Dimitry Ablogin at Żelazowa Wola, Poland, the birthplace of Fryderyk Chopin, Sunday afternoon, 8th May 2022 at 3.00 pm

The Dworek at Żelazowa Wola, the birthplace of Fryderyk Chopin, 1st March 1810

Classical concerts in Poland today lie under the shadows of an unspeakably brutal war. In addition there is the poetry of attending a recital at Chopin's birthplace and absorbing the nostalgic anguish and yearning for aesthetic tranquility that lies at the heart of much of his music. 

I had admired Dimitry Ablogin from when I heard him in impressive recitals during the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments. 2–14 September 2018. 

Before I examine this recital a little, I would like to quote my first impressions in 1992 of that deeply eloquent domain of Żelazowa Wola, the birthplace, taken from my book concerning Poland entitled A Country in the Moon.

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"In late winter, in a despondent frame of mind, I decided to raise my spirits with a visit to Chopin’s birthplace at Żelazowa Wola, a hamlet about fifty kilometres from Warsaw. The flat Mazovian landscape was relieved by stands of trembling birch and pine; forlorn willows with gnarled boles lined the deserted roads. I had long anticipated this visit to what musically, for me, was an almost sacred place. I wandered through the still and muffled park. A subtle atmosphere of reverence is created here among the groves of trees, the serpentine paths winding between hedges and over the little bridge above the Utrata river. Long-leaved aquatic plants flowed like Ophelia’s hair in the current. It was almost dusk as I made my way to the softly lit entrance of the dworek. I leaned against one of the columns of the porch and looked into the depths of the park over the still pond with the dim carp.

I stooped to pick up a weathered chestnut and idly polished it on my coat. An old piano tuner I knew in Warsaw gave chestnuts from this park to piano students at the conservatorium, telling them to hold them close to their hearts as they contained ‘the spirit of Chopin’. He claimed he had also seen the disembodied hand of the composer appear on a banister in the dworek late one night after tuning the piano for a concert.

I pushed aside the heavy brocade and leather curtain at the front door. Only about twenty-five people could be accommodated in the tiny room. A brass candelabra with the crowned Polish eagle resting between the branches stood on the small grand piano. Warm yellow light flickered on the portrait of the composer and fitfully illuminated the painted beams of the dworek. The young pianist, a French girl, had ambitiously chosen to play both sets of Chopin études. Her little dog lay under the instrument fast asleep. Snow fell gently and silently against the windows and built up on the ledges.

A cloud hovers over the birth date of Fryderyk in a rather characteristic Polish way. The year 1810 is not seriously in dispute but the Chopin family insisted on March 1 while the baptismal certificate records a birth date of February 22. Celebrations in Warsaw occur throughout the week, which covers all possibilities.

At this time (1810) Warsaw was an extraordinary melange of cultures. Magnificent magnate palaces shared muddy unpaved streets with dilapidated townhouses, szlachta farms, filthy hovels and teeming markets. By 1812 the Napoleonic campaigns had financially crippled the Duchy of Warsaw.

The French Ambassador commented:

'Nothing could exceed the misery of all classes . . . I even saw princesses quit Warsaw from the most extreme distress’.

Chopin spent his formative years in Warsaw during this turbulent political period and the family often escaped the capital to the refuge of the Mazovian countryside at Żelazowa Wola. Here the fields are alive with birdsong, butterflies and wildflowers. On summer nights the piano was placed in the garden and Chopin would improvise eloquent melodies that floated through the orchards and across the river to the listening villagers gathered beyond. To this day, the atmosphere is recaptured in summer when the windows of the dworek are thrown open for recitals and the audience wanders in the elegant gardens or leans on the railing of the small wooden bridge and gazes into the dreamy waters of the Utrata."

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The first performance at 12.00 was on an Erard period  instrument of 1838 and that at 3.00 pm on a modern Steinway.

