Hearing Chopin As Never Before

Adam Neiman returns to the Salon Piano Series in an unforgettable performance


I had been literally counting the days for weeks before Adam Neiman’s return to the Salon Piano Series last Sunday. Every event at this series, hosted by Farley’s House of Pianos, offers great performances with some historical insights—and the lure of an all-Chopin program played on a lovingly restored keyboard was  irresistible. Neiman (pictured above, courtesy of Lisa-Marie Mazzucco) has been here before, and more than once with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (where I first encountered his incisive artistry), and so I could not have been more excited at the prospect of witnessing Neiman traverse the 24 Preludes, Op. 28 and the four Ballades.

And yet the event exceeded my expectations.

As is usually the case, Tim Farley gave a short introductory talk about the special qualities of the instrument upon which Neiman would work his magic: a 1904 Chickering. Of course, this piano was built some 55 years after Chopin’s death, but it is far closer in sound and action to pianos one might have heard Liszt play upon (he was closely associated with the company, and owned at least one Chickering grand piano). The salient point among Farley’s detailed description was the “creamy sound in the treble.” Neiman amplified these comments, remarking that what set the 1904 Chickering from the modern grands we have heard most of our lives, is that the modern keyboards are built for maximum power—and homogeneity—so that an artist such as Neiman can travel the world and find most of the instruments at his disposal consistent in action and sonic blend.

Neiman also gave wonderful insights into the circumstances of the composition of the Op. 28 Preludes: Chopin’s ill-fated trip to Majorca with George Sand, the almost constant rain and humidity worsening his respiratory ills to the point of tuberculosis, and a state of intermittent delirium.

By the third of the mostly brief works (most of them are two minutes long or less), it had become apparent that there was a distinctiveness about the notes, yes, especially the upper ones; they did not blend and run together into a single tonality as much as one usually hears.

Interpretively, surely most of the 130+ listeners in the Farley showroom could have checked off something that struck them in each of the two dozen gem-like miniatures. For yours truly, the first moment that remained indelible was No. 4, the E-Minor Lento, where the repeated eighth notes underneath a near-static theme moved with an uneasy urgency. In No. 15, the famously so-called “Raindrop” prelude, Neiman evoked more of a resigned quality, as opposed to a sense of being overwhelmed by inevitability. And if one still had any skepticism about the responsiveness of the action of the 1904 piano, No. 16 lived up to all its “Presto con fuoco.”

No. 20 in C-Minor proved a real stunner; this Largo became even slower in the final reprise of the theme, as if to weight the finality of some unnamed tragedy. Neiman not only held the final notes beyond audibility, he remained frozen for several seconds, as if desperately trying to will one last whisper, one final echo of the dying chord; the audience was completely rapt throughout.

The second half was given to the four Ballades, and unlike the Op. 28, these were written at different times. Neiman had said during his comments before playing the Preludes, that the Ballades were being played in the order of 2, 1, 3 and 4, as he felt the progression of keys was heard to best advantage. But more importantly, he asked that there be no applause between any of them, only at the conclusion of all four. This was not an attempt to create a quasi-sonata of course, but to produce an effect maintaining the emotional tension, culminating in the most dramatic of the four, the F-Minor, Op. 52.

The difference in the overall sound Neiman produced as he launched into No. 2, Op. 38 was immediate. Where the Preludes had emerged with a kind of “bare bones” transparency, this was now a “flesh and blood” sound, full and rich of inner voices that yes, once again, emerged with a new clarity often obscured on modern pianos. The unfolding of this quartet of not-so-minor masterpieces was like a psychological program without words. By the end of No. 4, one recalled Schumann’s famous quote about Chopin: “Cannon, buried in flowers.”

Neiman had delivered plenty of cannon shots, particularly via the Ballades, so after an immediate and prolonged standing ovation, he sat down once more and said, “and now, just a little something sweet.” It was the Waltz in C-sharp Minor, yes all sweetness and weightless refreshment—but it did not and has not erased the many earlier memories of an unforgettable afternoon.

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