Evgeni Bozhanov and the NOSPR (Narodowa Orkiestra Symfoniczna Polskiego Radia - Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra) - Katowice - 14th December 2018

Attending a concert in the famed relatively new NOSPR concert hall in Katowice (one of the finest in Europe) is always something exceptional to anticipate. The acoustic is perfectly tuned and sonically impressive. This evening was unique also in another way in containing compositions from Sweden and Latvia as well as Germany, the NOSPR directed by the Swedish conductor Ola Rudnor. Much of his career has been spent conducting in Australia  which was of personal interest to ma as an Australian. The most exciting aspect of the evening was that I was about to hear the brilliant Bulgarian pianist Evgeni Bozhanov once again as the soloist in the Concerto No 3 in C minor by Beethoven.

The first item was the Overture to the opera Estrella de Soria by a Swedish composer rather unfamiliar to me except by name, Franz Berwald (1796-1868). He composed this tragic opera (one of four in his oeuvre) in 1838. There was a private performance of it after completion in 1841 but it was not until 1862 it was publicly staged to great approbation.  It has been revived on occasion but mainly in Sweden. This overture is perhaps his best known work. A slow dark introduction leads into a turbulent Allegro. Various folk themes enter and are varied until the calm coda (which would herald the beginning of the opera proper). I think we heard a conclusion written for concert performance of the overture but am unsure of this. Although Berwald was born into a highly musical family he had a chequered career as a musician and composer. After the death of his father in 1825 the family financial future looked grim and he was forced at times to earn his living (of all things) as an orthopaedic surgeon and manager of a glass factory. His music was never truly popular in Sweden. 
Franz Berwald (1796-1868)

Carl Nielsen wrote about Berwald:

'Neither the media, money nor power can damage or benefit good Art. It will always find some simple, decent artists who forge ahead and produce and stand up for their works. In Sweden, you have the finest example of this: Berwald.' 

In one of the few images of him he certainly appears a sad individual, profoundly disappointed by life. 

Now for the real reason I attended this concert - the Bulgarian pianist Evgeni Bozhanov in the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor  Op. 37 (1803?) by Beethoven. 

I wrote at the time of the competition:

He is a great individualist with an original talent bordering on instrumental genius. To fully understand what he is actually doing one really must be familiar with historic recordings of the unsurpassed late nineteenth and early twentieth century school of pianism. 

The recordings of the giants of late Romantic pianism such as Josef Lhévinne, Sergei Rachmaninov, Alfred Cortot, Moritz Rosenthal, Josef Hofmann, Vladimir Horowitz, Dinu Lipatti, Leopold Godowsky, Ignaz Friedman and Raul Koczalski give at least some indication of the incredible Fingerfertigkeit (finger dexterity) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century performers. These pianists possessed exquisite beauty of tone with absolute delicacy and evenness of touch which scarcely any pianist today achieves with the same consistency. Above all they possessed great sensibility, individuality, poetry and charm. 

Suddenly here is a man playing in this mould but naturally without quite the transcendental technique of those masters but with many of their other intensely creative qualities. Astonishing. 

Evgeni Bozhanov    (Ugo Ponte © o.n.l.)
If you would like to read more of my rather glowing appreciation of this pianist during the 2010 XVI International Fryderyk Chopin Competition Warsaw here is a link. You will need to scroll down through the various stages of the competition to find him. 

The National Fryderyk Chopin Institute have released a competition recording of his on their blue label: NIFCCD 608-609. One can concentrate, without his often picturesque but distracting bodily movements, on the radiant tone and sensitive touch as well as the highly individualistic interpretations.

In view of the above reflections, I wondered if my expectations would be too high or even unfair on this young artist. Perhaps. Had I been taken over by some variety of musical infatuation during the competition? No, I do not think so. The English poet William Wordsworth in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads spoke of  the nature of poetry being 'emotion recollected in tranquility'. For me at that time Bozhanov was a poet of the piano. So this is where I now dwelt in a mood of more tranquil anticipation.

In this concerto Beethoven attempted successfully to break out of a creative crisis. He had become horrifyingly aware of his accelerating deafness which resulted in those profoundly melancholic words in the Heligenstadt Testament of 1802. 

My misfortune is doubly painful to me because I am bound to be misunderstood; for me there can be no relaxation with my fellow men, no refined conversations, no mutual exchange of ideas. I must live almost alone, like one who has been banished; I can mix with society only as much as true necessity demands. If I approach near to people a hot terror seizes upon me, and I fear being exposed to the danger that my condition might be noticed. Thus it has been during the last six months which I have spent in the country. By ordering me to spare my hearing as much as possible, my intelligent doctor almost fell in with my own present frame of mind, though sometimes I ran counter to it by yielding to my desire for companionship. But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone standing next to me heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life - it was only my art that held me back.

(A passage from the Heiligenstadt Testament © Translation John V. Gilbert)

Written at much the same time as the glorious 'Spring' Sonata for violin and piano Beethoven wrote that in this concerto he wanted to 'breathe new life into an old form'

After the extensive orchestral exposition of the first movement Allegro con brioBozhanov opened with those immense C minor scales, scales that encompassed the entire keyboard for both hands. Again as the development of the movement progressed,  I was aware once again of  his familiar glowing tone colours, his great variation in dynamic, articulation and his skillful pedalling. The monumental cadenza (integrated with the first movement as well as merging into the Largo) with its tremendous trill (reminiscent surely of Op. 111) was authoritative. He has matured greatly since I last heard him in Duszniki Zdroj in 2015 when I had rather mixed feelings. His posture at the instrument during performance is now restrained and poised, no longer an unwelcome distraction from his playing.

