Ivan Moravec performs at Symphony Hall

By Christian Kraus

Ivan Moravec, piano

Schumann, Scenes from Childhood

Chopin, Fantasie in F minor, Ballade No 4

Brahms, Piano Pieces (Selection)

Debussy, Pour le Piano

Symphony Hall, November 24, 2002

Let me speak first of Frédéric Chopin’s Fourth Ballade in F minor. It is a complex, glorious, majestic, almost mythical piece. An entire novel has been written about it–Italian author Roberto Cotroneo’s Presto con fuoco–and it remains a cornerstone of romantic piano literature, one never exhaustible from interpretive attacks from all fronts. Interestingly enough, it is also a piece that makes use of some proto-cinematic techniques.

It begins with a few tender but full-voiced introductory bars. Those measures are already strange. The piece seems to have no definite beginning, it ushers itself into our world, as if its opening were the conclusion of things that came before. Chopin introduces his opening theme, a theme of elegiac nobility, made up of only a small number of motifs that are repeated, it seems, incessantly. Indeed, not only is the melodic shape of the theme circular, but the opening phrase itself is played again and again, with little alteration, always expressing the same sort of melancholy sentiment, until we wonder whether Chopin, so early in the piece, has run out of ideas.

It is the pianist’s task to explain the repetitiveness to us, rather than simply alleviating it by adding an extra nuance in articulation, rubato, or color here and there. For Ivan Moravec, the Ballade seems to tell a dialectical story in which the theme always looks ahead of itself, and attempts to break out of its inner cage. It becomes, in a way, a story of success. Chopin, after offering the theme twice with little ornamentation, then presents it in ever more varied form, adding counterpoint depth and majestic virtuosity. Moravec, in giving increasing dynamic emphasis to the third phrase of each thematic statement, bending the melodic lines beyond what is merited by the letter of the score, demonstrated how that increase in passion and energy is already contained within the seemingly unobtrusive first theme. The virtuoso outbreaks, then, were not just a otherworldly interruption by some deus ex machina, but a logical outflow of the musical development. Finally, in the recapitulation, the theme returns with the highly ornamented flourish of a Nocturne. All of its self-restraints seem to be a matter of the past as it creates into its own dream-world, offering us the inner life of its imagination in a glitteringly virtuoso sweep that then also takes hold of the second theme, bringing the piece to one of the most dramatic climaxes in all piano music, closing with a brutal cadence in C major. A few mystical pianissimo chords zoom us out of the drama, seating us in bird-perspective, from which we then watch the chaos return, in a closing statement with almost no thematic content, but unmatched anarchy and virtuosity.

Remarkably, Moravec’s interpretation of the Ballade has changed very little since he recorded the piece in the late 1960’s. If anything, he now seems to understand the Ballade to be more resigned and less belligerent, is less willing to follow its internal development and, in the recapitulation, is doubtful and restrained rather than fully willing to participate in its glorious sweep. In a way, his rendition at Symphony Hall seemed less consistent with his own original points.

His recital had begun with a deliciously played account of Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, again characterized by heavy, though tastefully applied, rubati; a very melodious and never over-sentimental account that did fine justice to the simplicity of the work. Chopin’s Fantasie, in Moravec’s hands, at times lacked stringent energy and visceral drive, but he made up for it by his musical sensitivity and a noble and warm rendition of the slow episode in the piece’s center.

If I was less enchanted with Moravec’s well-chosen selection of late Brahms’ piano pieces, it was because they seemed to lack gravity and the typical brand-name autumnal style that makes Brahms, Brahms. This was a lightweight account in commemoration of the late Walter Gieseking, that great old pianist, whom Moravec himself professes to have been deeply influenced by. While he drew out well the sonata structure in the famous G minor Rhapsody, he otherwise played Brahms, to my ears, too much like Chopin, indulging only the melodic top voices, thereby losing many of the cherished harmonies.

After a fine-tuned and virtuoso account of Debussy’s Pour le Piano, Moravec thanked the audience with three lovely encores, Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor (Op 68/2), a little Polka by Smetana, and finally the precious Serenade for the Doll from Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite. The audience returned the favor with moderate and temperately excited standing ovations. But in Chicago, where every artist receives this top honor, one may never be sure. It might just be that people rise from their seats to indicate that they now finally want to go home.