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Istanbul Recitals 2009 - Chopin: Iddo Bar-Shai (piano) MKM Mustafa Kemal Center, Istanbul 14.10.2009 (AM)

Nocturne in F Sharp Minor, Op.48 No.2
Mazurka in A Minor, Op.68 No.2
Mazurka in A Minor, Op.67 No.4
Mazurka in G Sharp Minor, Op.33 No.1
Mazurka in D Major, Op.33 No.2
Mazurka in B Minor, Op.33 No.4
Mazurka in F minor, Op.63 No.2
Mazurka in F Minor, Op.68 No.4
Polonnaise Fantasie in A Flat Major, Op.61
4 Mazurkas, Op.17
Sonata No.2 in B Flat Minor, Op.35
Waltz in E Minor (1830)
Grande Valse Brilliante in D Flat Major, Op.18

‘Istanbul Recitals’ is a young and ambitious organization that provides a much welcomed concert schedule for the piano hungry music lovers in Istanbul. In its mere two years of existence, the organization has managed to attract such acclaimed pianists as Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Dejan Lasic, Cristina Ortiz, Stephen Hough, John O’Connor and many more. Their third season which coincides with the International Chopin Year, promises to continue their showcase of talented and renowned pianists, the first of whom was featured this evening: the young Israeli Iddo Bar-Shai, winner of the 1998 Tel-Aviv Chopin Competition.

The recital opener was an unorthodox choice. Chopin's Nocturne in F Sharp Minor is the lesser known sibling of the Op.48 pairing. It has been invariably overshadowed by the majestic and ballade-esque C Minor in both live performances and recordings. The F Sharp Minor, however, with its understated melancholy can be devastating in the right hands. The opening chords which pave the way for the haunting melody line must convey the solemn mood right from the start. When Mr. Bar-Shai, after a brief period of meditation in front of the piano, reached to play the intro I had my doubts whether the Yamaha Grand on stage could oblige with the crucial inner voices of this piece. The main theme started with just the right amount of rubato. The arpeggios of the left hand in this piece are seldom played as individual notes in equal time, although they are written that way. The  homologous approach that is commonly employed does not only help the synchronicity with the main melody, but it also deters the pianist from over - compensating with the rubato. Mr. Bar-Shai's hand coordination was very suited in that regard. My only reservation with his performance of the piece might be his scant use of legato : with a Yamaha Grand especially, which tends to augment each tone, joining up notes takes on a more important role than usual. The central recitative section with its complete change of mood - not to mention the meter - is where Iddo Bar-Shai started to show his strong sense of rhythm and provides the audience with high expectations for the Mazurkaselection that was next on the program.

The first mazurka to be played was the A Minor Op.68, No.2. Musically stern and decorated with ornaments galore, this piece benefitted from Mr. Bar-Shai's highly developed sense of rhythm, particularly in the homophonic middle section. The next mazurka was in the same key  - A minor, Op.67 no.4 – but this time deliberately played with utmost subtlety and so missing some of the interplays between harmonies.

The Mazurka in G Sharp Minor, Op.33 No.1 (along with Op.68 No4. which will be featured shortly) has suffered a lot throughout its many incarnations due to slow interpretations. Luckily for the audience this evening, Mr. Bar-Shai played this heart warming piece at just the right tempo which allowed the dance tunes to be prominently heard, while at the same time not overly dramatising the heavier phrases. The next in line was the second mazurka of the Op.33 series,  the joyful D Major. Except for a few missed notes during the faster passages which made me begin to wonder whether the key action of the instrument was harder than what Mr. Bar-Shai might be used to (an assumption reinforced later in the recital) this uplifting work brought in a much needed breathing space after a string of minor key pieces. The lyrical Mazurka in B Minor Op.33, No.4 mazurka is unique in the sense that Chopin’s contrasting theme to the main one,  is heavy and offers no solace;  contrary to the technique he uses in his minor key mazurkas. A hopeful B major theme appears only briefly and is used simply as a vehicle to allow a return to the opening theme. In this interesting piece, we found a young pianist who successfully built the tension and did not give the major theme more than its due, a fallacy we see happen many times in various recordings of this work.

