The music of Frédéric Chopin remains unique in music history in that most of what the Polish composer wrote is in the active repertory.
Chopin is critical to the repertoire of pianists everywhere, and next month, Rachel Naomi Kudo, a 28-year-old American pianist from the Chicago suburbs, heads to Warsaw to take part in the 17th International Chopin Competition, having won a spot by winning second place in the U.S. Chopin Competition in Miami earlier this year.
On her way to Poland, Kudo played two South Florida recitals, one Saturday afternoon at the Boca Steinway Gallery in Boca Raton, and the second Sunday afternoon at the Bet Shira synagogue in South Miami.
Saturday’s all-Chopin recital, which Kudo played to a full house in the Steinway Gallery’s tiny performance room, covered a wide range of the composer’s art, from mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes and études to the Fourth Ballade and the Third Sonata.
It was an impressive, deeply enjoyable performance in which Kudo was revealed to be a pianist of stellar technique and high musical intelligence who brought strong musicianship to everything she played. And she did so even though she had come to Boca after a concert the night before in Washington, D.C., and had not had much time to rest.
Sheer tiredness may have accounted for some of the less persuasive parts of her performance, but this is a performer who should do well in Warsaw and be able to count on a strong career whether she takes home a big prize or not.
Kudo opened with the Fourth Ballade (in F minor, Op. 52), a brilliant and moody work that taxes the pianist’s ability to move convincingly from a tender singing line to bravura display. It became evident early on that Kudo has the chops to handle all of this, and one felt confident that there was nothing she was going to play that was going to be out of her technical grasp.
She made interesting interpretive choices in the ballade as well, with a very deliberate opening whose feeling of stasis lingered into the opening bars, as if the music was slowly waking up from a long sleep. She demonstrated considerable power in the tumultuous middle section, as well as the final pages. But while all the notes were there and each of the sections were elegantly played, her playing lacked a feeling of spontaneity.
The sudden C major cadence that caps the explosion of the stretto chords before the coda, for instance, was powerful but not an eruption; the A major mini-cadenza before the Bach-flavored return to the opening music was soft and pretty when it could have been whispered and taken twice as long. I cite these examples not to say that these passages should necessarily have been played that way, but to say there are ways to play them that would have provided much more vivid color.
Next came a nocturne (No. 17 in B, Op. 62, No. 1) and two of the études (Op. 10, No. 5, in G-flat; Op. 25, No. 10 in B minor). I particularly liked Kudo’s nocturne, which was soft and sweet, but full of even, elegant passagework. The first of the études, the so-called Black Key, bubbled along amiably and accurately, but also was rather stiff, and could have used a pinch or two of elfin dust to lift it up.
The B minor etude, with its relentless, murderous octaves, had muscle and fine forward motion; this piece was written for pianos with much lighter action, so it surely was less of a slog in Chopin’s day, but Kudo handled it impressively.
The Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise (Op. 22), which followed, offered in the Andante some of Kudo’s best playing. This gentle spinning song is well-suited for this pianist’s ability to project beautiful singing tone within a straightforward emotional compass. The polonaise works better in its modest orchestral form, but Kudo brought the solo version off well, with a fine command of its positive, gregarious character.
Kudo opened her second half with the four mazurkas of Op. 30, and brought a good feeling of folk beat to each of them. The fourth one, in C-sharp minor, is the most elaborate and best-known. It was well-played, but it would have been more effective with more spring in its rhythm and some more attention paid to its odder features, specifically its ornamented D major false endings, and its chromatic slide in the coda.
Three waltzes (Op. 64, No. 2 in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 1 in D-flat, and the posthumous one in E minor) followed the mazurkas. The lovely C-sharp minor got a tender, regretful reading, the Minute Waltz again showed off Kudo’s excellent finger work, and the E minor waltz was played with propulsion and excitement.
The last work on the program, the Sonata No. 3 (in B minor, Op. 58), is, as Kudo noted in remarks before the second half to her audience, a “tour de force,” even if it’s not as familiar as the Second Sonata. She gave a fine, polished rendition of this remarkable piece, with the most immediately attractive parts being the Scherzo, which she played with sparkle, and her lovingly languorous midsection of the third movement.
The outer movements were somewhat too controlled, so that the sudden key shift at the end of the main theme fit too comfortably with the rest of the music rather than sounding like it was opening up new territory. And while Kudo got an admirable head of steam going on the big, rocking-motion tune of the finale, it needed just a bit more breadth, a larger feeling of inevitability and triumph.
Kudo responded to her standing ovation with the famous Heroic Polonaise (No. 6 in A-flat, Op. 53), a work audiences never tire of, and the pianist showed us why with a sturdy, forthright version of the piece in which she handled its biggest challenges with seeming ease.
Kudo is already an excellent pianist who has an intellectual, serious approach to her playing that reminds me of her teacher, Richard Goode. She has a large and most impressive technique that took her through this monstrously difficult program with virtually no blotches, which is surprisingly rare in Chopin performances.
For that, she deserves serious respect. Where her readings fall short is in a compelling sense of drama, of high and violent emotion. Chopin was one of the most fastidious of composers, steeped in Bach and Mozart, and not particularly sympathetic to the purple Romanticism of his time.
But his music nevertheless has a fervid imaginary climate that requires wide contrasts to bring it fully alive — not in an extravagant, mannered way, but in a way that underlines its composer’s astonishing risk-taking. The Fourth Ballade, for example, should come off like a wild and fanciful story without losing any of its tremendous precision.
That is a supremely difficult task, and one of the reasons that great Chopin playing can be so elusive and so hard to achieve. Rachel Kudo has all the technique and smarts to pull it off; now she has to figure out how to play this music with more emotional and intellectual freedom.
Once she does that, she will have reached a milestone regardless of what happens in Warsaw. She is one of the best pianists Abram Kreeger has presented on his Piano Lovers series, and it will be a pleasure to welcome her back from Poland if she will consent to return.