“ You cannot play the piano well, unless you are singing within you. ”- Arthur Rubinstein, pianist
Dreamy and passionate with a blend of melancholy harmonies is one way to describe the skilled musicality of Frederic Chopin. By age nineteen, the Polish composer and pianist had found his voice within the Romantic period and delivered a distinctive style that filled his compositions with texture, color, and imagination.
And with this, it feels good to open the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s 2022-2023 PVS Classical season with Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 21, in the hands of guest pianist Emanuel Ax. The DSO most recently performed Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 21 in May 2013 featuring Rafal Blechacz on piano, conducted by John Storgårds. The DSO’s first performance of the piece was in March 1919 with pianist Bendetson Netzog, conducted by Ossip Gabrilowitsch.
The concerto begins in classical fashion, with a paragraph for the orchestra. Here, the first theme conveys that restless agitation so prized by the early Romantics. A second subject, introduced by the woodwinds, provides lyrical contrast. Here’s where Ax shines. With the entrance of the soloist, the orchestra is relegated to a supporting role, as the expressive and technical capabilities of the piano are displayed to fine effect.
Chopin once declared that the ensuing Larghetto was inspired by his love for a young singer he had met at the Conservatory, an admission which has delighted romantically inclined listeners. Beginning with a long and tender theme that appears after a brief orchestral introduction, the movement builds to a passionate soliloquy for the pianist over dramatic tremolo figures in the strings. The third movement juxtaposes a bittersweet melody (punctuated by vigorous orchestral comments) with a central episode dominated by the rhythms of Poland’s national dance, the mazurka.
“ I know so few pianists that haven’t had Chopin as a major part of their life. ”- Emanuel Ax, pianist
When it comes to the works of Chopin, Ax is among the masters. In the early mid-70s, he won the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv. A fellow Polish American pianist, Rubinstein (1887-1982) is considered to be one of the greatest Chopin interpreters of his time, making Ax’s inaugural win even more significant. Over the course of the pandemic lockdown, time was spent learning Chopin’s repertoire from Opus 51 and on.
In a conversation hosted by Carnegie Hall, Ax expressed his amazement with the breadth of the composer's compositions, “With Chopin, what always amazes me is that although the actual length of the piece is short by standard, it actually feels like an enormous piece,” he continues, “There are two sides to him which are not competing, but complementing each other. There’s the Polish side, which is nationalistic, romantic, expressive. Then, there’s the French side, which is all about discipline, balance, and correctness. [With Chopin], there’s no bad music.”
Under the baton of DSO Music Director Jader Bignamini, Emanuel Ax’s concert appearance with the DSO also includes Debussy’s La mer, Ravel’s Bolero, and Emerge - a new work co-commissioned by the DSO from Michael Abels, a critically acclaimed composer of concert works as well as film scores for major motion pictures including Jordan Peele's Get Out and US.
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