Garrick Ohlsson plays a near perfect Beethoven Concerto No.4 in G major Op.58, Warsaw, 4th. November 2023

National Philharmonic Orchestra

Choir of the National Philharmonic

Michal Klauza

conductor

Garrick Ohlsson

piano

Joanna Zawartko

soprano

Bartosz Michałowski

choir director

Garrick Ohlsson winning the VIII International Chopin Competition
Warsaw 1970

These thoughts come in the midst of the increasing horrors of war in the Middle East, echoes of the Covid pandemic which has thankfully passed and the brutal continuation of a murderous war in Ukraine. These are the greatest calamities to strike the world since the two world wars. The destructive power of conventional weapons today is horrifying.

The first two religious works on the programme seem a suitable and appropriate pendant to All Saints Day on November 1st here in Warsaw. I was unfamiliar with both works so will limit myself to their background and general observations.

Karol Szymanowski

Litany to the Virgin Mary op. 59 

Two fragments for soprano,  women's choir and orchestra to texts by Jerzy Liebert (1933)

This piece, a two-part cantata, was written in 1930-1933. The first performance took place in Warsaw on 13 October 1933 and was conducted by Grzegorz Fitelberg. Szymanowski took the text of a young poet, his contemporary Jerzy Liebert, Litania do Najświętszej Marii Panny / Litany to the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

The first drafts of Szymanowski's piece come from 1930, but he set it aside, and it was probably the poet's premature death in 1931 that made the composer take it up again. The composer incorporated two verses from Liebert's poem into his work. 

The first part of Szymanowski's Litany, "Twelve-toned cithara", introduces an archaic climate through the opening duet of the soprano and the instrumental score, and the ascetic chords of the chorus and the strings. One important form-creating factor here is the dynamics, which develops from the initial ppp to f in the song's point of culmination, and then returns to ppp

In part two, "Like a dwarf bush", the composer excludes the chorus, leaving a very expressive solo of the soprano with the accompanying orchestra.

The Polish musicologist Tadeusz Zieliński writes:

"In the final period of Szymanowski's output, this work is distinguished by the greatest simplicity and self-restraint of gestures and means, or even an asceticism of artistic expression. At the same time, its very gentle, intimate and subdued lyricism seems to testify to the composer's genuine, 'private' emotion when he was writing these notes, even if this emotion does not infect the listener easily or immediately".

During the work on Litany the composer's sister, the singer Stanislawa Szymanowska, who was also an unfailing interpreter of his lieder, acted as his consultant and advisor. Szymanowski spoke of this piece as being unfinished, that is until the first performance of Litany, after which he left it as it was. 

The composer valued this work very highly, considering it to equal his earlier piece, Stabat Mater. In a letter to Zofia Kochańska he wrote about Litany:

"It is perhaps the deepest, most focused piece of mine."

(Polish Music Information Centre)

Jerzy Liebert (1904-31) was a poet. His focused poems of religious reflection are marked with the motif of death, linked to the poet's incurable disease. It was Anna Iwaszkiewiczowa who got Szymanowski interested in Liebert's poetry. The composer wrote music to two of the seven verses of his Litany To The Virgin Mary.

Szymanowski initially planned a larger work - something between a song cycle and a solo cantata. Ultimately he wrote music to just two of the seven verses of the original poem, whose author died prematurely a year after work on the composition had begun.

Contrary to the original plan, Litany became a tribute to yet another talent in Polish culture who was not destined to develop fully. Completed in 1933, the score includes a certain mystery - every great reviewer of Szymanowski's music sees something different in it. It is most often linked to Stabat Mater, having the same economy of means, a tendency towards archaization and a religious dimension - the last embodiment of the "Franciscan idiom", to use a term coined by Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski, in the composer's output. It is also recognized as an attempt at synthesizing the style of the composer's national period with distant reminiscences of impressionism. 

The most prominent feature of this work is its melodic element which creates an intensive elegiac quality. (Piotr Deptuch)

"What sets the Polish composer apart from other great Western European contemporaries like Bartok, Janacek and Stravinsky, is his cohesive attempt at 'singing' in a broadened melodic style: regardless of whether the inspiration is oriental or national. […] It is enough to invoke a work that can be recognized as his greatest lied, namely the second fragment of 'Litany to the Virgin Mary' Op. 59, to find there the fruit of a long search for an expressive melody. The subtlety and beauty of the melodic lines spreading across the vocal score and the accompaniment, is just one more reason to dwell upon the composer's untimely death, as it is clear that so many more melodic gems could have been extracted from this reserve". (Stephen Downes)

I found this a moving and fascinating work in performance.


