Ninety-three years ago, on November 23, 1923, the incomparable Polish pianist and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski played a recital in the Municipal Auditorium of Raleigh, NC.  In the second recital of the current festival dedicated to Paderewski’s memory, and taking place in the NC Museum of History auditorium, internationally-acclaimed pianist Jean Dubé recreated parts of that 1923 program on the Polish master’s birthday, November 6 (O.S.).

“Parts of that 1923 program” because today’s audiences and performers alike have relegated the former tradition of two-to-three-hour programs to history’s trash. Of the eleven works on Paderewski’s 1923 program, Dubé omitted works by Haydn and Beethoven and a Chopin Ballade, substituting two Chopin etudes for the single one on Paderewski’s program.

Dubé began with Franz Liszt’s piano transcription of J.S. Bach’s organ Fantasia and Fugue in G minor. The fantasia was pedal-heavy and the fugue full of marcato passages, but this was not Dubé’s fault: he was playing exactly what Liszt called for. Like Busoni, Liszt added many notes not present in Bach’s work (more so in the fantasia than in the fugue); considering that pianists cannot use their feet to play the organ pedal-part, transcriptions like this are often more difficult to perform than the original works. Curiously enough, in the 1920’s, piano recitals frequently featured such transcriptions of organ works, while organ recitals often contained more transcriptions of orchestral and piano works than original organ works.

Music of Mozart came next: the K. 511 Rondo. Here, Dubé’s pedaling was feather-light, his keyboard touch producing a crystalline clarity. Only once was the return to the rondo theme not rhythmically smooth. Moving from his mastery of Mozart’s Classical style, Dubé next proved himself equally adept at the Romantic style as he played Book II of Johannes Brahms’ Op. 35 “Paganini Variations.” (Book I of these variations was played on the first program of this year’s Paderewski Festival by Ukrainian pianist Artem Yasynskyy: see John Lambert’s CVNC review of that performance. These etudes, called “studies for pianoforte” by Brahms, are mettle-testing adventures accessible only to pianists with formidable techniques; Dubé proved equal to the task as he found the Brahmsian rhapsodic content of these variations amidst the forest of notes. Particularly fine were his rhythmically-powerful treatments of variations 2 and 7, in which Brahms calls for one of his favorite musical devices: one hand plays in duple meter while the other plays in triple meter, simultaneously.  The 5th, 6th, and 8th variations benefitted from a light touch which emphasized their filigree-like nature, while the the 10th (“Feroce, energico” / fierce and energetic) and the concluding 14th variation were appropriately Heaven-storming.

After intermission, we heard five works by Fryderyk Chopin, that quintessentially-Polish composer and pianist whose works played such an important part in Paderewski’s own programs. The Op. 27/2 Nocturne in D-flat was appropriately nocturnal (save for its one fortissimo passage). Dubé found a musical unity from Chopin’s somewhat quirky episodes comprising his Op. 59/3 Mazurka in F-sharp minor. In the E-flat minor Etude, Op. 10/6, the left hand’s rhythmic ostinato, while sensitively played, seemed to draw attention from the right hand’s long melodic phrases; but the Etude in F, Op. 10/8, was a scintillating tour-de-force, with its perpetual-motion right-hand figurations ornamenting the melody and bass line, both played with the left hand. The concluding Chopin work was the well-known Op. 42 Waltz in A-flat, nick-named the “two-four waltz” because Chopin includes sections of this waltz with a feeling of two pulses to a bar even though the notation is in three pulses. This is not only an audience favorite, but was one of the favorite Chopin works of such personages as Arthur Rubenstein and President Harry S Truman. Dubé’s performance was compelling, a perfect conclusion to his group of Chopin works.

The program concluded just as Paderewski’s 1923 recital did, with Liszt’s take-off on melodies from Mozart’s Don Juan. As in the Bach-Liszt work which began this recital, the music of “Reminiscences of Don Juan” is more Liszt than Mozart, giving Dubé ample opportunity to display his virtuosity to superb affect.

Two encores followed the formal program: Enrique Granados’ El pelele (The Puppet) and Alexander Siloti’s arrangement in B minor of J.S. Bach’s Prelude in E minor from his Notebook for Wilhelm Friedemann. The Granados work, usually played as the concluding movement of the piano suite Goyescas, showed off Dubé’s florid right-hand octaves; the Siloti arrangement, which inverts Bach’s right and left-hand parts, was more introspective, ending the afternoon in a gently-meditative mood.

The audience was enthusiastically appreciative, but was far too small for a masterful recital such as this. One hopes that, as word spreads about the quality of performances in these Paderewski Festival events, more people will take the opportunity to hear widely-ranging programs of piano music played by fine international artists. Congratulations are due to the festival’s Artistic Director, Adam Wibrowski, and its President, Raleigh’s Dr. Mark Fountain, for their collaborative efforts to create and maintain this significant contribution to the artistic life of North Carolina’s capital city.

The festival continues next weekend with recitals on Saturday and Sunday at the NC Museum of Art. See the sidebar and preview for more details.