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A knockout program – "blockbuster" may be the operative word – was given in Meredith's Jones Auditorium by pianist Ann Schein on the evening of February 2. There was competition from a certain political speech, and it was "choir night" in the region, but the visiting artist nonetheless drew a respectable crowd of area pianists, teachers, and students plus the usual collection of die-hard music lovers for an important all-Chopin recital. The pianist has appeared here previously and is widely known from her many recordings in many genres, both solo and with distinguished colleagues. Her ticket was thoroughly punched in 1980, when she played six sold-out all-Chopin recitals in New York. She hasn't lost her touch.
Schein began with late Chopin – the Polonaise-Fantasy in A Flat, Op. 61. It's a strange work that is more introspective than many of the more-often-heard scores. It received a technically polished and quite beautiful performance that subtly underscored what we think we know about Chopin's own soft-spoken playing, particularly in his last years. It served as a thoughtful introduction to the first half's big offering – the 24 Preludes, Op. 28. The composition of these well-known pieces, which are infrequently given in one gulp, occupied Chopin for around eight years, so it is remarkable that they are all "of a piece," so to speak. Schein set them off with short pauses, allowing listeners to keep track as they unfolded. Their moods and tempi vary widely, and she projected each with great skill. The "big" numbers came off particularly well, although the softer, gentler ones were also full of magic. She seemed to flag briefly in No. 16, as if there were a momentary lapse in concentration, but recovery – if that was an issue – was immediate. These were mostly "modern" performances, as opposed to some of the presumed excesses of long-dead artists who live on via old recordings; there were times when one might have wanted more personality to emerge in the interpretations, but it's also a fact that Schein is among the senior artists working today who have helped define this composer's music as we know it.
The second half was devoted to a magnificent reading of the great Sonata No. 3, in b minor, Op. 58. Listeners of a certain age doubtless imprinted William Kapell's famous Red Seal record early on, for better or worse, but every performance, even by the same artist, is truly unique, and Schein brought many wonders and delights to her interpretation. The finale wasn't as fast at Kapell's, but then whose is? It was clear and logical and brisk enough, and the way to it was beautifully prepared by one of the loveliest slow movements yet heard here or elsewhere, live or on records. The first two movements contained plenty of magic, too, and throughout it was clear that the visitor remains a world-class performer still very much in her glowing prime. I am indebted to festival coordinator James Fogle for identifying Schein's unannounced encore, which is a true rarity – it was a slow and reflective Étude, in A Flat, B.130/2, the second of three composed in 1839 for Moscheles's Méthode (published in 1840 and 1841)
Meredith's festival, which marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Sand (1804-76) and Chopin (1810-49), together, is the culmination of a year-long series of events and studies that began last October. Given the school's investment in the festival, it is somewhat surprising that the printed program book contains no notes on the music being played – there are programs, of course, and bios, but nary a word about the pieces, and indeed not even dates of the compositions. The concerts continue 2/3 with performances by faculty artists Margaret Evans, James Fogle and Kent Lyman, and Frank Pittman, and the festival concludes on 2/4 with a recital by Walter Hautzig, who with Schein bookends the big Chopin bash in more ways than one. It may be worth noting that Hautzig has known Schein since she was 14 – and that both studied with Mieczyslaw Munz (1900-76), who seems to have spawned as many famous pianists as Hautizg himself!