"Chopin was proud, passionate, tormented and very manly." So Ingrid Bergman tells us in the film Autumn Sonata. Without doubt one of the hardest composers to interpret, the conventional image of Chopin has his music balanced precariously between extremes. Traditionally, the performer is faced with the challenge of playing his music with restraint but not indifference, with nobility but not pomposity, with virtuosity but not showmanship, with delicacy but not fussiness and, most infamously, with sentiment but not sentimentality. Polina Leschenko gave a convincing rendering of his second piano concerto that seemed to undermine some of these conventions.
Perhaps Chopin’s stylistic individuality came partly from his exclusive focus on the piano, for which he wrote almost all his music. His isolated position among composers has led some pianists to avoid him completely. Alfred Brendel was one of them: he described Chopin as too specialised, technically as well as stylistically. Yet Leschenko disagreed, her performance seemed to borrow ideas from a wide range of composers. Most prominent was the robust way in which she attacked the lower register, bringing to mind Beethoven. Yet there were moments of Mozartian clarity, Schumannesque poignancy and even Prokofiev-like vigour. In the third movement, her energetic handling of the folk rhythms brought to mind later Eastern European composers such as Smetana. How refreshing it was to hear a pianist not shy away from the coarse in Chopin.
The one element I felt lacking in her playing was the aristocratic dignity so often associated with Chopin. However, the habit of equating musical style with personality (as in the Bergman quote) is difficult to defend. The cocktail of biographical anecdote, artistic depiction and performance convention that mythologize a composer often narrow our potential for understanding. Leschenko broke through some of these boundaries with her playing and gave a fresh insight into the piece.
Not that she wasn’t limited in some respects. It was easy to feel that her occasionally tempestuous playing was merely a Russian imposition. This may have been partly due to the piano, whose 9ft steely growl is far from the sound of the instruments Chopin himself played. It seemed to take her most of the first movement to settle into the piece, or perhaps for us to settle into her way of playing. In this movement her approach gave a rather fragmented impression, losing out on some of its long phrases and delayed climaxes. By the second movement she found her poise, apparent from her body language as well as the greater colour in her sound.
Interesting to see was the approach Leschenko and Swensen took to the weaknesses of the piece. Written at the age of only 19 and actually Chopin’s first piano concerto, the piece lacks the cohesiveness of some other Romantic concertos and contains moments of frank clumsiness in the orchestral writing. The performers’ response was to leave the problems in full view without trying to cover them up. Chopin’s music has been presented as merely golden too many times already.