Monday, November 9, 2009

Music review: Pianist Baczewska enlightens with Bach-Chopin recital

Pianist Magdalena Baczewska.

By Greg Stepanich

FORT LAUDERDALE -- One of the great ironies of the reception that has been given to the work of Frederic Chopin is that it often is founded on the belief that here was a composer who was content to sing out pretty melodies and leave the density of counterpoint to other people.

But Chopin's great idol was J.S. Bach (he also idolized Mozart and admired Bellini), and there are many echoes of the Leipzig master in the music of the Polish composer; the 20th Prelude in C minor, for instance, echoes the chord changes of the second prelude (in C minor) from the first book of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, and the first prelude of that work, in C major, is paid homage in Chopin's first Prelude, also in C.

All this would be fodder for scholars, critics, puzzle buffs and few others were these things not brought to life now and again, and at the Broward County Main Library on Saturday night, another Polish-born pianist explored the relationship between the two composers in a recital that had the added benefit of being full of rarely heard music.

Magadalena Baczewska, who gave the first of two free Chopin Foundation concerts for a full house at the library's auditorium, now lives in New York, where she earned her doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music. Her program was divided into four parts and crafted with the idea that the two composers had met in some mystical place beyond time and shared ideas.

It was a nice conceit, and in the first section, Preludes and Fugues, Baczewska played two prelude-and-fugue pair with music from each composer, beginning with the A major prelude from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and following with a fugue in A minor (ending in the major, though) written by Chopin in 1841. Baczewska, who specializes in early keyboard music, proved to be a player of taste, purity of tone, and clarity of line, playing the Bach with a cool grace and the Chopin, with its odd fugue subject, with agitation and force.

She followed that with a limpid version of the Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 45, written after the Op. 28 set, and one of elusive beauty because of its constant interior key changes. Baczewska played it without slowing down to underline any of the changes, which is as it's written, but a moment or two of interpretive repose would not have come amiss. She paired this lovely Prelude with the C-sharp minor fugue, also from Book I of the WTC, by Bach, a sober, severely beautiful piece that worked well to offset the shape-shifting mood of the Chopin.

Baczewska's crisp approach to two short polonaises from the Anna Magdalena Notebook highlighted their dancelike quality and directness of expression, which contrasted with the first big work on the program, Chopin's Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op. 22, originally a piano-and-orchestra piece but now rarely heard that way.

This was probably the best performance of the night, as Baczewska's tasteful approach was heightened by admirable sensitivity to Chopin's melodic writing in the Andante Spianato, while the Grande Polonaise showed her impressive technique and ability to muster plenty of interpretive fire.

After intermission came another Chopin rarity, a little contredanse in G-flat, written when the composer was 17, and a proto-mazurka in everything but name. Saying that the contredanse represented Chopin at his most Baroque in using an obsolete dance form, it was Bach's turn to show his Romantic side in the C major prelude that opens the Well-Tempered Clavier's first book. Baczewska played it Romantically, too, though not overly so, just prettily, and in the tradition that the piece now immovably occupies, anachronistic as that may be.

Baczewska ended her concert with the big Sonata No. 2 (in B-flat minor, Op. 35) of Chopin, one of his finest and most familiar works. Here the pianist had trouble, missing a crucial early figure in the first measures of the opening movement and never quite being able to bring off the contrast of swift-footed melancholy and chorale-like repose the music contains.

The second movement was a good bit slower than much of the current performance tradition, and it sounded as though Baczewska was being very cautious and playing it safe. The music sounded plodding rather than dramatic because of it, but Baczewska tried to make up for it with a sweet reading of the trio.

The famous funeral march that came next was unobjectionable, though it, too, could have used a bit more drama, and here again the pianist saved her focus for the interlude, playing it with a hushed kind of rapt intensity that was quite effective. The last movement, however, was too slow to bring off its weirdness; those spooky, murmuring figures have to be very rapid to give the sonata its strange effect, and that was missing here.

For her encore, Baczewska chose Schumann's Träumerei, which she played with tenderness and a gratifying absence of over-sentimentality. An encore is a gift, so it's perhaps boorish of me to take it to task, but I would have preferred more Bach or another Chopin-Bach pairing.

That's because Baczewska did such a good job of exploring the connections between the two composers, especially in seeking out unusual repertory, that it seemed anticlimactic to revert to standard piano recital form when the bulk of the concert was so much more imaginative and instructive than that.

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