Brian Ganz thought a lot about how to showcase the mazurka in the fifth concert of his effort to perform all the works of Frederic Chopin. As Ganz noted, Chopin’s mazurkas are based on the Polish folk dance but transcend those roots; their constant rhythmic and harmonic shifts give them, in Ganz’s words, a “marvelous strangeness” that makes them less accessible than some of Freddy’s other stuff but emotionally intense and endlessly fascinating. So on Saturday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, he leavened the program with more straightforward pieces; he discussed the rhythms and harmonies to help the audience put words on the sensations the mazurkas create; and, most importantly, he played every note as a thing of beauty in and of itself and as part of a spontaneous yet controlled musical line, as he has in every concert in this series that I’ve attended. (See 2012, 2013, and 2014.)
Onstage discussion is not for everyone, but a performer who is really good at it can add a conceptual framework to guide the audience through the pretty notes coming from the stage. Ganz’s talks are the best I’ve ever heard. He talks fluently without notes, comes prepared, makes both his hymns to Chopin’s greatness and his jokes about performing sound completely sincere, and chooses concise yet apt musical excerpts to illustrate his points. He’s also a pithy quote machine, on Saturday describing the “mystery of time and memory” that the mazurkas evoke, which is better that anything I would have come up with by myself. (You can get a very small idea of what his talks were like here.)
His actual piano playing rewarded the interest that his discussions piqued. Perhaps Ganz doesn’t have that International Virtuoso Firepower that could make the D-flat major “Minute” Waltz into a hyper-smooth cascade of notes that would actually take somewhere close to a minute (“Don’t get out your stopwatches!” he cautioned the audience). Rather, Ganz is the type of player to note that the waltz was inspired by Chopin seeing a dog chase its own tail and then perform the waltz with the same kind of merry, scampering obsessiveness. In the meatier fare of the mazurkas, he seemed to lay down each unexpected modulation or rhythmic hiccup as both a musical and philosophical event, creating a world and inviting us into it. (The B-flat minor mazurka, Op. 24/4, stood out particularly for me in this regard, with many of the key changes seeming both like recriminations and attempts to find a way forward.) I find this kind of playing much more exciting than sewing-machine facility. Plus, Ganz can definitely deliver thrills for their own sake when called for; witness the low-bass rumbles in the F-sharp minor Polonaise, Op. 44, or the tossed-off brilliance of the Rondo a la Mazur, a juvenile work that Ganz showed to be well worth a hearing on Saturday.
The National Philharmonic has promised to keep sponsoring these concerts until Ganz has completed his Chopin cycle, which is projected to take another five years at the current one-concert-a-year pace. On a personal note, this was the first concert I have tried to review since my wife and I had our first child in October. It turns out that as difficult as it is to find childcare to attend a concert, it is also difficult to find time in the day to write a review of said concert when the little one needs to be fed every three hours. So this blog will probably be going silent again for a while. But it was worth it to keep the string of concert attendance unbroken, to learn a few new things about great music, and to get another keen appreciation of Chopin from Brian Ganz.