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Only five weeks ago, 19-year-old pianist Eric Guo was playing a nine-foot Steinway grand piano in Warsaw, Poland, in the first round of the 18th Chopin Competition. (A video of his Warsaw program is here.) While in Warsaw, he was recruited by Raleigh's Paderewski Festival artistic director Adam Wibrowski to play the third recital in this year's eighth annual event, bringing some of the Chopin repertoire in which he had been immersed for the Warsaw competition and also for the fifth Canadian Chopin competition in 2019, in which he took the second place prize. He had no idea, those five weeks ago, that he would play not one, but TWO full recitals in Raleigh, on two consecutive days, because the artist originally scheduled to play the fourth and closing recital had cancelled his appearance only seven days prior to the Festival's opening. Guo, who is young enough not to know how difficult it is to play two entirely different programs on consecutive afternoons, offered to save the day by filling in for the missing artist.
Guo's Saturday program was all Chopin: Scherzo in E, Op. 54; the Ballade in F minor, Op. 52; the Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante, Op. 22; the three Mazurkas of Op. 59; the Barcarolle, Op. 60; the Prelude in A, Op. 28/7; the Waltz in F, Op. 34/3; and the Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49.
Based on what we heard from the NC Art Museum's own nine-foot Steinway, it is hard to believe that Guo did not advance farther in the Warsaw competition. While it is true that any pianist who is allowed to enter that sporting event already has a better-than-average technique able to meet the most difficult pianistic demands of Chopin's music, Guo's playing went farther than technique. He played from inside the music, illuminating its inner voices. While his fingers flew furiously over the keys in bravura passages, they caressed gentle sounds from those same keys in the quiet introspective places. This was a musician at work, not just a technician. (The NCMA's piano, by the way, has never sounded as good as it sounds now under the skilled hands of piano whisperer Marc Weinert, who was tasked with assuring that the pianos for the Paderewski Festival concerts were in superb shape for the performers.)
Guo has absorbed Chopin's music into his artistic soul. His choice of the Scherzo in E to begin an all-Chopin program was wise, as this music contains so many of the elements of the composer's style that appear in the subsequent works. The right-hand chromatic flourishes, the left-hand fortissimo octaves, the melodies-with-accompaniment, the mood shifts – we would hear echoes of them as the afternoon proceeded. Guo's interpretation was perfect as he captured the improvisatory character of this Opus 54. The familiar fourth Ballade's most sonically-powerful passages found the pianist rising slightly from the bench to deliver more weight to the keys. This was not any kind of showmanship; Guo's demeanor at the keyboard was never exaggerated, but always related to the music.
The Andante spianato was played poetically ("spianato," an adjective used only once by Chopin, and rarely-if-ever by any other composer, means "smooth" or "even"), while the Grande polonaise brillante received an eponymously brilliant and scintillating performance. If Guo's tempo for the polonaise was on the fast side, that may have been his well-thought-out choice, or simply his youthful exuberance. His playing of the polonaise was a master-class lesson on how Chopin's concept of rubato should be realized.
The program's second half began with the three Op. 59 Mazurkas. I suggested to artistic director Wibrowski that Guo should be made an honorary citizen of Poland just because of how he played these most-Polish of all Chopin's works. Threading his way through the shifting key-centers and never allowing the ornamental roulades to disturb the rhythmic flow, Guo captured the folk-tune quality of the melodies and the strong third-beat accents (in dancing the traditional Mazurka, the third beat is often emphasized by a stomp of the dancer's heel on the floor).
The Barcarolle showcased Guo's sensitivity to the inner rhythms of Chopin's version of the stylized Venetian boat song, especially when the music expands beyond the limits of the canals and ventures into rapid waters. The quiet passages were exquisitely played, as Guo's ability to play sotto voce is one of his strongest attributes.
Then came the shortest and perhaps best known (at least to all piano students, to whom it is often assigned as their first acquaintance with Chopin): the Prelude in A. A small work, but it was played as the musical equivalent of a richly-ornamented page of a mediaeval breviary: perfection in miniature. This was followed by the Waltz in F, played a bit too fast to dance to, but delightful nonetheless.
The recital closed with an impassioned performance of the F minor Fantasy. Here is Chopin at his moodiest – a fantasy, indeed, the embodiment of pianistic Romanticism. Each section of the work was clearly delineated, receiving just the right interpretation, carrying the music to its curiously bi-polar conclusion. "Today I finished the Fantasy – and the sky is beautiful, a sadness in my heart – but that's alright. If it were otherwise, perhaps my existence would be worth nothing to anyone. Let's hide until death has passed." – Chopin
A well-deserved ovation by the crowd, on its feet to praise the brilliant performance they had just heard, earned one more Chopin work, the Etude, Op. 10/2. All too brief, but more evidence that Eric Guo is a major talent in the making, from whom we may expect many years of musical pianism at its best.
