St John's, Smith Square
Ballade no.1 in G minor, op.23
Two Nocturnes, op.27
Waltz in A-flat major, op.34 no.1
Waltz in A-flat major, op.69 no.1, ‘L’Adieu’
Mazurka in C major, op.67 no.3
Mazurka in G major, op.67 no.1
Scherzo no.2 in B-flat minor, op.31
Two Nocturnes, op.32
Impromptu no.1 in A-flat major, op.29
Twelve Etudes, op.25
Over the course of 2010, Artur Pizarro will perform the entire corpus of Chopin’s solo piano works at St John’s, Smith Square. This fifth recital took in the period 1833-7, as part of a pragmatically chronological scheme. (The sixth recital, scheduled for 21 September, will run from 1836 to 1839.) Cycles clearly appeal to Pizarro, since he has previously performed the complete solo works of Debussy and Ravel in England and Denmark. Chopin, readers will hardly need to be told, is all the rage in this year, the bicentenary of his birth. Indeed, this was my fourth all-Chopin recital of 2010. Maurizio Pollini and Krystian Zimerman both offered memorable one-off recitals at the Royal Festival Hall: quite different events in kind from series instalments such as Pizarro’s. Nevertheless, the Portuguese pianist was not shamed by comparison and, on this evidence, emerged as a far superior Chopin pianist to the presenter of an alternative London cycle.
The G minor Ballade is not an easy work to begin with, or indeed to place at any point in a recital, but Pizarro’s Romantic sound immediately captured our attention. His opening tempo was unusually slow, the work emerging rather like a nocturne with furious outbursts. Occasionally, it was perhaps a little too stretched, distended even, but there was compensation in Pizarro’s sense of fantasy, especially when it came to spinning of Chopin’s fioritura. The two op.27 Nocturnes followed, the C-sharp minor work like a gondola song emerging through Venetian harmonic haze, with an impressively gauged central crescendo, its D-flat major successor refracting Chopin’s beloved Bellini through an infinitely more sophisticated harmonic prism. Attention to the composer’s harmonic twists and their meaning was a hallmark of Pizarro’s performance, likewise a truly melting touch. Teasing rubato characterised the A-flat major waltz, op.34 no.1, despatched with a winning insouciance to which Pizarro would often return in subsequent items. Its tonal confrere, Op.69 no.1 was delicately charming.
Rarely if ever can I hear too many Chopin mazurkas; op.67 no.3, in C major, is a particular favourite. Pizarro performed it with a well-nigh perfect balance of ‘Polishness’ and salon-based storytelling; that is, the latter recalled the former. The G major mazurka from the same set evinced a similar sense of narrative in miniature. There is of course nothing miniaturist about the B-flat minor Scherzo, with which the first half concluded. Pizarro skilfully wove together hints of the more fleeting pleasures previously heard with its larger scale, but song or, better, aria remained very much at the heart of his interpretation.
The second half opened with another brace of Nocturnes, those from op.32. That in B major evoked restlessness in its twisting and turning. Whereas this piece perhaps became a little too ‘interestingly’ disjunct, its A-flat major successor emerged spun from a single thread: not without contrast, but more integrated. The op.29 A-flat impromptu occasionally sounded gabbled, but in general exuded salon charm.
Then came the op.25 Etudes. The first two were beautifully despatched, if perhaps a little generalised. But Pizarro’s insouciance paid off in the third and fourth. Technical challenges were surmounted – and musically, but as the musical demands deepened, so in general did the interpretative scope. Rubato proved seductive in the fifth, E minor study: a truly charming performance. Ravel-like aquatic glitter impressed in the sixth. It was, however, the seventh Etude, in C-sharp minor, which emerged as the ‘black pearl’ of the series, the dolorous heart for which Pizarro’s emotional range quite properly deepened. It was interesting to note his successful adoption of a slower tempo than is often heard for the ninth, G-flat major study, rubato again well judged. The concluding minor-mode trio started a little steadily, the tenth piece suggesting that storming the heavens, Pollini-like was not on the menu. However, during the final two studies, both in A minor, Pizarro proved imperious – or should that be revolutionary? – enough, rendering comparisons irrelevant. There was a freedom here not always apparent in the earlier numbers from the set, much to the musical advantage, and the final piece concluded with truly orchestral sonority. As an encore, Pizarro offered a nocturne by Paderewski: perhaps a little limited in its material, but with an apt sense of the late night to it.