For me this recital at Chopin's birthplace was one of those rare performances of distinction where I had nothing left to say. There was little, if anything, to criticize in this coherent and cohesive deep vision of the music of Chopin.

Chopin himself was a composer-pianist (a Baroque notion where the performer and composer were often one and the same person). Chopin's musical education was 'as firmly rooted in 18th century aesthetics as in 18th century theory' (Jim Samson Chopin Studies Vol 6 p.35). 

Chopin with his characteristic barbed irony once confided to Liszt, who was really the originator of the public performance as we know it:

I am not suited to public appearances – the auditorium saps my courage, I suffocate in the exhalation of the crowd, I am paralyzed by curious glances . . . but you, you can, since if you should fail to win over the audience you at least have the possibility of murdering them.

Chopin wrestled with both Classical and Romantic mentalities and conceived revolutionary solutions in works of unique style. In this ferment of creativity, he constantly amended his autograph scores. Numerous editions emerged throughout Europe slightly different one from another. This came from his skill as an improviser who is in a constant state of invention and creation. A never satisfied being was our Chopin. 

The performer in the nineteenth century was largely expected to play according to his mood and frame of mind. Presenting a different interpretation from other musicians was considered highly positively.

Chopin himself said to a pupil (cited by the Chopin authority in Chopin: Pianist and Teacher: As Seen By His Pupils Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger Cambridge 1988)

When you're at the piano I give you full authority to do whatever you want; follow freely the ideal you've set for yourself and which you must feel within you; be bold and confident in your own powers and strength and whatever you say will always be good...'

The great Ignaz Friedman once observed 'There are the notes and there is what is between the notes.' Isn't the goal of a musician to release the inner life of the work from the limits of its notation in much the same way as Michelangelo conceived that he 'released' a statue trapped in a block of marble?

Performers in the nineteenth century were more interested in presenting the inherent meaning of the music rather than adopting our modern slavish fidelity to the published Urtext score. Even the great musical theorist Heinrich Schenker wrote in Die Kunst des Vortrags: 

'Pieces breathe through their own lungs, they carry their own bloodstream...' 

I felt Ablogin provided us with a direct conduit to the essence of the music. He became for me a channel for the musical inspiration of the composer and did not, as all too commonly witnessed, use music simply as a platform for personal, celebrity display. He has clearly read the accounts of Chopin's own playing by his pupils and listeners and taken these descriptions to heart and performance. He often improvised a small 'prelude' in period style before the performance of the designated piece in the same key. 

Essentially, the final analysis after technical command has been accomplished (clear with Ablogin), being a great musician comes down to the nature of one's character and what one brings to the unenviable task of the recreation of musical masterpieces.

Programme

Prelude C sharp minor op. 45

An interpretation expressive of fluent musical speech. The performance was deeply affecting at this fraught point in European history, especially overlaid by ostinato spring birdsong from the gardens surrounding the dworek at Żelazowa Wola. 

I thought of Chopin’s pupil Karol Mikuli, describing the playing of the composer, as expressing ‘energy without roughness’ and ‘delicacy without affectation’, while his best pupil Princess Marcelina Czartoryska advised the performer to intuitively immerse himself ‘au climat de Chopin’. This was exactly the feeling created by Ablogin from the outset. 

Nocturne E major op. 62 No. 2

Highly expressive of a varied, emotional, inner landscape. So many dreamlike visions were displayed here. 

Waltz A-flat major op. 64 No. 3

A rare pianist who understands the nature of the Chopin waltz, a rarely performed work that encapsulates all the refined grace of the salon in the most civilized and aristocratic manner. I believe Ablogin has taken dancing lessons socially which is a great rhythmical assistance for a classical pianist - Garrick Ohlsson also recommends dance lessons for pianists to fully understand the rhythm of the Chopin mazurka.

A performance of non-declamatory internal waltz energy

Mazurka C sharp minor op. 50 No. 3

Ablogin utilized a beautiful LH counterpoint expressively with idiomatic rhythm. His eloquent phrasing and rubato were most affecting and never became crude in any way. A declaration of passionate regrets.

