Juho Pohjonen brings sense of peril to his piano playing at Vancouver Playhouse
A Vancouver Recital Society presentation. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Sunday, October 30
In what was probably the truest description ever written of Frédéric Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28, Robert Schumann likened them to “eagle feathers”. In being weightless, strong, and superbly designed, this is as apt as you can get for music so suggestive of flight. Their eloquent concision—not a note in excess—makes them a revolutionary addition to the piano’s voice. If Chopin had written nothing else for the instrument, this would be enough of a claim on immortality. In several ways, this music is the ultimate.
Hopes were high when the young Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen took the stage on Sunday afternoon at the Vancouver Playhouse for the Vancouver Recital Society in his second visit to the city. Previously, I’d only heard him on recordings, but he more than lived up to live expectations. It’s not the first time I’ve felt that there’s something strange about the Finns’ amazing aptitude for music and their ability to make it as bracing as a shot of ice-cold vodka.
One of the major essentials that a pianist has to conjure from these preludes is the illusion that they’re being improvised; otherwise, they’re not really conceived in the Romantic spirit. Pohjonen brought that distinct immediacy and a sense of peril to his playing, and there is a very real danger to this work, as is clear from at least the third prelude in G major, the technically treacherous 12th in G-sharp minor, the virtuosic tour de force of the 16th in B-flat minor, and the brief 22nd in G minor, with its stormy left-hand octaves. The wonder is that he pulled them all off so adroitly. He made an event of the preludes, and this is just what they should be.
Some may have found it surprising, even disappointing, that Pohjonen included the Ludwig van Beethoven piano sonata that very few pianists even glance at, the No. 15 in D Major, Op. 28, subtitled “Pastoral”. People tend to look down on it for all the wrong reasons, but I admired Pohjonen for including this unpretentious, immensely gentle sonata, because I think it said a lot about him, just as it says a lot about Beethoven, who wasn’t only dark clouds and epic turmoil.
Finally, in a program that was composed of a thoughtful balance of pieces, Pohjonen turned to another work of revolutionary status, Claude Debussy’s three-part Estampes, making it shimmer and giving it a ravishing evenness of touch.
In a nice addition to the program, the audience was invited to stay behind after the concert for an informal Q & A with the serious but affable 30-year-old Pohjonen. Asked what music he preferred, he said, “I really like to play everything—except for Liszt.”