Personal reflections

Listening to pianist Ramzi Yassa’s performances of Chopin and Beethoven calls up reflections on the timeless force of art.

Published in Al Ahram Weekly

“I have reared a monument more lasting than brass” (Exegi Monumentum Aere Parennius): in this prophesy, the Latin poet Horace confirmed the timeless force of art — poetry, in his case — the same force that made works by many composers immortal. Indeed, names such as Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Chopin, Mahler, to name but a few of the great composers, are monuments engraved in human history, more lasting than brass. April 10 provided testimony to music’s immortality when Ramzi Yassa and the Cairo Symphony Orchestra performed works by Beethoven and Chopin.

By the end of the 18th century, the 30-year-old Beethoven had become the pride of Vienna and his fame had reached beyond Austrian borders. This man, whose genius could not save him from destiny, at the verge of suicide used all his creative force to embrace his progressive loss of hearing, and, against all the odds, utilised his power and determination to create works that would be admired by generations.

Beethoven’s music is not marked by resignation, but is rather the expression of a dramatic battle and of an affirmation of life. Beethoven was one of the last representatives of the classical era and a father of Romantic music. In his Symphony No. 1, he paid a final tribute to Mozart’s influence, and in the Symphony No. 2 he started to show his true character. This emerged fully in the Symphony No. 3 in 1803, the Eroica, which marked the birth of Romanticism in music. This transition was equally evident in his piano concertos of the same period.

Accompanied by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, Yassa played Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor with the required dynamism and a dose of lyrical expression. The vitality of the piece was preserved without Yassa’s forcing any mannerisms onto it, though Yassa’s greatest powers were yet to come in his interpretation of Chopin.

During the latter piece, listeners were taken 30 years forward in time, from Beethoven to Chopin’s Grande Polonaise Brillante. Lyricism, emotion and artistic subjectivity — such were the characteristics of Romanticism. The Romantics were no longer interested in man, as such — in the concept, that is. Instead, they were interested in man’s spirituality, aspirations and emotions. Creators put content above form and music served as “words” for the feelings.

Even though Chopin composed exclusively for piano, his influence on the history of music crosses the borders of piano music. Without doubt he was one of the greatest and most innovative composers in history. His strikingly original style, recognisable after the first few chords, is rich and powerful. At the same time, Chopin’s style varies, and among his compositions one finds works full of vitality and the sense of unrest, as well as music that is quiet and lyrical and that mirrors the melancholy mood changes of the composer.

Chopin’s emotional style was nurtured by many early Romantics, who introduced a wealth of rhythms and changes of mood in separate parts to the classical style, along with very attractive pianistic figures and various musical ornaments. Such pieces were composed by John Field, the Irish pianist and composer, whose nocturnes influenced pieces of the same form by Chopin, along with compositions by the German Carl Maria von Weber.

Chopin’s genius elevated his music into exceptionally noble expressions, especially felt in his two piano concertos (F Minor and E Minor) and his Grand Polonaise Brillante op. 22 for piano and orchestra. Both the concertos and the Grande Polonaise Brillante follow a typical structure, where the role of the piano is prominent and the orchestra serves as an accompaniment, or modest music filler, when the piano is not playing.

The Grande Polonaise Brillante in E Flat Major was finished in 1831, followed by the Andante Spianato in G Major three years later. In 1836, Chopin published the two combined compositions as the Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante in E Flat Major, Op. 22. The Grande Polonaise Brillante can be played either by solo piano or accompanied by the orchestra. Orchestration was clearly not Chopin’s specialty, and this was particularly felt in the Polonaise where the Cairo Symphony Orchestra provided the background for the soloist. Nevertheless, the early Chopin’s compositions accentuate the composer’s already profound lyricism and incomparable melodiousness.

Yassa is probably one of the most captivating interpreters of Chopin’s music. His skills and emotional proficiency are complemented by great force of imagination. Each note Yassa plays is complete and perfectly structured within itself, while their combination gives phrasing which emanates colours and captivating meanings. Performances of the Grande Polonaise Brillante do not always shine with such finesse, clarity of sound and sensitivity.

However, Yassa’s understanding of music is not limited to the performance and material at hand. While the vocabulary used is Chopin’s, Yassa’s velvet touch on the piano keys carries with it profound cultural implications. His education, talent, experience and imagination lie behind the sound produced by the instrument.

Many of those in the audience for the present concert no doubt remembered the concert “An Hour with Chopin” performed on February 11th at the Ewart Memorial Hall in Cairo. Amongst other works, this solo concert also included the Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante. When performing at the Cairo Opera House with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, Yassa’s performance once again had a nearly physical impact on the audience.

Yassa’s profound culture includes a variety of elements. As a child, he started playing the piano at home, where respect for the arts was seen as a natural and unquestionable component of life. He performed in front of a large audience at the age of 16, considering this as a turning point in his life when playing the piano turned from a hobby into a profession. Yassa then entered the newly opened Conservatory and was one of the first Egyptians to receive a scholarship to the former Soviet Union, where he enrolled in the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire. He returned to Egypt for a few short years before going to live in France in 1976.

Today, Yassa conducts master classes. He is a pianoforte professor at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris and a jury member for prestigious piano competitions. He is also artistic director of the International Music Centre, currently holding concerts at the Prince Mohamed Ali Palace in Manial (see Weekly issue 982 for a review). Yassa’s artistic achievements are as abundant as his cultural background expressed on the piano keys.

My first encounter with this great pianist came a couple of years ago when I was interviewing Yassa, and this was followed by a few short conversations exchanged here and there. Through these, I had the chance to get a little closer to this profound musician and man of obvious artistic passion who was enveloped in the courtesy found in the crème de la crème of the older generations.

Yassa’s name is known in the most-renowned international concert halls, and while his knowledge emerges in every comment he makes about the arts his modesty is overwhelming. Today, we may have a few dozen internationally praised musicians, but only a very few of them have a culture equal to that of Ramzi Yassa. When all of these factors come together in one man, his masterfulness and musical sensitivity become natural.

Ramzi Yassa accentuates in Chopin the elements that touch us the most, and he helps us hear all our memories and longings. No wonder his deserved ovations seemed not to want to cease at his recent Cairo concert. After such a treat, comments on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, played in the second half of the concert, would only direct the reader towards new emotional horizons. Let us leave with Yassa’s impact, then, which here again was “more lasting than brass.”

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