Francis Poulenc

Stabat Mater 

For soprano, mixed choir and orchestra (1950)

Stabat mater dolorosa

Cujus animam gementem

O quam tristis et afflicta

Quae moerebat et dolebat

Quis est homo, qui non fleret

Vidit suum dulcem natum (sopran / soprano)

Eja mater, fons amoris

Fac ut ardeat cor meum

Sancta mater, istud agas

Fac ut portem Christi mortem (sopran / soprano)

Inflammatus et accensus

Quando corpus morietur (sopran / soprano)

 

Latin Text of the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, with English translation

I.
Stabat Mater dolorosa
juxta crucem lacrymosa
dum pendebat Filius.

The mother was standing full of sorrow, weeping near the cross, while on it her son was hanging.

II.
Cuius aninam gementem,
contristatam ac dolentem
pertransivit gladius.

A sword pierced her sighing soul, saddened and suffering.

III.
O quam tristis et afflicta
fuit illa benedicta
Mater Unigeniti!

Oh how sad and afflicted was that blessed one, the Mother of the Only Begotten!

IV.
Quae moerebat et dolebat
Pia Mater, dum videbat
Nati poenas inclyti.

The virtuous mother was lamenting and grieving, while she saw the punishments of her glorious Son.

V.
Quis est homo qui non fleret
Matrem Christi si videret
in tanto supplicio?

Who is there who would not weep to see the Mother of Christ in such torture?

Quis non posset contristari,
Matrem Christi contemplari
dolentem cum Filio?

Who cannot be saddened, to contemplate the Mother of Christ grieving with her Son?

Pro peccatis suae gentis
vidit Jesum in tormentis
et flagellis subditum.

For the sins of his people, she saw Jesus placed in torments and scourges.

VI.
Vidit suum dulcem Natum
morientem desolatum
dum emisit spiritum.

She saw her sweet Son dying desolate while he sent forth his spirit.

VII.
Eia Mater, fons amoris,
me sentire vim doloris,
fac, ut tecum lugeam.

Ah Mother, fountain of love, make me feel the force of your sorrow, so that I may mourn with you.

VIII.
Fac ut ardeat cor meum
in amando Christum Deum,
ut sibi complaceam.

Make my heart be on fire in loving Christ, my God, so that I may please him also.

IX.
Sancta Mater, istud agas,
crucifixi figi plagas
cordi meo valide.

Holy Mother, do that, fix strongly on my heart the wounds of the Crucified One.

Tui Nati vulnerati,
tam dignati pro me pati,
poenas mecum divide.

Share with me the punishments of your wounded Son who so deigned to suffer for me.

Fac me tecum vere flere,
crucifixo condolere,
donec ego vixero.

Make me truly weep with you, to suffer with the Crucified One, as long as I shall live.

Juxta crucem tecum stare,
te libenter sociare
in planctu desidero.

I wish to stand near the cross with you, to share willingly in the lamentation.

Virgo virginum praeclara,
mihi iam non sis amara:
fac me tecum plangere.

Distinguished virgin of virgins, be not bitter to me now: let me grieve with you.

X.

Fac ut portem Christi mortem,
passionis fac consortem
et plagas recollere.

Make me bear the death of Christ, make me be a sharer of his passion and recollect his blows.

Fac me plagis vulnerari,
cruce hac inebriari
ob amorem Filii.

Make me wounded with the blows, to be inebriated by this cross because of love of the Son.

XI.
Inflammatus et accensus,
per te, Virgo, sim defensus
in die iudicii.

Kindled and inflamed for you, Virgin, may I be defended on the day of judgment.

Christe, cum sit hunc exire,
da per Matrem me venire
ad palmam victoriae.

Christ, when I must go hence, let me come for the sake of Your Mother to the palm of victory.

XII.
Quando corpus morietur,
fac ut animae donetur,
paradisi gloria.
Amen!

When my body dies, grant that the glory of paradise be given to my soul. Amen!

Francis Poulenc (1899 – 1963) was born in Paris. He became widely known while still a young man by his songs (Le Bestiaire, 1919). After meeting the choreographer Diaghilev, he composed the ballet Les Biches, an immediate success. With Honegger and Milhaud and some others he formed the “group of 6”. His many choral works all date from after 1936. Inspiration came from getting to know the motets of Monteverdi and the poems of Paul Eluard.

A mental change was caused also by the deadly accident of a young composer friend. This led Poulenc to making a pilgrimage to the black virgin of Rocamadour, where he experienced a spiritual revelation that returned him to his catholic religion. As a result he composed the 'Litanies a la Vierge noir'. Poulenc stayed deeply religious, though he could also be lighthearted, cynical and humorous, emotions that all can be found in his works. Poulenc himself said of his choral works: Here I have brought something new and I expect that in the end people will be interested more in the Stabat Mater than in all my piano works.

