Paderewski Festival 2009 – Gala Concert

Hubert Rutkowski11-14-09

Pianist Hubert Rutkowski

The 2009 Paderewski Festival wound down to a spectacular finish last night as Polish pianist Hubert Rutkowski played a whale of a concert in the Grand Ballroom of the Paso Robles Inn. During this concert he served up to us a lot of unfamiliar music, all of it performed in the grand manner. In a sense this concert was a like a time warp back to the late 19th century. Today, we live in an Urtext generation where faithfulness to the printed score has become almost an obsession. Scholars earnestly debate about how most accurately to perform trills and ornaments, appoggiaturas and grace notes, slurs, lengths of rests, duration of staccato notes, when and where to permit tempo fluctuations, and a great variety of other minutiae, which, while important, can sometimes deflect us from what is truly important:  making music so compelling that we engage the hearts and minds of our listeners and move them emotionally.

This obsession with faithfulness to the score would certainly have surprised Franz Liszt, who probably seldom played anything exactly the same way twice.

There is a famous story, perhaps apocryphal, of Liszt rehearsing the Kreutzer Sonata with a violinist, and in each succeeding rehearsal adding in more personal touches so that finally he had interjected so many ornaments and small cadential passages that the violinist was infuriated. Chopin, too, might also be surprised with our obsession for playing the score exactly as he has composed it. As reported by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger (in his book “Chopin: Pianist and Teacher: As Seen by his Pupils”), while teaching his Nocturnes and Waltzes to his students, Chopin frequently composed alternate passages on the spot (some of them extraordinary departures from the published text) and immediately pasted them into the student’s copy.

Although Rutkowski didn’t add a lot of improvised embellishment or slip into the score his own cadential passages, he certainly did his share of altering dynamics and tempos many times during the evening. Although it sometimes seemed self indulgent, his playing was so authoritative and compelling that we found it easy to accept him on his own terms. It was immediately obvious that he was not trying to be the next Vladimir Horowitz or Artur Rubinstein, but rather the first Hubert Rutkowski, and in this he succeeded admirably and totally. Hubert Rutkowski is an original. What we heard during this recital was the grand style of Romantic playing that hearkened back to Anton Rubinstein and Busoni, but it was still uniquely Rutkowski.

The works most familiar to the audience were in the Chopin group at the beginning of the program. These pieces tended to employ significant amounts of rubato, which were sometimes exaggerated to the point that the forward motion almost came to a halt. Yet in the Mazurkas, Rutkowski’s rubato and altered dynamics were totally successful, especially in his lovely flexible treatment of the A minor Mazurka and his wonderfully mysterious performance of the last Mazurka in F minor, where his free rubato seemed so natural and inevitable.

A real treat for piano buffs was to hear some totally unfamiliar works by Julian Fontana. The gorgeous melodies and ornamental passages in the Fantasie brillante on Themes from Bellini’s La Sonnambula were lovingly spun out and created a lot of magic. In the La Havanne suite, we heard more aspects to Fontana’s personality, especially his first class virtuoso technique and his wicked sense of humor. Listening to the concluding work in this suite, Jota aragonesa, we heard some of the same material Liszt used in his Spanish RhapsodyRutkowski wowed us with an super exciting performance.

Examples of additional revelatory performances of neglected gems from the piano repertoire included a brilliant and witty performance of Gottschalk’s La Gitanella and a super performance of Paderewski’s Cracovienne fantastique. Rutkowski convinced us that this is a minor masterpiece from the pen of Paderewski and that it deserves more frequent performances.

The last big chunk of unfamiliar, unexplored (except by Rutkowski) repertoire was by Theodor Leschetizky. Not unsurprisingly, the first of these pieces, Ballad Venitienne, evoked the charm of the Venetian gondola (of course there were some devilishly tricky ornamental passages sandwiched in along the way). The Six Meditations that followed were full of surprises and lovely details evoking the world of late 19thcentury Vienna. The third piece in the suite, “Arrival of Spring” was so successful it sparked a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience. Most of these pieces require very advanced technique and refined musicianship of a high order, and Rutkowski brought out the best in each of them.

The concluding group by˜Leschetizky, Selections from Contes de jeunesse, are crowd pleasers, but more importantly, they are works of substance, and Rutkowski dazzled us with his virtuosity in Hommage à Czerny and charmed us with his suave performance of Hommage à Chopin (dedicated to Paderewski). Observing the audience during this recital, I noticed how attentive everybody seemed to be, and at its conclusion, the spontaneous standing ovation was prolonged until he gave us one beautiful encore, the Impromptu “Two larks” by Leschetizky.

The lovely Steinway concert grand, courtesy of Sherman Clay in San Jose, and used in this concert sounded magnificent. Superbly prepped by master technician Brian Alexander, the instrument had not even a drifting unison, in spite of the big powerful playing we had heard during the evening.

Joel Peterson extended thanks to many of the people who had worked so long and hard during the past twelve months preparing for this year’s festival. Marek Zebrowski added his thanks and promised that we have much to look forward to in next year’s festival. The gracious and attractive Joanna Kozaska-Frybes, Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Los Angeles evoked the image ofThe “Magnificent Seven,” although not the gunmen of Hollywood fame, but rather as a tribute to Joel Peterson, Marek Zebrowski, Steve Cass, Rachel Hamilton, Frank Meachem, Krysta Close and Gary Nemeth, as shakers and movers of the festival. She also paid tribute to the seven young performers we had heard earlier during the afternoon Winner’s Concert, and additionally the seven young musicians, both the Americans from California and the Polish students who together participated in the summer program in Poland.

As a last surprise, Madame Koziska-Frybes announced that today was Krysta Close’s birthday. Rutkowski hopped up on stage and led the audience in a chorus of Happy Birthday.Even his piano playing of this familiar tune was in the grand manner of the great pianists of the nineteenth century!


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