Exploring Narrative Where There Is None

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The New York Sun

Presenters of instrumental concerts are always looking for ways to revitalize their medium in the way supertitles have revitalized opera. But projecting a score with a bouncing ball telling you where to look will hardly do the trick. When it comes to imparting knowledge, nothing works better than a few cogent remarks from the performer.

The pianist Jeffrey Swann has made an art of the latter approach. He demonstrated as much on Friday evening at Bargemusic, when he staged the last of six recitals comprising what he calls “the semi-complete works of Chopin.” On this occasion, his subject was the “dramatic narrative,” which is especially interesting when one considers that Chopin scrupulously excluded programmatic content or other extramusical ideas from just about every piece he wrote. But he did compose four ballades: The title implies some kind of a story, and the music often acts as if it is telling one, even though none exists.

It is not, therefore, the existence of an actual narrative but the manner of presentation that makes for a Chopin narrative. And Mr. Swann’s comments are effective because he ties them meaningfully to the listening experience and he knows just when to quit.

He pointed out, for instance, that the opening piece, the Fantasy in F minor, Op. 29, behaves much like the ballades – it has lots of melodies, but they are related in terms of intervals. It was tempting to listen for these similarities, and whether or not one heard them, one could appreciate that Mr. Swann’s playing gave due weight to the piece’s sturdy, marchlike material and was delectably graceful in the butterfly-like filigree.

Mr. Swann even found dramatic narration in a couple of Nocturnes: the one in G minor, Op. 15, No. 3, a through composed piece with no repetition, and also in Wagner’s favorite, in Csharp minor, Op. 27, No. 1. He memorably brought out the yearning of the latter’s Tristanesque chromatic melody.

The biggest work on the program was the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35 (the “Funeral March”). Here Mr. Swann’s remarks concentrated on the peculiarity of the extremely brief last movement, a perpetual-motion af fair in which conventional melody, harmony, and structure are sacrificed to suggest what is said to be the “wind rustling over the grave” following the funeral march. I have always found this movement to be an unsatisfactory trifle coming after three fine movements, and perhaps Chopin made amends in his next Sonata, in B minor, which contains such a stirring last movement.

In any case, Mr. Swann’s playing of the sonata was structurally lucid, despite occasional lack of clarity in some of the more frenzied passages. I especially liked the grace he brought to the Trio of the Scherzo, which is almost like Haydn in its simplicity, and the restraint with which he played the familiar theme of the funeral march.

Mr. Swann demonstrated that by altering expectations for a contrasting middle section, or trio, Chopin added an element of drama to two Scherzos – No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 31, and No. 3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39. His playing brought out the motivic development of the former arrestingly; in the latter he played the octave passages with flair and handsomely voiced the piece’s chorale melody.

About the concluding piece, the Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52, Mr. Swann got a laugh when he said, “It would be hard not to say” that it was Chopin’s greatest piece, then quickly added, “You’ll note, though, that I didn’t say it.” At any rate, he played it with great affection, with special attention to the moment, which he described as “erotically charged,” when the introductory theme strikingly recurs in counterpoint.

A couple of times Mr. Swann rather puzzlingly referred to the way Chopin tends to end pieces “catastrophically,” by which I took him to mean on a note of bleakness or pessimism. But I didn’t hear that in the bracing, technically daunting close of the Ballade No. 4. Here the catastrophe would seem to befall those luckless performers who are not up to the challenge, of which Mr. Swann, who was all over the keyboard, clearly is not one.

The New York Sun

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