A floating barge located under the Brooklyn Bridge, Bargemusic constitutes an unlikely chamber music venue, where musicians play on a narrow stage with the backdrop of the River and Manhattan skyline, offering a small audience an intimate and unusual experience. On Sunday March 5th, the pianist Jeffrey Swann, along with the Semplice Players, a newly founded String Quartet, performed Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) Quartettsatz in C Minor, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-1791) Piano Concerto No.12 in 1 Major, K414, David Shohl’s (1964-) Semplice and Frédéric Chopin’s (1810-1849) Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 11. Leading the ensemble through the concert, Swann introduced each piece by narrating how the composers had originally imagined them. Interweaving classical and romantic pieces and alternating back to back string quartet and piano concerto compositions, the program displayed an overall ternary architecture. After an introduction in minor (Schubert’s Quartettsatz) came a long development featuring a piece in major (Mozart’s Concerto No.12) and a somewhat unexpected element (Shohl’s Semplice), followed by a conclusion in minor (Chopin’s Concerto No. 1), leaving the audience with a proper sense of closure. As the musicians played the last piece, the night had come and the current of the river had calmed down. This interpretation of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 transformed a piece initially conceived to exhibit the virtuosity of a piano soloist into a rather responsorial performance based on an equal dynamic between the musicians, in which the string quartet does not merely accompany but truly engages with the pianist. This dialog does not only happen on stage, but also includes the audience, which plays an active part in the concert.
To contrast with Swann and the Semplice Quartet’s live performance of the piece, Martha Argerich’s recorded rendering of the concerto offers a well-known example of a piano-led interpretation of the composition. Performed in Warsaw on August 27th 2010 with Jacek Kaspszyk conducting the Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra, Martha Argerich’s performance exhibits what Swann recalled when he introduced the piece at Bargemusic; namely that Frédéric Chopin was first and foremost a pianist player and composer. Considered along with Franz Liszt as the father of modern piano technique, Chopin explored through his work the possibilities offered by the piano repertoire and influenced generations of composers. Between March and August 1830, Chopin composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in E Minor “as [a] showcase for a traveling virtuoso; [featuring] a piano writing of such imagination and beauty that […] the music only comes to life with the entrance of the piano,” argues the critic Phillip Huscher. When Chopin arrived in Paris in September 1831, he adapted the orchestral version of the piece for a smaller ensemble, featuring only the pianist and a string quartet. It is within this narrower and more intimate setting that he continued to play this concerto until his death. By contrast, Chopin’s posterity was to privilege the orchestral version of the piece, in which the strings shared the accompaniment role with two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, a trombone, a timpani and strings. Yet in both versions of the piece, the leading role of the piano seems indisputable. To this regard, Bargemusic’s performance provided the audience with a renewed rendering of each movement of the concerto.
Swann and the Semplice Quartet’s interpretation of the piece remained faithful to the ternary architecture of the original piano concerto: after the opening Allegro Maestoso in a sonata form followed the slower, freer and more melancholic Romanze – Larghetto and eventually the fast and tuneful Rondo – Vivace. The first movement of the concerto is comprised of three themes. In Warsaw’s performance, the orchestra introduces those three themes crescendo, as to prepare the audience for the entry of the piano, thereby creating an expectation towards the development. By contrast, during Bargemusic’s concert, the introduction of the sonata by the String Quartet lasted longer, sounding rather like an autonomous part of the piece. From the outset, the Strings embraced the three themes which they played forte, and thus the entrance of the piano seemed somewhat unexpected. While in Martha Argerich’s performance, the development constitutes the emotional climax of the first movement, Swann offered a softer and more suspended interpretation of the development. This way, Martha Argerich’s breathtaking and virtuosic narration of the themes simultaneously captivates and intimidates the audience while eclipsing the orchestra, whereas Swann’s played the development with restraint and incorporated an ongoing dialog with the strings. This softer interpretation, combined with the intimate floating stage of Bargemusic, blurred the limit between the audience and the performers. As the strings played the movement’s recapitulation in which the second theme is presented in major, the entire audience was physically swinging along with the music, taking an active part in the performance – or “musicking,” as defined by Christopher Small. By contrast Martha Argerich’s leaves the audience stunned by her virtuosic technique, yet it does not seem to experience the same level of intimacy and engagement with the musicians.
