Pianist revels in the beating heart of Polish music

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Peter de Jager at the piano… a very satisfying and uplifting performance. Photo: Peter Hislop

Music / “Heart of Poland”. Peter de Jager. At the Larry Sitsky Recital Room, ANU School of Music, November 29. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE

IF you love the piano and music written for the piano, then you very likely love the music of the Polish-French composer Fryderyk Chopin. In World War II the Nazis did too, probably because they thought they could hear influences of German composers.

Even so, they were quite happy to use Chopin’s music for political gain. In Germany it was celebrated, but in Poland the Nazis banned it from being played; banning it was a very effective tool of oppression.

But there were a few miracles along the way, including a Polish Jewish pianist, Wladyslaw Szpilman, who not only was saved from boarding a death camp train but, after then hiding for two years, was saved by a Nazi officer in November, 1944.

This concert, “Heart of Poland”, organised by The Friends of Chopin Australia, remembered the 80th anniversary of the Nazis’ invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, marking the beginning of World War II. It also celebrated the anniversary of the triumphant return of Chopin’s heart to the Church of the Holy Cross, in Warsaw, after the war ended, on October 17, 1945, and on the 96th anniversary of Chopin’s death.

At the piano was the winner of the first Australian International Chopin Piano Competition, in 2010, Peter de Jager.

He has a very elegant style. It is expressive, fluid and very attuned to the many nuances in Chopin’s music. And his interpretation of Chopin’s music, quintessentially of the Romantic music period, has developed and refined since I last saw him perform, just over a year ago.

His program featured many favourites, covering mazurkas, waltzes, polonaises, nocturnes and even a barcarolle and, of course, the perennial favourite – the “Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor” – the one from which the melody was pinched for the song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”.

These pieces demand highly developed technical competence on many fronts, from big chord progressions and chromatic runs to the most delicate single note either side of judicious pauses and de Jager met all the challenges head-on with confidence and superior virtuosity. This was a very satisfying and uplifting performance.

One work in the program was a kind of outsider, but one that very much fitted the program intentions. “Folk Melodies”, written in 1945 by the 20th century Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, is a suite of 12 quite short and delightful arrangements of folk melodies to, say the program notes, “renew the connection to Poland’s musical heritage and her post-war musical re-construction”.

Despite the contrast, being written in that same 96th year after Chopin’s death, de Jager very successfully made it stand proudly next to the rest of the program. It was charming and light and a nice interlude.

This was a very fine and enjoyable concert with the audience demanding, and getting, an encore – another Chopin mazurka that skipped along delightfully. Poland may have suffered at the hands of the Nazis during World War II, but its musical heritage remains rock solid.

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