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Lucas Debargue - A Matter of Life or Death
Pianist Lucas Debargue recently recorded the complete piano works of Gabriel Fauré on the Opus 102, a very special grand piano by Stephen Paulello. Eric Schoones from the German/Dutch magazine PIANIST had a conversation with him. Read more >>

Topic: Wang, Moravec, Watts, Ax, Zimerman, Perahia and Polonaise op. 53  (Read 1473 times)

Offline pianophile

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Are they afraid of this piece? It seems oddly similar to Mozart in that the most illustrious pros (or at least popularly renowned) seem more reticent with this work than non-superstars. Could it be that any pianist of this list's prestige may hesitate to stick their neck out, possibly inviting unfavorable comparisons to Rubinstein in this particular piece? Virtually every other virtuoso piece gives the pianist some room to hide, between sheer blizzards of notes and thick textures and what have you. Somehow when I hear the Polonaise in A-flat, I feel like I know the pianist's physical and interpretive limitations, more than any other piece. The polonaise, to me, seems to require something almost larger than life -heroic-to pull it off like Rubinstein does. It requires amazing power and technique, but something like an amazing soul behind the technique and physical power that trivialize the latter, making you forget them, and you need a style and technique that transmits the soul directly into the sound. This may be true of many or most great pieces, but somehow op. 53 exposes exactly what the pianist has as a musician, no place to hide. That's how it seems to me. Could this be a factor in the Moravec, Perahia, *Zimerman*, Watts, Wang... apparent reticence?
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Offline dogperson

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Doubtful to me that any of the performers you list are reticent to play this piece because of reticence as they perform a lot of virtuosic works and it has been performed by others that you did not list.  Possibly they haven’t performed it yet, or have merely selected something else.  I don’t see how any other inference can be made.

Offline pianophile

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Thanks; I was raising a particular question, with the implied premise being that each of these performers would otherwise have been expected (especially insofar as the respective  performer at least to an extent (especially Zimerman and Moravec, to a lesser extent Perahia) specializes in Chopin. My theory is the Polonaise op. 53, unlike many other comparably or even much more technically difficult works, almost uniquely puts the pianist in a bad light if some particular aspect (or combination of several) elude/s him or her. Even very eminent pianists can sound terrible (I’m my view) in op. 53 (just as is the case with Mozart), pianists who can be very impressive in much more difficult repertoire. If im imagining all this, then why would these particular pianists not play the QUINTESSENTAL Chopin virtuoso masterpiece? Take Zimerman: not getting any younger, and no other major current “superstar” has a particular association with a particular composer the way he does with Chopin. I believe there is a genuine mystery there.

Offline joe000

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I'm sure that op. 53 is in Zimerman's repertoire. He claims in an interview that he has only recorded 1% of his repertoire. As one of the greatest living pianists, this polonaise woudn't be a challenge. Compared to all of the other virtuosic pieces he has recorded, op. 53 isn't a technically or musically difficult piece. Same for other top pianists you listed, they just chose not to record it. Pianists are not required to record everything they play.

JOE

Offline pianophile

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Excellent point, Joe; yes, now that I think about it it’s very unlikely the pianists in my list would find it difficult. But at the same time, every time I search op. 53 on YouTube, a piece many consider the “touchstone” of the romantic piano literature and musicianship in that style, the same names come up over and over: Horowitz, Rubinstein, Richter, Gilels, Argerich, plus representative performances of relatively recent Chopin competition winners.

Here’s a case where my bias may be getting the better of me, pointing to the root of my question: to my ear, Rubinstein is on a completely superior plane in this piece, an altogether different category, almost as if nobody else understands it, or if they do, don’t have the ability to convey what they understand. The main motif, when he plays it (D-flat chord all the way through the initial A-flat chord’s resolution after an implied b-diminished harmony, basically 1.5 bars), Rubinstein makes the notes sing, with no percussiveness. It’s firm, but has a kind of “velvety” quality as if his hands are plunging into something with a soft rubbery texture. Not banged. And that motif, like the piece as a whole (excepting the two interlude sections, in E-flat and E major, which must be percussive), sings like a human voice. I don’t know what he’s doing, but in part it’s a layering of the harmonies throughout the phrase to make the whole thing breathe as a single unit. Every detail flows into the next, with just the right overlap (apparently pedal-produced), to make each note sing in the phrase as of all the notes are in a kind of chorus.

By contrast, all the other pianists seem to be engaged in some kind of percussive and athletic swinging at the piano, banging into it. All other interpretations or performances seem rustic and coarse compared to the stately majesty Rubinstein brings out. Not that this is a good comparison, but the impression of glory or majesty that he conveys is reminiscent of the famous tune in Elgar’s graduation-familiar Pomp and Circumstance march. It soars with a non-aggressive sweep, by allowing itself to breathe and sing in a natural-sounding, unforced way.

All this perhaps very awkwardly put, but that’s how I see the piece in Rubinstein’s performances compared the others, and have wondered if everybody else just disagree with R. interpretively, or if he’s just the only one capable of doing it.

In no other piece I can think of do I get this sort of an impression of one musician seeming to “own” the piece, everybody else falling vastly short, and can’t help wondering if this has to do with challenges in op. 53, and possibly explains other “superstars” not playing such a “touchstone” piece. I’m occasionally good at guessing pianists when I here them on the radio— but Rubinstein in Chopin, especially op. 53, I know in a second. With op. 53, I’d also detect Horowitz or Ashkenazy in a second, but based on how cacophonous it sounds compared to Rubinstein.

Offline dogperson

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Who and where has this been considered the touchstone of romantic piano literature? 

Offline quantum

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My theory is the Polonaise op. 53, unlike many other comparably or even much more technically difficult works, almost uniquely puts the pianist in a bad light if some particular aspect (or combination of several) elude/s him or her.

I think the problem with Op 53, is not the piece itself but that it has entered into a certain portion of the repertoire: one that has reached a certain level of adoration spaning communities of elite pianists, professional pianists, students, hobbyists, musicologists, armchair music theorists (you know those people that can not stop spewing academia yet have never considered trying to play the music they write about), general classical music enthusiasts, and the cute 5 year old kid that can play Rach 3.  When a piece reaches this level, many people forget how to listen, even those that are in normal circumstances have an objective disposition.  People start listening with their mind, listening with their preferences, listening with their opinions.  They start comparing a given performance with what they consider the "greatest" performance in their opinion.  Music is reduced to a checklist, and that checklist, a subjective standardized test, is used as metric to measure the worth of a performance.  IMO, this is not music appreciation, not even close. 

Made a Liszt. Need new Handel's for Soler panel & Alkan foil. Will Faure Stein on the way to pick up Mendels' sohn. Josquin get Wolfgangs Schu with Clara. Gone Chopin, I'll be Bach

Offline lelle

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The Polonaise op. 53 is quite the war-horse and used to be even more so in the past. They might just prefer other pieces that are slightly less overplayed. (I love that Polonaise though, I think it's famous for a reason).
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