Chopin: Pitch Your Tents Now

There is a bone of contention about Chopin: his date of birth. Some say 22 February, others 1 March. This gives carte blanche to the bicentenary celebrations to spend an extended period going totally, utterly nuts. If you love good piano playing and good Chopin playing most of all, it is time to pitch your tent in central London and prepare to do little else for 9-10 days.

Piers Lane is playing the complete Chopin Nocturnes on Sunday evening, 21 Feb, at St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, under the auspices of the Chopin Society (whose president, Lady Rose Cholmondeley, did a splendid job introducing the bicentenary on the Andrew Marr Show t’other day, ably aided and abetted by Guildhall piano student Mishka Rushdie Momen, who’s apparently a pupil of Imogen Cooper). Kick-off is at 6pm and with Piers you can be assured of glowing tone, engaging sensibility and never a dull second.

Krystian Zimerman gives the first of the Southbank Centre’s two chief Chopin birthday concerts on Monday 22nd, playing both the big sonatas. He sold out in hours, but try for returns – you really don’t want to miss this one. I have spent the past few days beginning the transferal of my archive of interview cassette tapes to MP3s – a laborious real-time thing requiring constant rebooting of computer – and have started with my Zimerman interviews. Some of them date back 18 years or so, and they’re as fascinating now as they were at the time, in some cases even more so with hindsight. He’s still the most intriguing, intelligent, unexpected, exacting, tender and thrilling Chopin pianist on earth.

Over at St John’s Smith Square, Artur Pizarro continues his complete Chopin cycle on Tuesday 23rd, with a programme full of flairful delights – waltzes, polonaises and the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise to top it all. It’s an ongoing series that takes place in the spring and autumn. St John’s remains a seriously underrrated venue – it’s out of the way, perhaps, but a great place to listen to intimate music-making. And it’s not for nothing that Artur won the Leeds Piano Competition.

Wednesday 24th and it’s the turn of Alexandre Tharaud, who hits the Wigmore with a programme of Couperin, Scarlatti and, yes, Chopin. I’ve just given his latest CD of Chopin, subtitled ‘Journal intime’ (his, not Chopin’s), a rave review in BBC Music Magazine. I’ve adored his playing on CD for several years, but one way or another this is my first chance to hear him in concert and I’m seriously excited about it. He’s a musician for whom silence is as golden as sound. 

Just time to catch one’s breath before the next Southbank birthday gig: Monday 1 March and it’s Maurizio Pollini! He is playing, among other things, the 24 Preludes and the Op.25 Etudes – tasks that in the same programme would daunt many musicians decades younger. Pollini, who must be pushing 70, has surprised us all by loosening up recently. I’ve always revered him for his integrity, his humility to the composer and his social and musical idealism, but there are those who feel that this didn’t translate into the most personal performances in the world. That was kind of the point, of course, but in recent years his recitals and recordings have shown a new side of him. As if he’s willing, now, to let the sunshine in, relax and enjoy the music. Am anticipating this with much enthusiasm.

And last but not least, and it’s NOT Chopin: Menahem Pressler joins the Emerson Quartet at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 2 March to play the Dvorak Piano Quintet. Pressler is 86, but told me on the phone the other day that since the demise of his beloved Beaux Arts Trio he has been busier than ever. As well as a full schedule of teaching at Bloomington, he’s doing solo recitals, a whole new chamber music stint, masterclasses, you name it. (My full interview with him will be in the JC & I’ll post the link as and when.) The joie de vivre in Pressler’s playing has always been second to none and I’d like to think that it’s music that has kept him young and unstoppable. We should all be so lucky.

I thought I might escape the March of the Pianists after that as I am heading to New York, but indeed not: a certain Mr Andras Schiff is giving a recital at Avery Fisher Hall while I am there. He’s homing in on this year’s other big pianoy anniversary: Schumann. And Mendelssohn too. And we can’t miss that!

I’ve said it once and will say it again: we should all be so lucky. What a feast. What a celebration of great music and musicianship. It’s a privilege to be in the midst of all this amazing artistry, and we shouldn’t forget it. But sometimes you just have to surrender to the flow, relax and enjoy… Excuse me while I pack my thermals and my thermos and prepare to pitch my piano camp.

Above, to complete the preview, is a taster from Krystian. We’ve had the 2nd and 3rd Chopin Ballades from him on the blog already, so today it’s the turn of No.1…

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