In a letter to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski, Chopin wrote that the second movement of the concerto was “not meant to create a powerful effect,” but rather to “give the impression of someone looking gently towards a spot that calls to mind a thousand happy memories […] a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening. Martha Argerich and the the Sinfonia Varsovia Orchestra’s interpretation of this programmatic piece conveys Chopin’s project to compose a calm and melancholic movement, proper to inner exploration. Argerich plays a clear conjunct and wave-like melodic line while the orchestra features a soft backdrop supporting the pianist. The homophonic texture of the development features numerous piano solos, in which Argerich does not only perform the themes, but also becomes the narrative backbone and raison d’être of the Romanze. This is notably reflected by how the conductor makes eye contacts with her at the beginning of the movement, as if the entire orchestral introduction was nothing but a mere support for Argerich. (22:00) During the development, she conveys through her playing and facial postures a scope of emotions that illustrates one of the main characteristic of the Romantic era during which the composition was written: to use art as a vector of intimate expression. The experience of the audience is thus primarily that of Argerich, as it engages with the music through her narrative. The spectators might in turn, by mimicry, seize the development to explore their own feelings, which makes this concert experience first and foremost an individual one.
By contrast, during Bargemusic performance, the pianist and the strings engage directly with one another, exchanging themes more freely, notably by making direct eye contacts with one another, and the absence of the conductor reinforced this dynamic. The texture of the movement was rather polyphonic than homophonic, the distribution between the parts more even, and musicians played more on the same volume. The movements of the floating stage of Bargemusic were quite never identical, which means that the performance incorporated a significant part of improvisation. The oscillations of the scene particularly impacted the nature of the rhythm. As they played, musicians adapted the meter to the swings of the venue. The beat became less predictable and the melody flowed more freely and spontaneously than in the Warsaw’s performance. Physically, the performers were seated in an opened circle, blurring the distinction between the piano and the quartet, the players and the audience, and the members of the audience. Increasingly through the movement, people started to hold hands, to touch and hug each other. The musicians mirrored those emotional responses by modulating the melody flow and the rhythm accordingly.
The last movement of the composition, a Rondo in minor, was inspired by the Krakowiak, a Polish dance in duple time, featuring strong harmonic contrasts and syncopated rhythms. Martha Argerich performance, which noticeably took place in Poland, emphasizes those consonant harmonies by playing the disjunct melody staccato. As remarked by critic Phillip Huscher: “This jolt of harmonic drama illustrates [how] Chopin […] is drawn to ‘end-weighting’ his musical structures, saving harmonic contrast to surprise listeners near the end of his pieces.” By contrast, the legato play of Swann combined with the softer timbre of the strings Quartet offered the audience of Bargemusic a smoother, more conjunct interpretation of this movement in minor tonality. It seemed that the lighting of the space, bathed in the progressive sunset of that Saturday afternoon, further contributed to soften the tensions of the movement. Eventually, this suspended interpretation of the Rondo closed both the piece and the entire concert on a quite aerial note, as opposed to the fortissimo closing of Warsaw’s performance.
Ultimately, the centrality of the pianist in the 2010 interpretation of the concerto can be compared to the Romantic emphasis on the exceptionality and the individuality of the composer. Back in 1830, the soloist of the concerto was no one but Chopin himself, and during Warsaw’s performance, the conductor similarly structured the movements around the singular experience of the pianist. To this regard, Bargemusic provided the audience with a significantly original rendering of the piece, featuring a polyphonic texture and a more even distribution of the parts. This different dynamic, reinforced by the floating stage and the lighting of the venue, created a much more inclusive performance. Last Saturday, the spectators truly musicked, engaging with both the musicians and each other, and experienced a particularly powerful, evocating and moving rendering of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E. Minor.
© RCS, March 2017