Chopin’s interpretations that composer himself might have approved of
Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall
Frédéric Chopin: Nocturne in E flat Major, op. 55 No. 2 – Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat Major, op. 61 – Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, op. 35 – Twenty four Preludes, op. 28
Ann Schein (pianist)
A. Schein (© Randem Nohatto)
One of the stated goals of the concert series “Key Pianists,” founded by pianist Terry Eder, is to present to the New York audience artists who otherwise might not be heard or at least not heard as often as they should be. Among the ones presented at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall this season there is Ann Schein, and I can’t think of another pianist who would be more deserving of such presentation. We were lucky indeed that Ms. Schein’s recital took place just two days before Carnegie Hall closed its doors to all events for a foreseeable future as a result precautions taken against the outbreak of COVID 19.
Nowadays her recitals are devoted to the works she knows, loves, and have performed for decades; works she feels comfortable with and which she still delivers with panache and authority. Chopin is among them and to that composer she devoted her program, which incidentally was conceived as a commemoration of the cycle she offered us some four decades ago in the 1980-81 season: some of those recitals at Alice Tully Hall I still cherish in my memory.
That she is a unique player was evident from the very first notes of the Nocturne in E flat op. 55 No. 2, which unfolded at an unhurried pace with luxuriant sound and spacious projection. This nocturne, as many of them do, exemplifies deeply felt emotions but here they were mature emotions and a representation of a dialogue between two individuals who seem to have all the time in the world. Ms. Schein was able to get a beautiful, warm sound even from the house piano and in this hall, where the piano can sometimes sound harsh.
The Nocturne was followed by the Polonaise-Fantaisie, this most enigmatic works of Chopin’s late period. In the excellent program notes, which have become a traditional feature of “Key Pianists” recitals, this time written by James Keller, the writer aptly characterizes this fourteen-minute composition as one that even the composer did not know what to call at first. The work, he writes, has all the attributes of a proper polonaise, such as a characteristic rhythm and tempo maestoso, yet they are not constantly present and often seem “almost disguised, lurking within the texture rather than on the surface.” It is all true, yet if one studies the score carefully one can recognize that the characteristic rhythm is often overlooked by the majority of pianists, who perhaps rightly consider the hybrid work being more of a fantasy than a polonaise. What may come as a surprise is that, Franz Liszt, a first great champion, admirer, and connoisseur of Chopin’s music described the work fittingly yet didn’t seem to fully comprehend it. And yet this is by far, if not exclusively, about the only work of Chopin that is very much Lisztian in scope, pose, with an improvisatory-declamatory character, thespian sense of narration, full of stop-and-go moments of hesitation and ardor. In Romantic music of that era the fantastic, intricate motivic development of the Polonaise-Fantaisie is equaled only by Liszt’s own Sonata in B minor, which was conceived five years after Chopin’s death.
Ms. Schein’s approach to this work was, as is the style of most of her playing (that evening or otherwise), that of a quiet drama rather than an obvious tragedy. Here, from the very beginning, one was confronted with some of the salient features of her piano-playing: nothing is ever rushed, everything is delineated cleanly, the vocal line is never disturbed. She didn’t go the way of stressing each and every moment “of the polonaise proper,” yet the work didn’t suffer at all by this manner of interpretation. The rhetoric of her narration was never in question and there was an abundant spaciousness and total understanding of the composer’s intentions. Nowadays, that in itself is a rarity and that is also what makes so many of her interpretations distinctive. Chopin’s harmonic language often is very dense and features highly chromatic harmonies which many pianists often ignore by applying far too hasty tempi thus making them simply unable to illuminate all those harmonic changes. Ms. Schein masterfully and often showed us how to avoid such misrepresentations and pitfalls as they abound in the repertory she offered that evening.
She seemed to be asking – and at the same time answering – the question “if Chopin wrote all those notes regardless of how fast the densely spaced chords occur, didn’t he want us to hear them or at the very least to allude to their existence?” Her relaxed approach to this “dense writing” I am referring to allows the music to unfold leisurely and the mastery of this pianist is further illustrated by building the tension without a customary increase in tempo, a true rarity nowadays. It should thus come as no surprise that her rendition of that magisterial work was one of the most convincing, credible, and persuasive that this listener has heard in a long time. Ms. Schein was unfussy in her delivery and it was all done in a most natural manner: listening to her, one had a rare impression that this simple, unassuming pianist conveys just what the composer had in mind.
