Melbourne Digital Concert Hall: Port Fairy Spring Music Festival – McIntyre’s Chopin
In his pre-concert welcome to Stephen McIntyre’s Chopin recital from the Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall’s co-director Chris Howlett discussed how exceptionally tough it was for everyone involved in preparing music festivals that have been hit hard with cancellations two years in a row. In regional towns such as Port Fairy, the annual Spring Music Festival, first established in 1990, has given audiences the chance to experience a wide range of repertoire in smaller, intimate venues, meet musicians and explore a new town and surrounding region over a few days. Festival Co-director Stefan Cassomenos introduced Stephen McIntyre – a previous Artistic Director of Port Fairy festival for five years – as an iconic musician, director, personality, friend, mentor and teacher, and a pianist with “an unmistakable voice, great strength and will power”. Cassomenos also acknowledged the Festival board and the many sponsors and local volunteers who are sticking by this annual event, with next year promising to feature the premier performances of several commissioned works.
Stephen McIntyre shares a long and happy association with the Port Fairy festival and a long and happy association with Chopin. In this program, he balanced three pairs of mazurkas between three masterpieces, opening with Berceuse, Op. 57, establishing a most beautiful, sensitive and ethereal aura. I caught myself swaying gently to the rhythm, quite unconsciously, drawn towards a magical ending as the closing section was elongated with diminishing softness and tempo. Mazurka, Op. 17 No 4 was so tasteful, thoughtful and poetic, with perfectly shimmering ornaments and a broad but unhurried, more determined and slightly dramatic middle section. Chosen so poignantly for Ingmar Bergman’s film, Cries and Whispers, this small piece can evoke so much tenderness and pain, yet McIntyre showed a most interesting interpretation of the final section, repeating the opening melancholic themes with a little more assurance, forwardness, flow and optimism.
Even in his virtuosic and colourful performance of Scherzo, Op. 31, while showing his technical brilliance in scintillating runs, freewheeling cadenzas and intense crescendos, McIntyre showed great relaxation, warmth, authority and physical ease. Each pair of mazurkas was balanced, thoughtfully placed in the program, admirably extolling the remarkable language and genius of Chopin. Mazurka, Op. 33 No 3, so charming, graceful and balletic, was followed by Op. 33 No 4, a longer format, full of surprises with widely contrasting key changes and surprising chromatic themes and abrupt punctuations. As if from nowhere came seventeen bars of a soft, single note left hand unaccompanied melody, exploring the theme’s essence with altered fragments as if we have lost the dance rhythm, so intriguing and innovative. Although the opening themes returned with reassurance and nostalgia, the final bars were reduced again to a simple, sparse texture, as a dance that ended too soon with single soft and lonely notes and just a short descending three chord sigh.
McIntyre also shares a long and happy association with Italy and its great musical history, so not surprisingly the inclusion of Chopin’s very unconventional Barcarolle, Op. 60 was his showpiece of fantasy, drama and majesty. In this complex and passionate performance, the pianist’s admirable trills and ornaments added intense ripples and colour to the broad, undulating flow of the music. This work is a large portrait of romantic, long surging melodies and rising sequences of challenging chords. Such a meaningful performance, with many climaxes built through the journey, which were never overstated.
In Mazurka, Op. 41 No 2 McIntyre emphasised the syncopated, accented pulse beats of this solid and almost fatalistic piece, where persistent chromaticism and heavier beats felt more reminiscent of a slow but defiant march than a traditional dance. Poetry, gracefulness, delicacy and the expressive flow of the movements of a ballet dancer returned in the lyrical lines and rhythmic shapes of the folk-like melodies of Mazurka, Op. 67 No 2.
One of Chopin’s very last works, Polonaise Fantasie, Op. 61 took us on an exploratory journey of a symphonic poem. There was still the lyricism, some nostalgic use of Polish dance rhythms, but throughout, McIntyre produced much feeling in the many evocative brisk and agitated explorations of chords, deeply brooding and desolate descending bass lines and disturbing trills and chromatic harmony.
We thank MDCH for bringing us the concert planned for the Gala performance of the October Port Fairy Music Festival. We thank Stephen McIntyre for sharing his Chopin and his charisma – defined in my dictionary as “a divine gift or talent, the capacity to inspire followers with devotion and enthusiasm”.
Julie McErlain reviewed Stephen McIntyre’s piano recital “McIntyre’s Chopin”, performed as part of the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival and live-streamed from the Athenaeum Theatre by Melbourne Digital Concert Hall on October 13, 2021.