The final two mazurkas Mr. Bar-Shai  selected for this part of the recital were from the more mature Opus Numbers.  The F Minor, Op.33 No.2 –a melancholic lyrical piece which the pianist performed with utmost sincerity and clarity and the final mazurka that Chopin wrote, The F Minor, Op.68 No.4 which may be the most sophisticated among the sixty plus total with the possible exception of Op.30, No.4 which was unfortunately absent from this evening’s program. The F Minor is full of chromaticism and sudden jumps in mood from minor to major and vice versa. Keeping in mind that this is, after all, a type of dance music, the challenges for the pianist here are manifold. First, there must be a sense of continuity in the piece, even in those chromatic passages which take the listener from one mood to the next. Iddo Bar-Shai’s performance in this regard is to be complimented. He paid more attention to legato than getting all the ornaments and nuances absolutely correct: this is not a technically challenging piece, and conveying the overall mood is much more difficult than staying true to the written music. The second -and perhaps more important- challenge is to keep the mazurka in time all along. I have heard very few pianists in this piece who seem actually aware that they are playing a mazurka. Instead they often tend to disappear inside the sullenness of this great work, overplaying its emotional content. Mr. Bar-Shai, although he did not lose the dance rhythm completely, sounded at times  as if he was over-taken by the lyricism of the numerous cadences. With the Op.68 F Minor the first mazurka section was over and  it was time for more complicated works.

The next piece of the evening was arguably Chopin’s least understood work, the Polonaise-Fantasie in A Flat Major, Op.61. Since the work has the characteristics of both the Ballades and Polonaises, there must be a working towards a climax while keeping the dance form intact throughout. Mr. Bar-Shai’s approach to the piece accentuated the work’s Fantasie aspect. Technically there were very few problems -and none in the difficult to execute double trills in the cadenza following the Lento section. Op.61, at the same time, is highly contrapuntal. Iddo Bar-Shai’s hand coordination managed to bring out the simultaneous voices and harmonies almost effortlessly. The Polonaise-Fantasie brought the first part of the recital to a close.

The second half commenced with the four mazurkas from  Op.17 which feature a younger Chopin than we had heard so far this evening: a Chopin using simpler ternary dance forms. The youthful exuberance of the first mazurka in B Flat Major and the longing theme of the second in E Minor in direct contrast,  would have created a magical effect under the pianist’s able hands if only the audience had not clapped between the two. The third mazurka in this Opus is the playful A Flat Major. The appoggiaturas that bolster the dance melodies were played with great mastery. The final mazurka of the set and also of the evening was the A Minor –a favorite among many pianists, most notably Horowitz. This piece is centered around a main, singing melody line accented with many ornaments and chromatic moves in between sections. Mr. Bar-Shai’s touch was most tender during the delicate melodies but strong and willful in the middle section with its country dance harmonies characterized by inquiries of the right hand that are answered by the left. The ethereal ending where the haunting melody is left hanging was realized to full effect by the young pianist’s graceful return to his softer touch.

The second part of this half featured the monumental warhorse, Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata In B-Flat Minor, Op.35. This was the only large scope work on the program and Mr. Bar-Shai’s performance of the first movement proved that he was ready to take on the challenge. The sustaining pedal was liberally used during certain faster passages which blurred some of the important phrases, but the overall rendition was satisfactory. Unfortunately, more unwelcome in-between movement applause kept us from enjoying the continuity into the Scherzo. Iddo Bar-Shai, by now having reached the athleticism necessary to go successfully  through the gruelling technical requirements of the sonata, hurried the first theme of the Scherzo a little, but then regained his composure by holding back in the lyrical trio section. The Funeral March, as its character dictates, must be driven by a steady rhythm. Bar-Shai seemed at times to delay certain passages for dramatic effect which I found distracting. The linear toccata-like final movement which the pianist took on immediately after the last note of the march, mesmerized the crowd and pulled well deserved loud applause from the audience.

The final section of the recital was devoted to two of Chopin’s finest Waltzes. Mr. Bar-Shai played the WoO E Minor one first. This waltz, written in 1830, is almost an etude in its furious runs through the keyboard making its pace very difficult to sustain. Mr. Bar-Shai glided through the first section –although not without any problems and  I again suspect the hard key action of the instrument for the missing notes here. The middle section of this piece emerges as a gracious dance melody only to be abruptly interrupted and returned to the stormy initial theme which the young pianist handled with more vigor this time. The second waltz to be featured was the gallant Grande Valse Brillante in D Major, Op.18. With its extremely fast repeated notes, which I reckon must be very demanding especially when played on a Yamaha Grand, was executed brilliantly from start to finish. This final work of the evening gave Mr. Bar-Shai the opportunity to display his technical prowess which did not disappoint.

The recital came to a close with the Adagio from Haydn’s Piano Sonata in D, Hob.XVI:24 played as an encore. Mr. Bar-Shai’s control and restraint in this delightful movement should be good enough to prompt Haydn enthusiasts to search out his recent Haydn release.

The next event in the ‘Istanbul Recitals’ series will not feature Chopin:it is going to be perfromed by Paul Galbraith on 8-string guitar featuring the works of Bach, Berkeley, Ponce as well as a Haydn Piano Sonata transcription.

Alain Matalon


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