Raphael Alexandre Lustchevsky plays Chopin in Kota Kinabalu; an in-house recital

Throughout this year, the world will be acknowledging the 200th birthday of Frédéric François Chopin in worldwide celebrations “Chopin2010”.

What could be better than having Poland’s acclaimed classical pianist Raphael Alexandre Lustchevsky — considered one of the best of today’s young generation — performing a recital of Chopin?

Nothing could be better. I can tell you this, because I was at such a perfect event, with a front row seat about 10 feet away from this wonderful musician.

The setting was intimate: a recital room with a raised stage and a medium grand piano, and a backdrop of red velvet curtain. The hall usually seats 60 but the event’s organisers — violinist Yap Ling and pianist Cheong Kok Ann — squeezed in another 20 seats to try to meet the demand.

So, in which cultural hub was this taking place? London? Paris? Rome? New York?

No bah. It was here in Kota Kinabalu, on May 8 at the E-Piano Music School, Foochow Centre. I was stunned at my good fortune, and could not believe that I was really witnessing all this greatness up close, thanks to the hard work of Yap Ling and Cheong Kok Ann. (Any other city, I would have been lucky to get a ticket, and be sitting at the back of the concert hall behind a great, big pillar.)

Yap Ling came on stage to explain that our gathering tonight was impromptu and very fortunate. Professor Lustchevsky was spending a week in KK on holiday, before embarking on a tour beginning with Thailand and then performing extensively throughout Australia. There had not been enough time to get the permission for a full public concert, so they had done their best to arrange something for us to enjoy.

We were really lucky. Lustchevsky is not only every bit the child-prodigy-grown-up-to-be-a-world-master that we read about, he is also very NICE.

He swept out from behind a side curtain wearing formal concert pianist coattails, and bowed grandly. There we sat, dressed in our Smart Casual clothes, while he treated us as if we were a “By Invitation Only” audience at the Royal Albert Hall.

Lustchevsky sat on the piano bench, adjusted it a little, and then did the loveliest thing: he turned around and started talking to us.

“To begin this recital, I want to play three Polonaises which were among Chopin’s earliest works,” he said.

“I am dedicating this to the youngsters in the audience, because the first two Polonaises were composed when Chopin was eight or nine years old, and the third when he was about twelve. So, perhaps the children in our audience will be inspired to do something similar, when they reach the same age,” he added, to some gentle laughter.

The early Polonaises were:

1. G minor

2. B flat major

3. A flat major

I could see Lustchevsky’s hands moving lightly, with precision and a kind of mischievous charm. When his right hand crossed over his left to play the melody in the bass, it was even more satisfying because I now knew Chopin composed like that when he was only eight!

Lustchevsky continued to tell us stories throughout the recital. [Later, during supper at Jin Jin restaurant in Hilltop, he said, “I think it really helps the audience. I don’t talk much, I keep it short. I just want to share the important points to know about a piece. I think it does make a difference to the way you hear the music.”]

Back in the recital, Lustchevsky said the first half of the evening would consist entirely of Polonaises.

“The Polonaise is the most significant Polish tune, besides the Mazurka,” he said. “It’s one of the five national dances, and Chopin is known for incorporating our national folk music into classical music.”

With that, he played the Polonaise in C sharp minor, Op. 26, with all the sweet melancholy that is Chopin. Painfully tender; tearfully beautiful.

Lustchevsky said Chopin did not name his works, although other people have done so. He gave examples: the “Revolutionary Etude”, “Raindrop Prelude”, and “Military Polonaise”. He then played the Polonaise in A major, Opus. 40, aka “Military.” As named, he struck the keys with a military authority, adding some flair and a smile, because Raphael Lustchevsky is a fun-loving and humourous guy, and he so clearly enjoys his music!

Malaysian Soprano Phoon Sook Peng and pianist Grace Lee, wife of violinist Yap Ling

During the intermission I had the pleasure of chatting with pianist Grace Lee, who is Yap Ling’s wife.  She was sitting with soprano Phoon Sook Peng.

After the Intermission, Lustchevsky talked about posthumous works. “There were a couple of works in existence, which Chopin thought were not good enough to be published. Either he thought they were not developed enough, or not complex enough to be published. So we refer to these as posthumous, without a number.” He then played Nocturne in C sharp minor, with the exquisite Chopin pathos that breaks your heart.

I was wiping my tears, thinking: “Where is my bottle of Żubrówka to drown my sorrows?” when Lustchevsky snapped me out of it with a new lesson: “The Scherzo! In Italian, ‘scherzo’ means ‘joke’. But I can tell you, this is no joke!” Laughter from the audience. “Chopin’s scherzi are his most difficult pieces. They are extremely complex and demand the highest level of virtuosity,” he said.

With a flourish, he launched into Scherzo in C sharp minor, Op. 39, and I really thought I’d had some of that Polish vodka because Lustchevsky’s hands were a blur as he played furious double octave runs and his left hand repeatedly leapt across the keyboard in an unleashed surge of intensity. As they say: the crowd went wild.

After that was Nocturne in F, Op. 15. Lustchevsky said, “Watch out for the middle movement! The instruction is ‘FURIO’ – furious,” with a twinkle in his eye. So we listened. This nocturne started so sweetly, I thought of a tiny ballerina figurine, turning slowly inside an open-lidded music box. But we already knew that something was brewing. Sure enough, the storm came, with thunderous runs deep into the bass notes, black and intense.

“Chopin was an intensely moody person,” Lustchevsky said. “The circumstances under which he wrote certainly affected his work. When he completed this Scherzo in B minor, Op. 20, Chopin was in Vienna. He had heard about the military uprising in Warsaw against the Russians, and this would certainly be reflected in his music. The opening is very emotional, and there is a very special piece in the middle of this scherzo. Chopin has blended into it a Polish Christmas carol. Everyone in Poland knows this song, it is a very traditional song. So you can imagine how he would be thinking about what was going on in his homeland, when he wrote this.”

The tempo instruction of the Scherzo in B minor is “Presto con fuoco” (quickly with fire). Lustchevsky played the passages furiously, and I imagined scared people in the Warsaw streets running blindly, and the terrible fear of war. Of course, when the melody of the Christmas carol came through so clearly, it was like Lustchevsky was deliberately playing it to us so we could not fail to detect it. I thought of families at Christmas inside their houses, with an open fireplace and a good meal on the table, in a time of happiness and peace.

It was an exhilarating and emotionally exhausting evening. Professor Lustchevsky is a magnificent musician, and a generous teacher. Everyone lucky enough to be in that recital room would know they had witnessed something very special.

Polish pianist Raphael Alexandre Lustchevsky signing copies of his CD after a Chopin recital in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

Yap Ling had arranged for the professor to give master classes to local students at his home in Penampang, for two evenings. The story is below.

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