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Symphony review: Richard Dowling plays music by the teenage Chopin

UPDATED: Sun., Sept. 1, 2019

Frederic Chopin.
Frederic Chopin.
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

Following two appearances last May in the Northwest Bach Festival, performing, in one, a selection of Scott Joplin’s piano rags, and, in the other, accompanying festival director Zuill Bailey in a program of music for cello and piano, Richard Dowling returned to Spokane on Thursday night to perform a program of music for the piano composed by the teenaged Frederic Chopin. The venue was, again, Barrister Winery: an ideal festival venue, affording both intimacy and the acoustic space needed to accommodate the full dynamic range of a grand piano.

Dowling took advantage of both qualities. He is a polymath who commands the full resources of a concert pianist, the scholarly accomplishments of Ph.D. in music from Yale and the skills of a professional music editor.

In his running commentary to the audience, however, he drew the audience in by wearing his accomplishments lightly, providing just enough historical background to provide context for what we were to hear, while communicating an almost boyish enthusiasm and admiration for what the young Chopin was able to achieve.

At the keyboard, he obtained an extraordinary dynamic range, from ethereal filigree to octaves that registered high on the Richter scale, that has eluded some other, very fine pianists we have heard playing the same instrument in the same space.

In the early stage of his career in which he produced all of the music we heard on Thursday night, Chopin was seeking to establish himself both as a composer and as a prominent performer. Much of his music from this period, then, demands extraordinary technical brilliance, of which Dowling possesses an apparently inexhaustible supply.

The Polonaise in G-sharp minor Op. Post, written before Chopin reached the age of 14, may lack the brooding power of the later polonaises, but it is damned hard to play, and Dowling dispatched its showers of scales, its rapid octaves and intricate ornaments with imperturbable ease and fluency.

Again, while the totally obscure “Introduction and Variations in E major on a German National Air, ‘Der Schweizerbub’ Op. Post.” offers little in the way of philosophic depth, it allowed Dowling to show off both the breadth of his scholarship and the evenness of his scales.

The pianist who ventures an entire program devoted to Chopin is daring to pick up a heavy gauntlet, laid down by generations of pianists, many of whom traced their musical lineage back to The Master himself, who was acutely conscious of what was unique in his own playing, and determined to pass it on through colleagues and pupils, and by composing two books of etudes that crystallize it.

That gauntlet is called “Chopin Style,” about which much wine, if not blood, has been and is still being spilled in the cafes of Paris and Warsaw. Playing in that style requires all the technical attributes that Dowling possesses, as well as others which he deployed with less consistent success.

Most significant is the use of rubato, a flexible approach to tempo that requires the player to maintain a steady rhythmic pulse in one voice, while subtly varying that pulse in another voice by falling slightly behind the pulse at one point, and then catching up with it.

This may sound too subtle and too wonky to be worth much attention from anyone apart from piano teachers, and perhaps music critics, but in fact it separates great Chopin playing from good Chopin playing.

In too much of Dowling’s playing, tempos would grind to a halt, only to lurch forward suddenly. The effect was to break the lyric thread holding the composition together, leaving a series of well-played and agreeable fragments. One example was the Nocturne in C sharp minor Op. Post, where Dowling’s exquisite voicing of the melody was undermined by an impatient rushing of tempo and a failure to let the phrases “breathe.”

In the following piece, however, the “Nocturne in B-flat minor Op. 9 No. 1,” composed about the same time, the pianist displayed masterful use of rubato, achieving a completely different and more satisfying effect.

The appearance of this unidiomatic approach to tempo recurred often enough throughout the program to create the impression that Dowling was not entirely at ease with Chopin, much as he loves and admires the music.

This impression was sharpened by the encore piece, which began as a thoroughly lovely, and idiomatic, performance of a work by Chopin which, though early, is one of his most famous and most beloved: the “Nocturne in E flat major Op. 9 No. 2,” a classic test-piece, by the way, of a pianist’s command of rubato.

Dowling was passing the test with flying colors, when, just at a point of a change in harmony, a peculiar chord appeared. The music briefly stopped altogether, and then burst upon the audience as something entirely different, a pounding, ecstatic transformation of Chopin’s melody in the stride piano style of the 1920s, of which Thomas “Fats” Waller was the incomparable master.

The audience was transported, and so was Dowling, who played the piece out with a galvanizing mixture of bravura and delight, suggesting that he at last felt completely at home.

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