The same approach was a dominating feature of the Sonata in B-flat minor: yes, from time to time one would long for the mighty, thundering sonorities of Horowitz and his kaleidoscopic changes of mood and dynamics, all of which Ms.Schein seems to eschew, but at the same time this listener was again grateful for having the music presented in a manner that perhaps was closer to what Chopin might himself have imagined. In the opening movement, this time taken without a repeat, I especially admired – and I must confess, this aspect of playing has been always my pet peeve – the stability and uniformity of the pulse of music. After all, Chopin wrote only a few guiding indications such as “sostenuto,” but never required a change of tempo. Still, the majority of pianists choose to push and pull the tempo in moments when the composer himself already slows it down for them. She played that movement with plenty of gusto and energy that belied her age. As in everything she touches, one hears an unfolding line of music that never fractures the phrase and never loses its inner logic.
The scherzo was taken at a measured tempo which allowed for better articulation of the chordal structure. This movement possesses a challenge for pianists of any age, and Ms. Schein came out nearly unscathed. Even if I could argue with her slightly brusque approach to the Trio, which could have used a tad more gentleness, at least it didn’t sag and it was painted with a broad stroke. The same could be said about the “Funeral March,” which progressed with determination and inner logic as if stripped of tradition that allows for flaccid rhythms, loose pulse, and sagging tempo. Ms. Schein made the tune in the Trio section sing with simplicity and feeling and she demonstrated a gorgeous piano tone.
We are used to hearing from the many fleet-fingered pianists the final movement Presto as one big blur: Ms. Schein was certainly not lacking in speed but even here she was more interested in conveying the multi-layered character of this most enigmatic 90 seconds of all Chopin’s creativity.
The 24 Preludes op. 28 filled the second half of the program and again provided us with a host of questions. Our pianist forced those of us who wanted to be challenged rather than critical of the unorthodox treatment of this cycle, to confront our pre-existing conceptions. We are used to hearing some of the preludes as finger-breaking exercises and indeed Chopin often punishes his interpreters with awkward figurations that test even the most formidable virtuosos. Ms. Schein seemed to be asking a different question: did Chopin really want some of the preludes such as No. 8 in F-sharp minor, No. 16 in B-flat minor, No. 19 in E flat Major or the final one No. 24 in D Minor to be performed at such breakneck speed? I have always harbored a feeling that what we hear nowadays is not necessary what Chopin might have intended.
Ms. Schein, who is in formidable shape, performed in a relaxed, unorthodox style that was already present in a studio recording made some 15 years ago. This time, at Weill Hall, she offered us again a refreshing and beautifully and thoughtfully executed interpretation that again was more satisfying than the ones which, on the surface, might seem to be more brilliant. In no way am I implying that our pianist lacked skills or that her fingers were faltering: she just didn’t allow herself to be swayed by the virtuosity alone. Yet, when she needed it, as in the Prelude No. 16, she not only demonstrated it but offered some bravura alternative ending. By taking the last prelude No. 24 in D minor in a minimally more relaxed tempo, Ms. Schein created much more tension and added drama and pathos.
She preceded her only encore, Chopin’s last Etude from op. 25 in C minor, with a charming preface recalling her Mexico City debut assisted by an earthquake. It was again a masterful, moving and mature performance that gained her yet another tumultuous, standing ovation from her adoring audience.
Ms. Schein lists two great Polish pianists as her main teachers, Mieczyslaw Munz and Arthur Rubinstein, who at one point in their respective lives were both married to the same woman, Ms. Aniela Mlynarski. But even a decade back, when I reviewed one of her recitals outside New York City, and stated that her playing was “beautiful and simple”, I still had in mind another implied musical influence and that was yet another Pole, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, one with whom Ms. Schein has never studied. He too, just as Ann Schein is today, was a great Chopin player. He was also known for playing in a similarly uncomplicated way: simply put, his fast tempi were never too fast and slow tempi never too slow-not only in Chopin, but also in Beethoven and Mozart. In their interpretations both Mr. Horszowski, a pupil of the great Leshetitsky, and Ms. Schein were always devoid of any trace of ego, and similarly to Horszowski, Ann Schein never created an ugly, percussive sound. They both always demonstrated an unerring way of creating a beautiful, vocal-like phrase and unassailable logic in whatever they played. Those sentiments were only intensified after hearing this amazing lady now, after missing her recent New York appearances. I hope that we hear her again soon and for now, our gratitude has to go to “Key Pianists” for bringing her in to perform at a well-packed Weill Hall, full of admirers. I doubt that anyone left this event feeling less impressed than this critic.