer can produce the sounds that Chopin conjures—brittle, bright and proud. His “cello” melodies sang in the first Polonaise and the latter two Mazurkas, and the “droning” of the F minor Mazurka set just the right tone for that piece.
While we often hear the A-flat Major “Heroic” Polonaise as a big encore and an opportunity to let loose, set within program parameters our expectations are perhaps slightly different. Dank gave us a beautifully structured Chopin pre-intermission closer: suspense in the introduction, a rich and proudly stated theme, a stately 2nd theme, and whipping scales leading to a massive return of the main theme. The middle “march” section had requisite contrast, the quiet sixteenth-note bass ostinato octaves, sans-pedal, finally giving way to power playing, with foot to the pedal. After the march, came a pretty, little impromptu section in G major, around a new chromatic sixteenth-note melody, one that morphs into one of Chopin’s most ahead-of-his-time and haunting series of measures, just before reentry of the main theme. This dark, hypnotic section in f minor takes me back to Serge Leone westerns and those prolonged close up scenes of gun fighters just before a shootout. I’m guessing that Ennio Morricone knew this piece early on. Dank lulled us just enough in this section before filling the room with the sounds of the return of the heroic theme, earning him a half-time ovation and lots of “bravos.”
After the pause, Dank wanted to say a few words about the Rzewski. Interestingly, he had a microphone. Though he surely didn’t need one in this setting, this was a small clue to his playing, an indication of how much he wanted to make sure he was heard.
First, he assured the audience that the Rzewski is quite accessible. Then he compared the work to Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations (while others have compared it to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, in terms of structure), a gigantic set of variations that sum up a whole era, a century, even, of musical styles. Then he noted that the work is a set of 36 variations, with six “books” of six variations each. The sixth of each set of variations summarizes the previous five, while the last book summarizes all of the other sets. Variation 36 is like a “black hole, super condensed.” Then there is a return of the original theme with slight development. Before this return of the original theme, the composer offers the player opportunity to improvise a cadenza up to five minutes in length. Dank announced he was going for it and that it would be some relief after 55 minutes of written music, but the potential downside: he didn’t know what would happen.
Finally, he let us know that the set was based on a Chilean protest song, and that the work also included references to and quotes from other protest or revolutionary tunes, by Brecht and others. He played the immense work with score, making the project more challenging in some ways than if he had played from memory.
It was a really fun hour of listening. Dank established the tune with authority, a forceful opening “chant,” a jazzy triplet rhythm introduction of the whole melody (with an ear-friendly, short circle of 5ths “response” to the opening phrase) that has some nonchalance, as if it could be whistled. (But here I get ahead of myself, or ahead of the composer.) This is followed by more development of the theme in a thicker texture. It helped that the tune is relatively simple and easy to remember, given how far the variations proceed to venture in terms of style, sound, tonality (or lack of), and as potential homage to—or stealing from or both!—other 20th-century composers as well as Beethoven and Bach.
With his playing, each variation had character. As pledged, he made the work quite accessible. Variation 5, marked “Dreamlike, frozen” was especially suited to a performance in the Gardner cube. It comes with the instructions: “Play chords staccato, then catch harmonics with pedal” and with a special musical symbol indicating “A mode of attack consisting of a swift, sudden grabbing motion in which not all of the written notes are necessarily played and some other notes may be accidentally struck; a little like picking berries, or fruit.”
And then we did get whistling in a couple of the variations! This too, honestly, took me back to spaghetti westerns.
The 3rd book is jazzier than the others. Dank was especially adept at keeping a perfect rhythmic foundation in either hand, while freely exploring with the other hand, making much of this sound improvised while conveying an intricate construction and sound framework.
Variations 21-24 were an absolute hoot! Variation 21, marked “Relentless, uncompromising,” caused gasps and a little chuckling. Variations 22 (and 23, marked “As fast as possible, with some rubato,” some intake of breath (ovation material, but we had far to go), with finally some relief in Variation 24.
Dank’s cadenza began with lots of bass rumbling then exploding chromatic octaves, a triple-forte development of a theme, then more fireworks. All very Lisztian, quite a shift from what had occurred so far. For the final variation, a touch of poignancy, more jazz lilt, and a dramatic, defiant conclusion. The audience was on its feet. An amazing and brave performance, creating, I suspect, many new fans of both the pianist and the composer.
His playing throughout was assured, confident, and appealing. There was not a lot of delicateness, but no affectation whatsoever. There was no excess display of sentiment, just perhaps a bit of self-indulgence in playing loudly in this setting. His playing was not showy (well, in the cadenza it was, but it’s a cadenza), but impressive. To navigate through these Rzewski variations convincingly is a huge feat of mental engineering and musical processing. (It’s also worth noting that Dank is currently working on a Doctorate with pianist Ursula Oppens, to whom Frederic Rzewski dedicated the work and who has a benchmark recording of the work). As to Dank’s whistling, that could use some work.
After a couple rounds of applause, Dank spoke again, quite clearly without microphone. He chose this program because both composers were Polish (Rzewski was born in and lives in the U.S. but is of Polish descent), and both composers were politically inspired (and both piano virtuosos). He jokingly noted that when discussing the program with Richard Goode, with whom he is also currently studying. The latter suggested entitling the program “Opposite Poles.”
Dank asked the rhetorical question of what one might play after the Rzewski, then offered up another Chopin Mazurka, Op. 67, no. 4 in A minor. The work, like the Rzewski theme, has a lovely little circle of fifths, a most excellent choice for rounding out the program.