Nestled in the French countryside near La Châtre-Nohant, the summer retreat of the controversial 19th century novelist George Sand and her companion, Frédéric Chopin, was once again infused with the Romantic master’s hauntingly lyrical music for one short week in July. On the bill for this third Rencontres InternationalesFrédéricChopin were Jean-Marc Luisada and the Quatuor Talich (with Benjamin Berlioz on double bass).
The château de Nohant offered an intimate setting for these series of concerts dedicated to the music of the famed composer. This 18th century château is just the main building of a compound that consisted of servants’ and groundkeepers’ quarters, a large, oblong bergerie (sheep barn) and a magnificent garden.
The concert was held in the Bergerie de Nohant overlooking large courtyard just across from the château. Since the entire estate is classified as an historic site, every effort has been made to keep the grounds just as they were a hundred and fifty years ago. There’s not a speck of tarmac anywhere, the gift shop and rest rooms are discretely housed in buildings that have stood on the site since the 18th century. The single concession to modern-day commercialism was a stand set up under the bergerie’s overhang next to the entrance, which offered compact disks and videos of the various artists performing during the festival.
The bergerie was just large enough for the more than two hundred spectators who attended the afternoon concert on July 18. No air conditioning meant that we would all be rather warm before long. Although it should have been stifling in the old barn, a slight breeze that stirred from somewhere kept the temperature within tolerable limits. But for the performers under the stage lights, it would be a different matter.
As the Quatuor Talich seated themselves on the miniscule stage dominated by a portrait of a young Chopin, a fine sheen of perspiration was already forming on their foreheads. The performance opened with their interpretation of the Mozart quatuor for strings in Gmajor K. 156. They are fine musicians and were warmly applauded after their set, but the crowd was there to see the main attraction, Jean-Marc Luisada.
Lightly ascending the stage, the slim, forty-something Luisada brandished a liter of mineral water, which drew sympathetic applause from the crowd. He smiled broadly as he acknowledged the increasingly enthusiastic applause, then he set about replacing the traditional piano bench with a comfortable velour-cushioned chair, identical to the ones we were sitting on. A surprising move for a classical concert, but perfectly natural in the relaxed atmosphere of the converted barn. The audience approved as well. Before beginning the concert, he made a few brief remarks about the first piece, (Mazurka in A minor op. 17 no. 4) which he dedicated to his late teacher, Milosz Magin, who worked with him a great deal on the mazurkas.
After a delightful interpretation of the mazurka, there followed the Nocturne in B major op. 62 no.1, and the Scherzo no.2 in B flat minor op.31. By this time, the pianist was perspiring freely, pausing briefly after each piece to discreetly towel his forehead and brush aside the curly medium-length hair which had settled squarely on his wire-rimmed glasses.
"If this heat keeps up, I’ll need some windshield wipers for my glasses soon," Luisada quipped before starting on the Ballade no.3 in A flat major op.47.
When he ended the piece, a tremendous wave of applause followed him as he made his way toward the side exit, just about a foot from where I was sitting. I sat wondering how he’d found it without walking into a wall—his glasses were completely steamed up.
After the intermission, the main event began : the Chopin concerto no. 1 in B minor for string quintet. Although this work is usually performed with an orchestra, Luisada noted that Chopin created the version for strings for the Pleyel salons in Paris and that he would be using a transcription of Chopin’s original manuscript.
The musicians were met with generous applause as they once again took the stage, Luisada graciously following the first violinist on stage. Out came their hankerchiefs for one last wipe before the music began. The audience quickly settled down. No coughing, sneezing, wheezing, or chair scraping disturbed the charged atmosphere. Everyone was silent. Everyone held his breath, wondering what this old war horse of a concerto would sound like without a full orchestra.
I was equally curious. Although I prefer Chopin to all other composers (hence my 3-hour drive to the concert, with one hour in the worst thunderstorm I’d ever driven in), his concerto no. 1 is not a favorite. The first time I heard it, I was shocked. Its muscular first movement seemed much more like Beethoven than Chopin.
But when the opening notes came, I knew I was in for a unique experience. The quintet sounded clear, mellow and sweet. Gone was the abrupt, almost harsh opening. In its place was an intimate harmony. Gone was the blaring orchestra. Then the piano came in, insistent, but never strident. The instruments merged into a seamless lyrical whole.
I felt as though I were wrapped in a comfortable blanket of soothing music. I forgot about the heat. I forgot about the sweat trickling down my back. There was only Chopin and the musicians.
And what musicians ! Though the temperature must have been close to 80—even hotter under the stage lights—they never faltered, never gave the impression that they were playing with anything less than total concentration. Without missing a beat, the quartet also freely made use of their white shirt sleeves to keep from being blinded from stinging perspiration.
Luisada had it tougher. Sweat dripped onto the keyboard from his forehead and long hair. But the music kept coming, uninterrupted. At times, he seemed, not to struggle with the piano, but to be confronting it, taming it. Then just as suddenly, the music would soften and he played as if he were stroking the hair of a favorite child or lover. His movements were economical, as graceful as a ballet dancer. There were no exaggerated gestures signaling ARTIST AT WORK, as is the case with some performers. And through it all, he kept up a running dialogue with the music. He seemed to be whispering silent notes with the piano and occasionally there were brief, nearly inaudible snatches of Gould-like sub-vocalization. Far from being artificial or pretentious, Luisada’s performance appeared a natural and sincere reaction to the music he was both experiencing and performing.
With the heat, the intimate setting, the proximity of the musicians on the tiny stage, the natural acoustics, and the birds twittering in joyous response to the music, the 20th century seemed far away. I found myself thinking that this is what it must have been like at this place, when Chopin played his compositions for a few friends and guests in the château’s living room, almost a century and a half ago. Instead of the hum of air conditioning, we heard muted peals of an approaching thunderstorm. And these were real people up there on stage, not the blow-dried mannequins you usually find in a modern, cavernous concert hall.They were working hard, perspiring, physically uncomfortable but in direct communication with their music and audience.
The final notes had hardly sounded when the audience gave the musicians a thunderous standing ovation. The beaming performers joined hands like a theater group and acknowledged the audience’s praise. Although they were swimming in persipiration, they came back for two brilliantly executed encores, to end an exceptional musical experience.