Frédéric Chopin: Balade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23
Frédéric Chopin: Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 31
Patrick Zygmanowski: Piano
The end of August is truly an even more fantastic time than usual to be in Aix-en-Provence, with heat and tourists blissfully—not quite rapidly enough though, if you ask me—receding and, maybe best of all, the Musique dans la rue (Music in the Streets) festival happening with multiple free 30-minute concerts performed by professors of the local conservatoire and other equally qualified musicians popping up all over town every evening for eight straight days. Seriously, what’s not to love?
After attending more or less randomly four fabulous concerts featuring respectively Mendelssohn, Brahms, Borodin and Schumann, I decided that Frédéric Chopin would be the guy I would spend quality time with on Friday evening, still at the Chapelle des Oblats’ reliable cloister, which has slowly, but surely, and kind of oddly, been becoming my regular hang-out those past few evenings.
The perspective was all the more exciting since three of his biggest hits would be played by one of the biggest (and probably the most complicated) names of the festival in Patrick Zygmanowski, a French pianist in high demand all over the world as well as a regular professor at the Conservatoire d’Aix-en-Provence and… in Japan (Sure sounds like a hell of a commute!). As expected, the line formed earlier and grew faster than usual at the top of cours Mirabeau, but we all knew it would be worth the wait.
Our wait was richly rewarded indeed, first with Chopin’s enduringly popular Fantaisie-Impromptu, a gift to the lucky Baroness d’Este that he had decided not to publish. Although it was eventually published posthumously and, it must be said, against his wishes, it would be a damn shame if the rest of us weren’t able to enjoy it as well. Highly melodic and irrepressibly bubbly, it typically sounds just like the spontaneous and spirited ode to freedom that its name suggests. And the effortlessly virtuosic reading of it by Zygmanowski, as we were all basking in the glow of the Provençal golden hour, made it sparkle even brighter.
Then we switched to a more introspective mood with the Ballade No. 1, which he dedicated to Baron Nathaniel von Stockhausen. A favorite of Robert Schumann and of the composer himself, it has also found a secure spot in popular culture, most notably in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, as well as in concert halls all over the world. On Thursday evening, in our comfy outdoor space, Zygmanowski immediately struck the right balance between grandeur and refinement in its well-paced, open lyrical, beautifully nuanced performance.
To wrap up this Romantic interlude on an upbeat note, we moved on to the all-around Scherzo No. 2, which Chopin dedicated to Countess Adèle Fürstenstein (The man clearly knew people in high places!). Its famously dramatic, highly contrasted opening holds many promises of creativity and entertainment, and sure enough, they were all gloriously kept by Zygmanowski as he gave Chopin’s most celebrated scherzo the big, bold and colorful life it was written for. Even better, he also knew how to let go of all the infectious impetuosity to make way for the more delicate moments of pure poetry before having some rambunctious fun again. Who said that Chopin was the subdued type?