That was Saturday. On Sunday, Guo returned to the stage of the NC Art Museum's auditorium with a varied program, in total contrast to the all-Chopin recital of the previous day. The program: J.S. Bach, Prelude and Fugue in B-flat minor from Book II of the Well-Tempered Keyboard, BWV 891; Robert Schumann's early Toccata in C; Ludwig van Beethoven's Sonata No.31 in A-flat, Op. 110; Franz Schubert's Impromptu in B-flat; three Chopin Preludes from Op. 28; and Igor Stravinsky's Trois mouvements de Petrouchka, adapted for piano by the composer from his 1911 ballet.
Taking his seat at the piano with no sign of fatigue from yesterday's Chopin marathon, Guo sat quietly for a moment, gathering his thoughts before entering the world of the Baroque's greatest of prelude-and-fugue composers, Johann Sebastian Bach. In his desire to encourage the use of a well-tempered tuning which would accommodate music of all keys possible in the tonal language of Western music, Bach wrote not one, but two books of preludes and fugues, each book containing one prelude and one fugue in each of the 24 possible keys. Written for "clavier," which meant harpsichord or organ, as the pianoforte had only recently been invented in the latter part of Bach's life, they were not intended for the modern piano. To his credit, Guo made the B-flat minor Prelude and Fugue sound totally idiomatic on the Steinway piano, as he gave it an exquisite reading. Every voice was clear as he essayed one of Bach's least-felicitous fugue subjects; even the dynamic range, clearly exceeding that of the harpsichord, sounded natural. Guo's articulation was not as détaché as András Schiff's, but entirely consistent and musical.
Schumann's monumental Toccata in C followed, its formidable right-hand octave passages flying by at break-finger tempo. Called by Schumann "the hardest piece ever written," this toccata indeed requires large hands (with a fourth finger near the length of the first finger), an attribute apparently possessed by Guo, as well as a prodigious technique. It was impressively played, even if the tempo was on steroids.
Beethoven's penultimate piano sonata was next. One of the crowning glories of Beethoven's music, this Op. 110, like the Chopin Fantasy of Guo's November 13 recital, expresses the heights and depths of human emotions. The singing quality of Guo's touch was perfect for the opening movement, which Beethoven marked to be played moderato cantabile molto espressivo. In the final movement's arioso dolente section, the pianist seemed to indeed be in touch with Beethoven's spirit as he wove the sadness into a garment of beauty. The fugal sections, with the theme both right-side-up and inverted, were played with a command usually found only in more seasoned performers.
After intermission was Schubert's B-flat Impromptu, which is really more of a set of variations than the title suggests. The final variation featured Guo's virtuoso right-hand passagework, which sparkled brightly. Another taste of Chopin followed, with the D-flat minor, B-flat, and G minor Preludes from Op. 28. The first two of these were just what the composer ordered: Presto con fuoco (extremely fast, with fire), then Cantabile (in a singing manner). The final prelude, in G minor, is marked Molto agitato (very agitated). Again, I found Guo's tempo here to be too fast. This prelude's drama is lessened by taking it at a presto tempo. Again, it is likely that age will temper Guo's perception of tempi. For example, Sviatoslav Richter made three recordings of the Schumann toccata; the second was slower than the first, and the third was slower than the second.
For his finale, Guo played Stravinsky's piano adaption of three movements from his ballet Petrouchka (aka Petrushka). Created at the suggestion of famed Polish-American pianist Arthur Rubenstein, this music treats the piano primarily as a percussion instrument (which, of course, it is, construction-wise). Its three movements ("Danse Russe," "Chez Petrouchka," and "La semaine grasse") are full of piano techniques unknown to pre-20th-century composers: cross-hand pyrotechnics, fortissimo glissandi, dissonant ostinatos and perpetuum mobile sections, for example. All this, plus the wide intervallic leaps requiring intense control of exactly where the finger(s) land after leaving their previous note, might have made Schumann think twice about whether or not his toccata was the most difficult music ever written for piano. Guo was up to the challenge, with a bristling, energetic reading which met every pitfall with ease.
The NC Art Museum's closing time was approaching, but there was time for a short encore, a gentle Chopin benediction to the afternoon: the Prelude in F-sharp, Op. 28, No. 13, and it was beautifully played.
Bravo, Eric Guo, for not one, but two afternoons of glorious music-making. Thanks, also, to Paderewski Festival president Dr. Mark Fountain and his Board of Directors for their perseverance through the pandemic years and dealing with unexpected problems along the way to making this Eighth Paderewski Festival a success. Per ardua ad astra.