75th Duszniki Zdrój International Chopin Festival. 7-15 August 2020
F. Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11
L. van Beethoven Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 'Pastoral'
Antoni Wit - conductor
Kevin Kenner - piano
First a few words about the E Minor Piano Concerto Op.11 and how I conceive of it. The review will then perhaps make a little more sense seen through the inescapable filter of my own life experience, that of just one listener.
As is well known, although designated No.1, it is actually his second concerto. The first written was in F-minor Op.21. The issue is not of the greatest chronological significance because Chopin’s two piano concertos were composed within a year of each other. I am always amazed at the nature of true genius as it was written when Chopin was in his late teens. Perhaps this is why fine performances are often during the International Chopin Piano Competitions in Warsaw when performed by young pianists of much the same age as the composer. At its premiere in 1830, he played the piano part himself, and the concert marked his final public appearance as a pianist in Poland. Soon Chopin was to leave for Vienna and then Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life.
The opening Allegro movement has the character maestoso which we find in the noble and proud polonaises, a measured grandiosity that should be dispatched with èlan and poetry. Kevin Kenner managed this effortlessly with his superb technique, glowing tone and utter familiarity with the Chopin idiom, 'le climat de Chopin' as the composer's pupil Marcelina Czartoryska remarked. The styl brillant of the period could be heard clearly under Kenner's considered articulation, in its animation and rubato, what in Chopin's day was termed 'enthusiasm'. Graceful rhapsodic sweeps reminded me of eagles taking updrafts in the High Tatras. There were calm moments of reflection and fiorituras as delicate as Koniakowska lace.
Attempts to transform musical experience into the very different language of words is fraught with difficulties. The Romanze-Larghetto has always taken me on an imaginative poetic flight as it did Chopin himself when he wrote to his close friend Tytus Woyciechowski. In this Larghetto (there is another in the F-minor concerto)– its character clarified in the score, following Mozart as a Romance (the sole occasion Chopin used this designation in a piece) – a type of poetic reverie. In a letter to his friend the composer wrote 'It is not meant to create a powerful effect; it is rather a Romance, calm and melancholy, giving the impression of someone looking gently towards a spot that calls to mind a thousand happy memories. It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.' On this occasion I felt Kevin Kenner approached the movement in a more 'classical' restrained style than I have heard him in a more overtly 'romantic' and meditative mood. Superbly eloquent playing nevertheless.
Bear with me as I fight to describe in concrete words the effect this movement has on me. The divine melody at this slow tempo is perfectly ardent, one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Lethargy from dreams begins to awake in a slow movement of unblemished, illusioned rapture. I conceive of it in daylight. In sunlight-dappled groves, lovers lie in long grass by a stream among birches and willows as summer clouds drift hesitantly towards the horizon. The heart rises with the swallow as leaves fall and drift on a slight breeze. Gossamer spider webs glisten in the sun in this slow dance of the heart. A threatening shadow of doubt and a sudden cool chill in the air soon passes as dusk falls, the last pianissimo note of love thrown towards us by hand.
The Rondo follows attacca, without a pause, rousing us from poetic dreams and reveries with robust dance rhythms vivace and rhapsodic gestures. Here we encounter the playfulness, dancing, acting and extreme good humor of Chopin the young man, a neglected aspect of his character in the received paradigm of the later consumptive melancholic. Kenner gave us an exuberant and full-blooded, delightful rendering of this joyful movement, full of adolescent vibrancy.There is the character of the Polish krakowiak dance here, a syncopated, duple-time popular dance in contemporary Krakow. The characteristic rhythm, liveliness and amusement should be expressed with colour and verve which Kenner achieved absolutely convincingly. The theme of the episode – led in octave unison against the pizzicato of the strings – is all born of the virtuosic styl brillant. The entire musical population of Warsaw was drawn to the National Theatre for the premiere. One young singer who preoccupied Chopin's heart was a certain Konstancja Gładkowska. ‘Dressed becomingly in white, with roses in her hair' as he romantically described her. She sang the cavatina from Rossini’s La donna del lago.
Overall a deeply satisfying performance with sufficient, although not particularly inspiring, support from the NFM Wrocław Philharmonic under Antoni Wit.
The Beethoven Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 'Pastoral Symphony, or Recollections of Country Life' stands apart from his other symphonies, and indeed from nearly all of Beethoven's instrumental and keyboard music. In a way it is programme music in its extramusical content. Beethoven famously noted that the 'Pastoral' contained 'more an expression of feeling than painting.' Comments that Beethoven made in his sketches for the Symphony are revealing: 'The hearers should be allowed to discover the situations / Sinfonia caracteristica—or recollection of country life / All painting in instrumental music is lost if it is pushed too far / Sinfonia pastorella. Anyone who has an idea of country life can make out for himself the intentions of the composer without many titles / Also without titles the whole will be recognized as a matter more of feeling than of painting in sounds.'
Beethoven loved walking in the outskirts of Vienna and spent nearly every summer in the country. When Napoleon’s second occupation of the city in 1809 meant that he could not leave, he wrote to his publisher: 'I still cannot enjoy life in the country, which is so indispensable to me.' One of Beethoven's letters is filled with declarations of the importance of nature to him. One from 1810: 'How delighted I will be to ramble for awhile through the bushes, woods, under trees, through grass, and around rocks. No one can love the country as much as I do. For surely woods, trees, and rocks produce the echo that man desires to hear.
This was a perfectly satisfying performance, although not outstanding, understandably much elevated by the enthusiastic audience reception overshadowed by the hovering curse of the pandemic. I felt the score could have been penetrated by Antoni Wit far more deeply and dare I say, pantheistically. However the performance of this symphony offered such welcome consolation, love and feeling for Nature during the difficult times we are experiencing.
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In the time of the dreaded coronavirus, the visit by this immortal composer to Duszniki Zdrój seems almost appropriate! Of course Chopin himself was no stranger to pandemics, as cholera took Paris twice by the throat during his time there.
If you wish to read about the pandemics that Chopin lived through in Paris, I have done some research and wrote:
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Most concerts will be streamed online and many broadcast by