“He looks rather Churchillian, doesn’t he?” my friend whispered as the lights dimmed, and Charles Rosen tottered on stage with the help of a walking stick, which he hooked over the edge of the piano. The comparison seemed appropriate, for Charles Rosen is truly a grand elder statesman of the piano. Taught by the great Moritz Rosenthal, a pupil of Liszt, Rosen is that rare phenomenon - a renowned scholar, teacher, writer and musical philosopher, equally at home on the pianist’s bench as in the university lecture hall.

Choir-MassiveMessiah, Sheila Burnett
Choir-MassiveMessiah, Sheila Burnett

The all-Chopin programme contained music drawn from the composer’s late years, and the opening Op 62 Nocturnes seemed to set the tone for the afternoon: an extraordinary intimacy emerged through the very strong impression that Rosen was playing for himself and that we, the audience, had been invited into the salon for the afternoon to enjoy the music, much as it would have been enjoyed in Chopin’s day. Never mind that we were in a large concert hall, there was something deeply personal about Rosen’s performance of these pieces, and, as befits the author of 'The Classical Style', Rosen brought a classical reading to both nocturnes, with restrained rubato, and the fiorituras and other ornamentation played straight. Occasionally, we lost some of Chopin’s extraordinary tonalities and subtle harmonic shifts, and the pedalling was sometimes muddy, but the mood was perfect, dreamy and relaxed, setting the stage perfectly for the Barcarolle.

And it was in the Barcarolle, this Venetian gondoliere’s love song, that Rosen achieved some wonderful insights and intensity, and moments of great tenderness. Long-spun melodic lines, a gentle rocking accompaniment, magical “dazzling harmonies” (Maurice Ravel), and a second lyrical theme which rose to a climax before a return to the tranquillity of the opening motif. The bravos at the end were absolutely deserved for such an evocative and bravura performance.

The Op 59 Mazurkas were the penultimate set Chopin himself published. Originating from a rural Polish melody, both sung and danced, Chopin elevated the mazurka form from its bucolic beginnings to a highly refined musical form, and it was he alone who put it onto the public stage. However, the tug of his homeland is never far away in these works, written in triple time with an emphasis falling on the second beat. Rosen brought both elegance and playfulness to both Mazurkas, with occasional glimpses of an almost agricultural roughness and playfulness.

Chopin took the Waltz from a simple parlour tune for dancing and entertainment, and transformed it into sophisticated, urbane music for the salons of the aristocracy. His waltzes bear little relation to those of Schubert or the Strauss circle. The Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op 64 No. 2 has a bittersweet tinge in its Hungarian-style opening, before melting into a reverie of swirling quavers. Rosen captured the individual characters perfectly: melancholy, charm, delicate sentiments, and if the tempo went slightly awry in the rapid quaver measures, the overall sense of rhythmic vitality and shifting moods was never lost.

The Ballade, derived it from its poetic and vocal cousins, was 'invented' by Chopin, and he was the first composer to apply the term to a purely instrumental piece, whose structure does not suggest a firm narrative; rather, the listener is able to form his or her own narrative as the music unfolds. The Fourth Ballade opens in nocturne territory, wistful, lyrical and nostalgic, moving into a sonorous, subdued section with a barcarolle-like accompaniment before the music builds in power with thunderous cascades, which quickly dissolve into the original opening lilt. As in the Barcarolle, Rosen seemed most at home with these grand gestures and expansive fantasy-like sections, bringing passion and feeling to the piece, though never losing that sense of intimacy established with the nocturnes, proving that this music is both personal and virtuosic.

The Sonata in B minor, Op 58, was Chopin’s final solo sonata and in it we find the influence of Bach in its rich polyphony and counterpoint, which offer a very new and different soundworld to the previous B-flat minor sonata. The first movement opens with a distinctive tumbling semiquaver figure, which launches into the first subject, before a more lyrical second subject is introduced. I am sure I was not alone amongst the audience in questioning whether Rosen, at his great age, would be able to pull this off convincingly, but from the opening measures, we were swept along on a great tide of Chopin’s writing and Rosen’s obvious affinity with it. The Scherzo, with its swirling, mercurial outer sections, was a little more problematic, with one or two “senior moments” in the more settled middle section, while the Largo might have been a little more lyrical in places, the pedalling a touch more accurate here and there.

Massive chords signal the opening of the Finale, marked Presto non tanto, a movement which some pianists (who shall rename nameless) like to take at a helter-skelter agitato gallop. Rosen opted for a more controlled speed: occasionally some of the runs were smeared, though, as my friend remarked, it didn’t matter because “the ear filled in the gaps”. Overall, it was a rollicking final movement, its glorious ending in B major signalled by a parting flourish by Rosen.

He received a standing ovation in recognition of his pianistic stature, his great age, and above all, the extraordinary music, and despite shuffling painfully off and on the stage for his curtain calls, he offered up two encores, My Joys (arranged by Liszt) and another Mazurka, from the first set Chopin published.