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Pianist puts own stamp on music

Brian Ganz gives unforgettable sound and feeling to Chopin's Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor.

By JOHN FLEMING

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- It was reminiscent of a bygone age when Brian Ganz gave a Chopin recital Sunday afternoon at the Museum of Fine Arts. There were folding chairs set up against the wall to accommodate the capacity crowd beneath the chandeliers of the Marly Room.

The relationship between Ganz and the St. Petersburg audience is like a mutual admiration society. The pianist has played almost yearly recitals at the museum since 1985, and listeners have been able to follow his growth, from what amounted to gangly adolescence, artistically, to the freedom and authority of someone who puts his own idiosyncratic stamp on music without distorting the composer's intent.

Ganz's performance Sunday of the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor was a genuine event. This was not the Chopin of romantic stereotype -- that foppish purveyor of perfumed parlor music -- but instead was muscular and strange and moving. Even the familiar tune of the Funeral March movement felt startling in its emotional weight, like the musical equivalent of a velvet shroud.

And the sonata's finale was unforgettable, though it lasted only about a minute. Many of Chopin's contemporaries -- Schumann and Mendelssohn, most famously -- hated this movement, 75 measures of triplets that are played very fast and soft. To the literal-minded, it represents the wind in the cemetery after the funeral march is over, but Ganz's playing achieved a kind of hypnotic trance that never let up until the single emphatic chord at the end.

The foundation of Ganz's expressive range is the superb technique at his command. He overcame some of Chopin's most sadistic, hand-stretching octaves in the flashy Heroic Polonaise with what seemed like relaxed deftness. It was a pleasure to hear him sail through two of the Op. 10 etudes with nary a dropped note.

Ganz, as is his wont, talked to the audience between numbers throughout the recital. It's one of the things that makes him popular and a fixture on the museum series. He says intelligent, charming things, but the chattiness comes with a price. It can take the focus off his excellent playing, and it may also be an energy drain on his performance.

The second half of Sunday's program was something of a Chopin grab bag. The nocturnes and the preludes in particular weren't quite up to the high standards Ganz had set for himself in the remarkable Sonata in B-flat minor.

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