In the heartfelt and expressive Largo I was much more aware of the inspired Bozhanov I remembered from the past. Here was a deeply introspective, spiritually searching account with moving almost improvised arabesques against the solo bassoon and solo flute. All his colouration was there, the beautiful tone, the luminous cantabile and ardent phrasing, the fertile imagination,  an expression of emotion and sensibility expressed organically from within.

The highly virtuosic Rondo Allegro finale was brought off with panache. The increasingly polyphonic nature of Beethoven's orchestral writing in this movement was well highlighted by Ola Rudner and the NOSPR yet I felt an absence of the 'Beethovinian emotional climate' if one might coin such a general rather unmusical term. Words are often inadequate to describe musical emotions which hover just out of reach of the rational. 

We had by now moved from the dark, almost conventionally tragic, C minor onto the sunny upland pastures of C major, so there had been a transformation of the musical landscape. We began to feel a sense of joy and liberation which Bozhanov embraced with his control of sensitive touch, glistening tone and moderate dynamics. However I did not feel the crackling high voltage electricity of previous Bozhanov performances. Some essential vitality seemed to be missing. Perhaps concertos are an interpretative challenge for him to merge seamlessly and interpretatively with conductor and orchestra - the perfectionist Grigory Sokolov feels such a 'mysterious barricade' and does not perform piano concertos. 

Bozhanov gave a superbly piano and expressive encore that once again revealed his  individual improvisatory sensibility, refined tone and touch but I am afraid I have no idea of the identity of the piece.

After the interval the symphonic elegy  Sala  by the Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks (1946- ).

The composer has written of his music:

Most people today no longer possess beliefs, love and ideals. The spiritual dimension has been lost. My intention is to provide food for the soul and this is what I preach in my works  [...] Music is the most powerful of all the arts, because it is closest to the Divine. Music is indefinable, it is true, but sounds are able to express spirituality. This cannot be expressed in words. All around me, I hear talk about the body, but I want say: where is the spirit, the soul? Souls are as overgrown as a jungle. This is why I try to preserve a ray of light in my sounds.

I can do no better than quote from his music publisher Schott as it brings into focus another of his lifetime preoccupations apart from music, that of ecological damage to the planet. It is probably no coincidence that the festival of his music in Katowice coincided with the UN Climate Summit, and 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) once more held in Poland.

Vasks's compositions incorporate archaic, folklore elements from Latvian music and place them within a dynamic and challenging relationship with the language of contemporary music. The works are frequently given programmatic titles based on natural processes. Vasks’ intentions are however not so much a purely poetic praise of nature or showy tone painting, but rather the pursuit of themes such as the complex interaction between man and nature and the beauty of life on the one hand but also the imminent ecological and moral destruction of the world which he expresses in musical language. (Schott Music)

Pēteris Vasks (1946- )

Sala – Island (2006) was commissioned in California by the Magnum Opus Project. One can hear Baltic folk melodies and asymmetric rhythms interwoven with natural sounds. Possibly there are influences from Finland in the person of Sibelius, perhaps from the Russia of Shostakovich. Essentially Vask communicates emotionally and spiritually, like all fine composers, with his own unique voice. The NOSPR under Ola Rudner coped well and effectively with the demanding score. Personally I found the work rather difficult to relate to in any deeply meaningful sense, despite his moving statement of his spiritual intentions in musical composition.

What a magnificent photograph of Brahms as a musically possessed old man this is!
It expresses all the passion, dignity, nobility and fierce emotion aroused by the nature of his unrequited love for Clara Schumann

Finally the Brahms Variations on a Theme of Haydn for orchestra in B flat major (St. Anthony Variations) Op.56a (1873). This is one of his most popular orchestral compositions. Brahms chose a simple theme (a kernel as simple as that of  Bach's Goldberg Variations or the Diabelli Variations of Beethoven). The stately theme is most probably from the first of a set of six Divertimenti (Feldparthien) by Haydn's pupil Ignace Pleyel. The second movement is based on an old Burgenland  chant entitled, 'Chorale St. Anthony'. The simple tune almost disappears completely in some of the variations. 

In this performance suffice to say I thought Ola Rudner and the NOSPR gave us a quite acceptable but not particularly distinguished interpretation. For me it was lacking in the energetic rhythmic drive, the pedantic masculine statements that are so representative of Brahms - the climate of strong coffee and cigars (e.g. the brass and winds that initiate the martial sixth variation). The fierce contrasts between the variations were not sufficiently pronounced I felt. Overall the account was somewhat disappointing in failing to express sufficient rhythmic urgency, exuberance, energy and sheer excitement. But then again one goes to concerts primarily to hear the music not necessarily solely the interpretation. What a magnificent work to be reminded of once again.

A fascinating and varied concert altogether with yet another reminder - that of the serious musical gifts of the Bulgarian pianist Evgeni Bozhanov.


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