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Concert review

Frost Chopin Festival opens with three artists, Szymanowski premiere

Mon Jun 10, 2024 at 1:39 pm

By Lawrence Budmen

Jiana Peng premiered a new keyboard arrangement of Szymanowski’s ballet Harnasie Sunday at the Frost Chopin Festival. Photo: Inesa Gegprifti

Karol Szymanowski was one of the distinctive creative voices of the late 19th and early 20th century. A new version of a rarely heard work by the Polish composer shared space at the opening concert of the Frost Chopin Festival on Sunday afternoon with the event’s namesake. No less than three exceptional artists graced the stage of the University of Miami’s Gusman Concert Hall.

Szymanowski was Poland’s most important composer after Chopin. While Debussy, Bartók and Stravinsky clearly influenced his work, Szymanowski’s music cannot be mistaken for the work of any other composer.

His 1935 ballet Harnasie is a fairy tale about a girl who falls in love with a bandit. Her wedding in an arranged marriage is disrupted when the bandit and his followers attack, abduct the heroine and take her to their mountain abode where the couple will live happily ever after. 

A new piano transcription of the complete ballet music by composer-pianist Konrad Binienda was premiered at the festival concert by pianist Jiana Peng. The harmonic ambiguity of the opening tableaux “Driving the Sheep” immediately casts a spell. Spiky rhythmic folk dances and modernist romanticism sweep through the over thirty-minute opus. Szymanowski could spin a beautiful, atmospheric melody for the “Capping the Bride” sequence and the portrait of the mountains in the epilogue resounds with epic sweep. This masterful score is an important opus by a composer whose impressive output demands more frequent performances.

Binienda’s transcription is a knuckle-busting pianistic tour de force worthy of Prokofiev and Peng was fully equal to its demands. A graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Oberlin Conservatory and the Frost School (where she received her Doctorate degree), Peng participated in the 2021 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Her technique is spectacular. Speed, agility and beauty of tone were equally present in her traversal.

The concert’s second half spotlighted the husband and wife team of Ukrainian violinist Michael Vaiman and Latvian pianist Dina Yoffe. The second prize winner of the 1975 Warsaw competition (in which Krystian Zimerman took top honors), Yoffe is a patrician Chopin player. Nearly five decades since her competition triumph, Yoffe’s dexterity and deep fluidity with the Polish master’s idiom remain intact. 

Violinist Michael Viaman and pianist Dina Yoffe performed Sunday. Photo: Michal Cieslik

The rapid-fire figurations of Chopin’s Fantaisie in F minor were articulated with total accuracy. The music seemed to proceed beneath her fingers with a sense of inevitability, with vivid dance impulses. In introducing Yoffe, festival director Kevin Kenner said she was an artist who possessed “a unique tone” and her reading of Three Mazurkas, Op. 59 produced pearly and luxuriant colors from the Steinway while giving full weight to the dances’ nationalistic imprint. At once fleet and elegant, Yoffe’s Chopin playing was distinguished and memorable.

Vaiman studied at the Moscow Conservatory with legendary Russian violinist David Oistrakh. He played his own transcription of Chopin’s Cello Sonata. Unlike some attempts to transfer pieces written for one instrument to another, Vaiman’s transcription works astonishingly well. To be sure, the dark tonal sheen of the cello is missing but the melodic writing sits well on the instrument. 

Vaiman’s bowing  remains fleet and sure. He embellished the secondary subject of the initial Allegro moderato with an almost heart-on-sleeve romantic glow. With Yoffe totally in sync with her partner, the tempestuous mood swings of the first movement were strongly brought forth. The Scherzo was rendered with grace and the long melody of the central episode was deftly balanced and proportioned. 

The Largo brings one of Chopin’s most meltingly beautiful themes. Vaiman’s sweetness of sound and Yoffe’s full-bodied expressiveness did full justice to this burst of inspired song. The drama and relentless momentum of the finale emerged with technical aplomb and polished musicianship, the fireworks of the coda taken at full throttle.

Vaiman and Yoffe offered two contrasting encores. Astor Piazzolla’s Tango en La had more than a hint of gypsy fiddling from Vaiman and Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk’s Melody, a frequent concert epilogue since Russia attacked Ukraine, was voiced with ravishing tone in Vaiman’s soaring version.

The Frost Chopin Festival continues with pianist Wojciech Šwitala playing Chopin’s Mazurkas, Op. 24, Polonaises, Op.26. Nocturnes, Op. 62 and Barcarolle in F-sharp Major  7 p.m. Tuesday at UM Newman Recital Hall. piano.frost.miami.edu

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