Chopin Unwrapped The Gambler
There had a been a few observances already, including a scholarly forum in the Purcell Room; but Chopin Year (two centuries since his birth if you haven’t done the arithmetic yet) began well and truly last week at Kings Place, London, where the pianist Martino Tirimo launched Chopin Unwrapped – his marathon series of the complete works that comes in three instalments (the next in March and June) and amounts to an exploration more thorough than anyone has ever made before. Or so Tirimo believes.
Chopin is a composer we tend to dip into, expecting rather small-scale music. For the salon. But although it’s true that every single piece he wrote involves the piano, it isn’t just the piano. There are songs, concertos, chamber works. And even the solo piano scores sometimes function on a large-ish canvas. The Ballades are individually as big as an average movement from a Beethoven piano sonata. It’s not all raindrop preludes.
So this series promises to challenge prejudices and open ears. And it started by opening my ears to an extraordinary little Polonaise I’d never taken in before, written by Chopin when he was all of seven. I don’t say it’s a great piece: it’s emotionally childlike, but not without harmonic sophistication. And the bizarre thing is that most of the core ingredients of a Chopin solo piano work are there: the joint debt to Italian bel canto opera and Polish folkdance, the chromatic colouring, the rhythmic sensitivity.
The only real difference is that at this infant stage of development his debts are more to Beethoven than to his later role models of Bach and Mozart. And the Bach-Mozart connection is very much at the heart of how modern pianists approach the Chopin repertoire. We hear him as a reluctant Romantic, a radical classicist. And modern performances tend, accordingly, toward clarity and brightness rather than soulful wallowing.
Tirimo doesn’t wallow. But he does present an older-fashioned route to the composer: dreamlike, with a velvetpadded, feline stealth, out of which sharper images emerge with startling immediacy and rhythmic freedom (of which he allows himself a lot).
But there’s no denying the poetry of Tirimo’s readings, or the beauty, or the magic. There are times when he lacks definition in fast passage-work, blurring detail and (like a singer who suppresses consonants) spinning long, beguiling phrases at the sacrifice of specificity.
But the tenderness, the warmth, the soft glow is a joy. It’s old man’s Chopin, low on firing power but high in wisdom and reflectiveness. And at its best you feel he loves this music into being. Which is nothing to complain about.
Complaints fall thick and fast, though, on the new Richard Jones production of Prokofiev’s The Gambler limping along at Covent Garden. The earliest of the composer’s big surviving operas, this was its first time at the Garden; and one just hopes that it is Dostoevskian narrative of greed, obsession and destruction in the great casino of life sent telling messages to the Royal Opera’s banking clientele. David Pountney’s translation (it was sung in English) threw in the odd joke about Goldman Sachs, so they should have recognised themselves.
But otherwise, this was a show that belonged at ENO, who would have done it better and with more panache. As it was, the jokes fell flat. There was no energy. And apart from seasoned performances from John Tomlinson and the ever-wonderful Susan Bickley (plus a couple of promising little cameos from young artists) the singing ranged from undistinguished to raucous, with one role taken by a voice so ugly and so off the note you had to wonder what the Garden’s casting policy can be these days.
Antonio Pappano’s conducting struggled to retrieve some credibility, but the orchestral sound was boxy, dry and disengaged. At the end of the day, a flop is a flop. Not much you can do about it.