The Stabat Mater was composed in 1950. The work is Poulenc's first choral work with orchestra. Like the Litanies this work too was created in memory of a friend, the painter Christian Bérard. He chose the Stabat Mater instead of the Requiem, because the heart-rending text seemed suited to dedicate the soul of his friend to the holy Virgin of Rocamadour. It was composed in only two months, what Poulenc attributed to heavenly inspiration. (The Ultimate Stabat Mater Website)

I found this work to be on a grand, monumental scale and statement of deep catholic belief and faith. At times there was a more theatrical than meditative, tormented, introverted spiritual religiosity in the face of death. The melancholic vision of the inevitable departure from life was also present in many moving settings. The soprano Joanna Zawartko was emotionally moving in her approach to both the music and the poetry.

Intermission

 


Ludwig van Beethoven

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 

Begun in 1805, completed early the next year and premiered on December 22, 1808, as part of the famous Akademie in the Theater an der Wien. 

It was Beethoven’s last appearance as a concerto soloist and the basis of an extraordinary anecdote. The composer Louis Spohr recounted a description told to him by Ignaz Xaver Seyfried, music director at that venue at that time. The concert lasted some four hours. The audience sat with great determination in the unheated concert hall in the freezing winter.

“Beethoven was playing a new Pianoforte-Concerto of his, but forgot at the first tutti that he was a solo player, and springing up, began to direct in his usual way. At the first sforzando he threw out his arms so wide asunder, that he knocked both the lights off the piano upon the ground. The audience laughed, and Beethoven was so incensed that he made the orchestra cease playing, and begin anew. 

Fearing a repetition of the accident, two boys of the chorus placed themselves on either side of Beethoven, holding the lights. One of the boys innocently approached nearer, and when the fatal sforzando came, he received from Beethoven’s right hand a blow on the mouth, and the poor boy let fall the light in terror… If the public were unable to restrain their laughter before, they could now much less, and broke out into a regular bacchanalian roar. Beethoven got into such a rage that at the first chords of the solo, he broke a dozen strings.”

This was a superb performance by Garrick Ohlsson, the National Philharmonic Orchestra under Michal Klauza the conductor. Possibly it was the finest I have ever heard.

Allegro moderato

The opening chord, so difficult for a pianist to manage dynamically dolce, was soft, poised and set an almost dreamlike atmosphere, a domain sensitized to the secrets of the forest. Ohlsson's communication with the orchestra was clear from the outset. A perfectly balanced symbiosis of dynamic and stylistic statements and response. 

His tone and touch with minimal pedaling suited the underlying classical nature of the work yet with gestures of romanticism attempting to gently break free from the classical braces.The tempo was remarkably variable in order to express a sense of improvisation and of feeling one's way. Ohlsson gave us an immortal cadenza to this movement, expressive and supremely virtuosic.

Andante con moto

The second movement, accompanied only by orchestral strings, is well known to all music lovers. The movement has often been compared to Orpheus taming the wild beasts with his music. The underrated pupil of Beethoven, Carl Czerny, observed:

'in this movement (which, like the entire concerto, belongs to the finest and most poetical of Beethoven’s creations) one cannot help thinking of an antique dramatic and tragic scene, and the player must feel with what movingly lamenting expression his solo must be played in order to contrast with the powerful and austere orchestral passages.'

The orchestra is occasionally strident and powerful which contrasts movingly and dramatically with the rich harmonies and cantabile phrases of the piano part.  The cellos and basses maintained a fine pianissimo. Until the opening of the final movement, one has been seduced by the emotional, implied restraint of this concerto. Ohlsson was supremely lyrical yet not sentimental in the profound poetry and shifting poignant moods he brought to this movement. A remarkable serenity pervaded this movement.

Rondo. Vivace

Ohlsson brought spectacular, assured and exciting rhythm to the Finale. Trumpets and drums sound as we transition from the sublime second movement into this exuberant Rondo, like the flash in sunlight off a mountain spring at its source. 

Again I felt how Ohlsson perfectly balanced the work which hovers beguilingly like a humming bird over the cusp of classicism and rich romanticism. The orchestra were outstanding, even transformed, by the remarkably expressive, perceptive and persuasive yet disciplined conducting of Michal Klauza.

There was a wild audience reaction at the close and an instant standing ovation. Ohlsson is tremendously popular in Warsaw, perhaps because of his mastery of Chopin validated by his winning the VIII International Chopin Competition in 1970. The only American to have done so. I remember well hearing him for the first time playing superlative Chopin in the late 1970s at the Royal Festival Hall when I was living in London. I gave him a standing ovation as did the entire audience - so rare in a London concert hall.

For encores we were were treated to a stylish, elegant and perfectly understood lilting rhythm of the Waltz in C-sharp minor Op. 64 No.2 Then a sensitive performance of the Prelude in A major Op.29 No.7 that expressed period sensibility of a high order. Both indicated his understanding of the dance, an accomplishment which he has encouraged all young pianists to master who wish to play Chopin with true rhythmical and historical understanding.

Once again: 'This was a superb, poised performance by Garrick Ohlsson and the National Philharmonic Orchestra under Michal Klauza. Possibly it was the finest account of this glorious work of the many I have ever heard.'

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