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Chopin: Cristina Ortiz (piano), “Istanbul Recitals” at MKM Mustafa Kemal Center, Istanbul 12. 5.2010 (AM)

Scherzo No. 1 in B Minor, Op. 20;
Ballade No.2 in F Major, Op. 38;
Scherzo No. 3 in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 39;
Ballade No.4 in F Minor, Op. 52;
Ballade No 1 in G Minor, Op. 23;
Scherzo No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 31;
Ballade No. 3 in A-Flat Major, Op. 47;
Scherzo No. 4 in E, Op. 54.

Cristina Ortiz’s self-christened Scherlades is a programme we are accustomed to seeing at the back of a CD. The four Ballades and the four Scherzi are a preferred match for recordings: they complement each other both thematically and temperamentally –the reason why many pianists put them together on CDs and most Chopin collections feature them on the same volume. Collectively, they represent the comparatively bigger scale, more serious Chopin with hardly any respites, let alone dance elements. The repertoire is arduous, but luckily recordings take multiple days and sessions to complete. When ballades and scherzi do appear in concerts they are generally interspersed with contrasting, lighter pieces. Occasionally, a recital features one genre as a full set (an already a difficult task), but attempting to play all eight consecutively in one evening is downright daunting (and a likely recipe for failure). The stamina -not to mention the nerves, required to successfully pull off this line-up is enormous. Nevertheless, if the pianist is up to the challenge I am ready to be at the edge of my seat and enjoy.

When Ms. Ortiz walked on the stage and greeted the audience to a warm welcome, she seemed to be troubled by the lighting. She sat down at the piano, but the spots were clearly bothering her. So she got up and walked back to the wing to communicate her discontentment. When she came back, noticing that no apparent changes were employed, she motioned the technical crew to light up the whole theatre. This time they obeyed and the audience, just like the performer, was suddenly out in the open. I am mentioning this only because it might have been the catalyst for the palpable uneasiness that was felt in the hall throughout the evening.

The two fortissimo chords that open the Op. 20 B-minor Scherzo are there to prepare us for what is to come and puts the listener in a state of high alert. But, we, the audience here this evening, were almost relieved to hear those sustained chords break the uncomfortable silence in the auditorium. Ms. Ortiz took the livid B-minor runs with relative ease and held a close grip on the music until the interval in B-major. The middle section is one of Chopin’s foremost arrays into polyphonic writing. The pianist masterfully showcased the simultaneous musical ideas before tightening the grip once again with the re-entrance of those agonized opening chords. The reprise had more fury and drama than the first time and the coda was executed straightforwardly. For those of us who never got the chance to see Horowitz’s octav-ing up of the chromatic scale near the end, there is always the anticipation to witness a pianist endeavour that neat trick. Which, of course, didn’t come.

Neither did the applause at the end of the piece. It was the second in a series of odd moments for both the audience and the pianist. With a themed program shuttling between a ballade and a scherzo, the audience -including myself, was not sure whether the two halves of the program were being presented as two large chunks or as every piece on its own. The confusion must have led to a hesitance. For her part, Ms. Ortiz was obviously taken back by the lack of spontaneous applause. She turned to the audience to gesture why. When the well-deserved ovation finally arrived, she put on a dry smile and went back to business.

The idyllic opening of the second ballade was given a pensive treatment, and the sudden burst of the presto A-minor theme managed to irk me -as I believe it should. Throughout the ballade, Ms. Ortiz’s left hand mastery was in full swing. The majority of the action in this piece is carried out in the left hand: from the arpeggio melody lines against the right hand chords to the juxtaposed reprise of the initial theme. Granted, nothing the pianist can do is enough to absolve this ballade from its status as the least inspired of the four, Ms. Ortiz’s was extraordinarily well implemented on all accounts.

It is hard to grasp the C-Sharp Minor Scherzo as a stand-alone piece. From its opening that mimics the Liszt’s E-major concerto, to the middle march and the delayed recapitulation everything about the music is on a grander scale. Cristina Ortiz went through the main theme in the tonic rapidly, serving the octaves in their most thunderous form. She kept the frantic atmosphere without so much as a glitch, but then, just as easily, transformed the mood to that of an elegant march in an instant. She was stern in her dynamic control of the chords which yielded a prominent display of the march rhythm. Of special mention was the graceful execution of the falling notes echoing after each chordal sentence. When Ms. Ortiz delivered the exasperated coda to bring the piece to a glorious finish, I was ecstatic about the result, but also anxious about a possible fatigue going into the most demanding piece of the evening which was to follow.

The difficulties of the Op. 52, F-Minor ballade are plenty. Apart from the obvious technical obstacles, this piece demands a very subtle rubato in the many repetitions of its main theme. So far tonight, we had already seen and heard the abundance of Cristina Ortiz’s technical abilities and luckily, her rubato did not disappoint either. The longing theme was delivered with poetic sensibility in each of its multiple reincarnations. The faster sections, however, suffered -possibly from exhaustion after such a burdensome schedule. I am quite certain we would hear a much improved performance if this piece was played earlier in the program.

The second half of the evening started with Ballade No.1 in G-Minor. Ms. Ortiz who was invigorated after the much needed break performed this epitome of romantic music with great eloquence and attention to detail. Her technical dexterity was in top form particularly during the scales and octaves. The coda was roaring but a bit muddled, and the opposite chromatic octaves in the end were played more broken than the norm.

It should be noted here that Cristina Ortiz still had the uneasy air around her more than half way through the evening. She smiled to the audience in between the pieces, but I sensed as if she did not feel totally welcome, -which, if true, is a shame. Still, that aloofness did not seem to penetrate into her performance.

The second Scherzo, Op. 31 is an ideal continuation over from the G-minor Ballade. The brutal sotte voce opening sequence is like a brand new question after all the inquiries in the ballade have been answered. Cristina Ortiz was most serious throughout the piece. This approach worked perfectly with the initial theme, but the love song in the middle section could have used a little more humour. The two parts could not be further apart in temperament, but when the gravity of the outer sections spill into the trio the music comes out a little dry.

The last ballade on tonight’s program was the 3rd one in A-Flat Major. This predominantly elegant piece of music moves from charming to turbulent so gradually that we are not entirely sure how we get there. The ballade is considerably easier to play from a technical perspective, but the key to success lies in the gradual rise of intensity that should feel natural. Ms. Ortiz’s methodology lied with giving the piece some additional breathing room between the sections and overstating the element of surprise. That had so far worked very well in her favour, but in my opinion this music would be better served by keeping it more subtle.

The final piece of the evening was the Scherzo No.4 in E, Op. 54. This scherzo is arguably the least known of the set probably due to its unusual form and ethereal writing that does not offer any easily recognizable melody lines. With the tension running up all evening, it was a good choice to have programmed the evening to start off with the 1st Scherzo rather than the 1st ballade in which case the recital would have to close with the agitated F-Minor ballade rather than the calmer E-Major Scherzo.

Ms. Ortiz looked and sounded much more relaxed during this piece. She held her octaves just long enough to establish a foundation for the rising arpeggios in the initial segment. As the piece moved towards unfamiliar territory, her playing remained steadfast, and thus kept the continuity intact. The recapitulation which takes us right into the multi-octave scale was light-hearted which gave the evening a faintly glowing finale –so to speak.

One final testimony to the frail chemistry between the pianist and the audience was Cristina Ortiz leaving the stage in a hurry, denying us any encores (I was hoping for a Villa-Lobos miniature). All that was left for us to remember this evening by was the fine delivery of a rock-solid program and the bouquet of unclaimed flowers lying on the piano.

Alain Matalon

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