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On a gorgeous fall afternoon, the brilliant young Polish pianist Tomasz Ritter made his American debut in Daniels Auditorium at the NC Museum of History – a singularly appropriate venue for this concert that remembered the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI and most specifically the treaties of Versailles, which concluded the war with Germany (for a time), and Saint-Germain, which settled the War to End All Wars with Austria. There were other treaties, but our interest in this instance is centered on Poland, of which Ignacy Jan Paderewski was briefly prime minister, and which these treaties addressed, creating for the first time since 1795 a free Polish state – as Paderewski Festival president Mark Fountain explained in his welcoming remarks.
There were further welcoming remarks by artistic director Adam Wibrowski, who introduced the visiting pianist, whose background he briefly recounted. At 24, Ritter has won multiple prizes, including awards for his work in the field of historically-informed performance practices centering on older keyboard instruments. For some time, string and wind and brass players have increasingly embraced old and new instruments, to the point that crossover (for want of a better word) has for many become a matter of course; it is encouraging to think that the same is now beginning to be true among pianists, too – although truth to tell artists like UNCG's Andrew Willis have long had feet in both camps, and indeed UNCSA's Dmitri Shteinberg gave a recital on historic instruments at the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham, MA, just last month.
This program was played on a big, glistening Steinway, but there was evident carry-over from those HIP experiences.
It was somewhat unusual that Ritter's concert began with Beethoven's 32 Variations in C Minor, WoO 80, placed ahead of Haydn's Fantasia in C, H.XVII:4. The artist's technique in both was similar – he pedaled little in either, producing breathtaking clarity and playing the scores – from memory – with the utmost technical precision and comparably impressive interpretive insight, delivering magnificently shaped phrasing, finely shaded dynamics, and considerably more light and shade that one might have expected in either work. There was a lot more of this level of polished maturity in Schumann's Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 – eight richly-varied pieces that reflect the composer's mercurial personality even at just a little over the half-way point of his too-brief life. These were graced with the same levels of insight and understanding we'd experienced in the opening pieces – Ritter demonstrated his keen prowess and gifts throughout the set, earning enthusiastic applause at the end.
There was an all-Chopin second half – two etudes (Op. 25/7 admirably paired with Op. 10/4), the serene Nocturne in D Flat, Op. 27/2, the four mazurkas of Op. 33, and the B Minor Scherzo. Op. 22. These were magical performances of some of Chopin's most exquisite compositions. If the Nocturne seemed particularly heaven-sent, the Mazurkas were in truth as divinely inspired – and even an artist who had herself played the Scherzo had to admit that this young man, so young and so mature beyond his years, did wonders with it that she could only have dreamed of.
The encore was one of Ginastera's Argentine Dances (Op. 2/2: "Danza de la moza donosa"), delivered with radiance that compared favorably with everything else Ritter had played. 'Twas exceptional.