Impromptu G flat major op. 51

The works of Chopin in this genre are so difficult to master. I felt this was deeply experienced with poetic, sensitive phrasing and rubato yet retaining wisps of gentle carelessness and a lighthearted mood.

Berceuse D flat major op. 57

A performance of extraordinary innocence - a resonant yet restrained tone of 'pearls' and refined touch. Delicacy, grace, charm and elegance. Finely pointed counterpoint, nuance and polyphony. Tone and touch carry the musical emotion within them. I noticed that Ablogin altered his tone and touch to suite the genre of the Chopin work in question.

Mazurka C minor op. 56 No. 3

Subtle grasp of the inherent polyphony. There were moments that impressed me with their harmonic adventurousness and contrapuntal artistry, such as the sequence that leads to the finale. The famous writer, historian of literature, musicographer and publisher Ferdynand Hoesick heard in it ‘rather the music of memories than of reality’.

Ballade in F minor op.52

A truly grand performance of this magnificent masterpiece, a work, an opera en effet, too often performed in an overwrought style. By building the landscape like a painter in sound, Ablogin elevated it to a quite monumental stature. From the childish, innocent opening it slowly developed rhapsodically through many contrasting moods and atmospheres. A fine, transparent singing polyphony and counterpoint, made clear the profound influence Bach had on Chopin. Much expressive use was made of pregnant silences and implied silences. There were many subtle, refined details of phrasing and rubato and alterations of tempo. The 'story', as he presented it, contained a concentration of żal, that curious Polish emotion that occurs so often in Chopin, in fact he seems almost addicted to it. 

Liszt wrote of Chopin's conception of it:

"Żal! Strange substantive, embracing a strange diversity, a strange philosophy! Susceptible of different regimens, it includes all the tenderness, all the humility of a regret borne with resignation and without a murmur, while bowing before the fiat of necessity, the inscrutable decrees of Providence: but, changing its character, and assuming the regimen indirect as soon as it is addressed to man, it signifies excitement, agitation, rancor, revolt full of reproach, premeditated vengeance, menace never ceasing to threaten if retaliation should become possible, feeding itself, meanwhile with a bitter, if sterile, hatred."

Ablogin worked the piece into a fine rhapsodic conclusion that gave one a feeling of psychological dislocation, alienation and disinheritance in contemplation of the joys and grim travails of life, followed by almost unbearable melancholic resignation to inevitable and unalterable destiny. 

The great Polish music pedagogue Tomaszewski described the music of Chopin as 'imprisoned romanticism' - an acute observation indeed.

Yet throughout the depiction of this emotional panorama, there was no hysteria, no search for cunningly hidden voices in the polyphony, no desire to impress with virtuosity. His is not an overtly declamatory Chopin although many pianists are lured down this false trail, however impressive. 

The 'bible' of Chopin performance (Chopin: Pianist and Teacher: As Seen By His Pupils Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger Cambridge 1988) says all we need to know when approaching this complex musical psyche. 

This Ablogin recital was a personal and private invitation of great intimacy, an invitation to share Chopin’s music and spiritual life privately with a pianist who clearly lives and breathes the music of Fryderyk.

Mozart Rondo A minor K. 511 as an encore

Bearing in mind Chopin's adoration of opera and Mozart, this was a prefect encore in every way to close this deeply satisfying recital at the birthplace of one of the greatest composers of all time. 

A recital increasingly relevant in emotional scope at this time, music to console us during our own fraught period living through a brutal, mendacious and senseless war in Ukraine. Yes, a music of true spiritual regeneration unfortunately so lamentably accompanied by the anguished displacement of personal exile and mindless destruction.


Dimitry Ablogin official website : https://www.ablogin.de/

Performance on Youtube at 12.00 noon on the 1838 Erard 

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