Harrods International Piano Series 2000/1 – Charles Rosen

Four Pieces Op.119
Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel Op. 24
Nocturne Op.62/1
Barcarolle Op.60
Polonaise- Fantasie Op.61
Three Waltzes Op.64
Ballade in F minor Op.52

Charles Rosen

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 18 February, 2001
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Few would deny that Charles Rosen is among the world’s leading musicologists. It is often remarked that his piano playing gives an extra dimension to his writing. Is the reverse also true?

Rosen’s Brahms is a matter of structure and mood, of swift tempi and decisive interpretation – the Brahms of an eminent professor who has lived in the same intellectual world for a lifetime and who has an absolute sureness about what he thinks; and, unlike his painstaking scholarship, he is also willing to sacrifice detail for the sake of the overall vision. He plays in what now seems an old-fashioned way, indulgent with rubato, but never self-indulgent with tempi; individual never mannered. Rosen’s approach worked very well for the Handel Variations and especially the rigour of the fugal finale (which so often loses its way in performance) while giving flashes of unusual insight along the way (such as the counter-melody in Variation XII or the “walking bass” in Variation XX). Only occasionally, as with the musette-variation (XIX), or in the third of the Op.119 pieces, the constant desire to move the music on gave his playing an unsmiling, almost perfunctory quality. It was indeed a performance “in the classical style”.

Rosen played Op.119 as a particularly intense, intellectual unity, connecting the falling motif of the first piece to the passagework of the second, the percussive rhythm of No.2 to the rhythmic bounce of No.3 and the staccato episode of No.4. His persistent refusal to linger on detail, and to paint with a broad brush, made the pieces less beautiful but more cogent – a Brahms not unromantic but always severe. I prefer my Brahms more jewelled and crisper (Rosen’s playing in Op.119’s Rhapsody was at times distinctly cloudy), but I have never heard better expressed in sound Rosen’s description that Brahms “made music out of the openly expressed regret that he was born too late.”

For the Chopin half of this afternoon recital, aided by the warm, affectionate tone Rosen coaxed from the piano, we were treated to music played in a far more relaxed style, such as in the fleet figurations of the Op.64 Waltzes or the improvisatory emotion of the Polonaise-Fantasie. Even here, though, Rosen never relaxed his intellectual grip, giving as a result an especially impressive Barcarolle where the sense of structure and repetition was never lost and the sheer beauty of the melody was able to flourish all the better for being kept within classical restraints. Rosen’s approach was equally successful in the Fourth Ballade, never losing us within the surfeit of melodic invention, though he was challenged by the burst of virtuosity that is the piece’s coda. Rosen chose only late Chopin (except for the early Mazurka Op.6/2, which he played as an encore). Brahms is not the only composer who regrets, who makes music out of the impossibility of tradition, Rosen seemed to be telling us; even Chopin, whom we know as a passionate, emotional revolutionary, was at heart an elegiac creator.

Rosen’s technique is far from flawless, and his interpretations are always distinctive rather than canonical. In his playing you may miss the magisterial authority of a Pollini or the hypersensitivity of an Uchida; though it is evidence of the intellectual interest of his playing that we can speak of him in the same sentence. In his own programme note, Rosen writes of the “melancholy” of Op119/1, the “exuberance” of the Handel Variations and the “nostalgia and intensity” of the Chopin pieces. For me, his playing is more remarkable for clarity and illumination than for fine-tuning the heartstrings.

Although I would rather read Rosen than listen to him, this is no slur on a fine and revealing recital; rather it’s a tribute to his capacity to have an intellectual vision of a whole age, and the gift to have a choice of means to express it.

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