There is no one I trust more to perform a program called “Chopin: A Young Genius” than Brian Ganz. His Chopin always blends the wisdom of age with the enthusiasm of youth, and he tells you from the stage what parts of the music strike sparks in him so you can appreciate them too. Thankfully, Ganz was the man performing that program at Strathmore on Saturday, in the seventh episode of his continuing mission to perform all the piano works of Chopin, under the auspices of the National Philharmonic.
On Saturday, Ganz played two of his “Musical Gardening” sequences, in which he plays works of the very young, slightly less young, and still young but fully mature Chopin, so you can see the seeds of Chopin’s genius taking root and then blooming. On Saturday, we got sequences of polonaises and mazurkas, each culminating in his first published essay in the genre. The early polonaise and mazurka were both charming but unmemorable; Ganz emphasized, however, that even in his early years Chopin composed music that was physically pleasurable to play, and Ganz made vivid his joy at playing it.
The second polonaise, Ganz said, packs “a hefty dose of teenage bravado—the testosterone has kicked in, and he’s talking smack. And I think that’s wonderful. He’s a normal teenage boy.” Indeed, it is almost all dazzle, as was the second mazurka Ganz played Saturday, but Ganz’s performances made both sound like the wonderful pieces he thinks they are. Meanwhile, the published polonaise and mazurka sounded a world apart in terms of their subtle treatment of the dance rhythms, their rich, variegated tone color, and their integration of ornament into the musical line—but Ganz also showed how Chopin had pushed himself to greatness, rather than springing forth a fully formed genius.
Bookending the program were two sets of pieces Chopin wrote after attaining that young genius: the three Nocturnes, Op. 9, and the 12 Études, Op. 10. Ganz’s performance of the first nocturne featured some of the best Chopin rubato I’ve ever heard, the left hand playing the rhythm steadily while the right hand dropped behind the beat, so the sighing figures that dominate the melody sounded like leaves clinging to trees before finally fluttering to earth. In the famous No. 2 in E-flat major, Ganz brought out the dance rhythm more prominently than in many performances I’ve heard, an engaging counterweight to the lambent harmonies. No. 3 was similarly distinguished.
Before performing the Op. 12 études, Ganz said that, as a child, he sent away for an LP of the études for $1.78, after which he wore out the groove on the record and dreamed of the day he could play them. His performances showed that he has been able to marry that young love for this music to a sophisticated understanding of its structure and, usefully, lots of virtuoso firepower. Ganz tried to play the études through, without stopping for applause, but his brilliance in the more note-heavy studies kept triggering spontaneous clapping, like after the eruptions of notes in No. 4. It wasn’t all display, of course; Ganz made the big operatic melody of No. 3 in E major sing winsomely, and in his remarks from the stage he called special attention to the weirdness of No. 6 in E-flat minor, an inward, morose piece that seemed to blossom under his fingertips. But the standing O after the “Revolutionary” étude that closed the set was one of the rare ovations I’ve encountered that felt like a release of tension rather than a perfunctory show of appreciation—you had to do something with all the energy and tension Ganz built up in his volcanic performance.
Ganz’s Chopin concerts have been so excellent that it’s going to be a shame when he finishes the monumental task of playing all these works. He hasn’t just been playing them; he’s been contexualizing them, appreciating them, inviting us to love them as much as he does. It’s harder for me to get out to concerts nowadays, but I never want to miss a concert experience like that. Looking forward to the 2018 edition already.