Meredith College has come a long way in the past two decades. Once a conservative Baptist bastion for finishing young women, it now celebrates the bicentennial of the illicit union between a Romantic novelist with a penchant for cross-dressing and her Polish émigré composer lover. As the final event in a series of lectures, seminars, master classes and performances that has been going on since November to celebrate the arts and liaison of George Sand and Frederic Chopin, octogenarian pianist Walter Hautzig gave an all-Chopin concert comprising a comprehensive overview of the composer’s oeuvre. The program included nearly every genre in which Chopin wrote, except the sonata and the etude – and, of course, the concerto.
Hautzig’s program was indeed substantial, including two Polonaises (in c, Op. 40/2 and A-flat, Op 53), four Waltzes (in D-flat, Op 70/3; E-flat, Op 18; A-flat Op. 69/1; e, Op. Posth.), two Nocturnes (in b-flat, Op. 9/1; c-sharp, Op. Posth.), four Mazurkas (in C, Op. 24/2; D, Op 33/2; a, Op. 68/2; B-flat, Op. 7/2), two Ballades (in g, Op. 23 and A-flat, Op. 47) and the Berceuse, Op. 57. And every work brought something new to the table by way of Hautzig’s very personal interpretive language.
Hautzig is a “Chopinist” of the old school, deriving his inspiration directly from the music, rather than from concerns about authentic performance practice or from a generally more austere, “straight” contemporary style. His is introspective playing, with elastic tempi, idiosyncratic balance of right and left hand, lots of rubato, yet with a strongly architectonic sense of dynamics. All in all, it was a masterful and impressive performance, recalling the style embraced by so many pianists in the first half of the 20th century.
The “liberties” Hautzig takes with meter and tempo are obviously carefully considered to accentuate his personal take on the emotional content in the music. Despite the fact that we do not care for our Chopin served up in quite this extreme a manner, it is important to reinforce the validity of Hautzig’s approach. Chopin was a Romantic, known to have taken just such liberties in performing his own music. There is an august performing tradition of personalizing his music far more than with most other composers. In turn, critics have intense preferences about how they like their Chopin played, but that does not denigrate nor invalidate different interpretive styles. And from a technical point of view, Hautzig joins the ranks of other octogenarian pianists who lost nothing with age.
Nor has Walter Hautzig lost any power in his hands. As we mentioned earlier, if anything, in his interpretations he often brought out the left hand more than most pianists we have heard. In the famous “Raindrop” Prelude, the raindrops were so dominant, that the right hand got lost. In the g minor Ballade the left hand was so extreme, as was the rubato, that it made us wonder at times whether we were listening to the same old familiar work. In the A-flat Ballade, by contrast, the rubato was toned down, the tempo straightforward, and only the balance was slightly skewed towards the left. And the Polonaise in A-flat, Op 53 was really over the top, conjuring up the image of a state ball at the court of King Babar. On the other hand (no pun intended) Hautzig’s concentration on the bass and lower inner voice leading brought out aspects of these familiar works that those people who have never played thems might frequently miss.
As for Hautzig’s flexible tempi, these often proved more of a distraction than an aid to understanding the music. The Berceuse, for example, is really a set of variations over ground bass that requires the regular rocking motion to accentuate the filigree in the right hand. Yet, we particularly enjoyed Hautzig’s performance of the two Nocturnes, which lend themselves to more flexible tempi with their dreamy atmosphere. But we felt that they might have stood out better had he been more straightforward in the Waltzes and Mazurkas.
It was a long program, but Hautzig seemed to be unfazed and readily added three encores: The Nocturne in E-flat, the “Minute” Waltz and a Mazurka in C. Then he signaled the end by closing the piano lid.