IN: Reviews

Chopin Playing at Its Incandescent Best

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A storm and unexpectedly heavy traffic on I-95 contrived to delay this writer’s arrival for the Rockport Chamber Music Festival’s all-Chopin program on Saturday, featuring pianist Eric Guo, cellist Colin Carr, and the Terra String Quartet. I had to watch and listen to Guo perform the composer’s Polonaise-Fantasy, Op. 61 on a screen in the lobby of the Shalin Liu Performance Center. This was especially unfortunate because this work is one of my two favorites ― along with Beethoven’s Op. 111 ― in the vast solo piano repertory. More unfortunately still, is that, to judge by his subsequent performances, the 21-year-old Canadian probably played this great and mysterious piece ― one of the two last major works that the mortally ill composer completed before his death in 1846 ― magnificently.

My first live exposure found British cellist, Colin Carr joining Guo in other major work of Chopin’s last period: The Sonata in G Minor for Cello and Piano, Op. 65. It took a long time before op. 65 entered the repertory.  It requires not only a superb cellist, but also an equally brilliant pianist. Carr, exactly the kind of cellist the work needs, possesses a rich tone and almost unfailingly secure intonation; his sensitivity to nuance; and his architectural conception raised the performance to aristocratic realms. Guo, who came to the music world’s attention in 2023, when he won first prize in the Second International Chopin Competition on Original Instruments,  matched these qualities.

His interpretation on a modern concert grand in Rockport suggests that Guo learned a good deal during the two years he spent studying the Chopin repertory on a period instrument. His delicacy and subtlety elude many of his competition-prize-winning contemporaries, and he has the liquid quality of tone and phrase that Chopin demands. The composer adored Bellini and absorbed much from the Italian’s extravagant decoration of his vocal lines. In the Cello Sonata and in the Concerto No. 1, which followed it after intermission, Guo demonstrated the extraordinary suppleness needed to make the composer’s rippling scale passages and elaborate ornamentation hypnotic. And while his velvet sound is filled with delicacy and contrast, he is capable of building, while never playing percussively, to thunderous conclusions.

This was certainly the case in his collaboration with Carr — though he managed to avoid overpowering the cello — and in the concerto, which he performed in a string quartet reduction, much as Chopin himself performed it when he first arrived in Paris in 1831. (We assume that we were hearing Chopin’s own transcription…the only riff we missed was our favorite horn solo in the final movement.) Guo played the concerto with unusual poetry, freedom and instinct for just the right degree of shading. But the playing never failed to be powerful and sensitive. The Terra String Quartet (violinists Harriet Langley and Amelia Dietrich, violist Chih-Ta Chen, and cellist Audrey Chen) played vigorously enough to simulate an orchestra. The focus remained, as it must in the composer’s concerti, on the keyboard part. And Guo didn’t hesitate to fill in on the tuttis, which the composer would also presumably have done.

The foursome joined Guo in encoring with the Polonaise for piano and orchestra that most of the audience recognized as the second half of the Andante Spianato and Polonaise, Op. 22, which is usually performed as a piano solo, rather than the original version in which in the pianist plays the Polonaise with orchestra. As he did throughout, Guo delighted us with the brilliance of his finger work — the lightness and celerity of his runs, the dynamism of his palette, and, above all, his ability to make the piano sing.

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2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Oh my god, I am so happy that this concert was reviewed. Yes, it was all the reviewer said it was. I was ecstatic, and told the young Eric Guo that I think he is the next Martha Argerich. And Colin Carr! Another terrifically sensitive artist.
    As for the Rockport concerts, I am thinking of buying a tent and spending the summer there, so as not to miss the many promising future concerts… sitting in that magical space, watching gulls fly in the background while listening to performers like this, and Marc-Andre Hamelin playing Liszt and his own compositions, is as close to heaven as I will ever get.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — June 24, 2024 at 8:28 pm

  2. I just realized that Guo offered a second encore, not mentioned in this review, an adaptation of “Là ci darem la mano,” from Don Giovanni–most amusing.

    Comment by Norton — June 24, 2024 at 8:38 pm

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