Roberto Prosseda pays tribute to the genius of Chopin and the inspirational figure of Fou Ts’ong

‘I imagine this is how Chopin would have played – a marvel’ Herman Hesse

These were the words to describe Fou Ts’ongs playing of Chopin and it was a privilege for me to be able to invite him to Rome to the Teatro Ghione year after year not only to give recitals but to share his inspirational gifts with young musicians in the masterclasses that he held there too.Roberto Prosseda a young very gifted pianist from Latina was studying piano in the Cafaro household with Sergio and Mimmi just a stones distance from the theatre.This was somewhat equivalent to the Craxton household in London where all the most talented young musicians would be befriended and enriched with the warmth and unique musical pedigree that was the Cafaros creed.Roberto would often frequent the theatre and the masterclasses held there and would often ask me if he could try out new programmes for competitions.

I remember a remarkable Chopin recital that he took to the Competition in Warsaw and a duo recital with Francesco Libetta for Sergio Cafaro’s 80th birthday.Whenever Ts’ong came to Rome Roberto would always play in his masterclasses where he was received with such joy because he was able to do whatever Ts’ong asked immediately.Roberto ultimately went on to study with him in the only European institution where he taught regularly on the shores of Lake Como.Roberto played all the Chopin Nocturnes in 2006 for the Piano Academy that had been established a few years after the birth of the Ghione Theatre in the 80’s by William Naboré on the invitation of the philanthropist Theo Lieven .Bill a student of Zecchi and a friend from my student days in Rome would ask if many of the great artists giving concerts and classes in Rome would give classes for him too.Ts’ong loved the mutual stimulation so much that he returned for over 25 years.

Ts’ong followed in the footsteps of Karl Ulrich Schnabel and was in turn followed by Fleischer,Bashkirov,Brendel,Perahia,Frankl,Tureck, Lympany,De Larrocha and many others in an oasis of serious preparation of the next generation.I was very touched when Roberto contacted me to say he was giving an all Chopin concert in Pisa dedicated to his beloved mentor who had passed away at the age of 86 in London from COVID complications.Playing in the magnificent Teatro Verdi in Pisa it had been organised by the artistic director Carlo Boccadoro in the concert series of the prestigious University of Pisa that was founded in 1810 with a decree by Napoleon as a branch of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris.It is generally considered to be the most prestigious university in Italy somewhat on a par with Oxbridge.

Roberto is now a father of three and married to Alessandra Amara,also a former student of the Cafaro household and Lake Como.Roberto as Ts’ong had foreseen is one of the most versatile young musicians of his generation.Concerts worldwide solo and in duo with his wife but also tireless organiser of festivals and events and and an author of many authoritative tomes,regularly talking and playing on the Italian radio and television.He has even invented the best system for on line teaching that he has patented to many of the major institutions worldwide.He had invited both Ts’ong and also Elisso’Virsaladze to give concerts and masterclasses at the Pontine Festival founded in the 60’s by Menuhin and Szigeti in Sermoneta in the hills above his home town of Latina.His pedigree is assured indeed.

Roberto’s programme notes for his complete performance of the nocturnes at the Ghione Theatre in 2006

Above gives you some idea of Roberto’s recent activities that I have been delighted to follow and be invited to comment on.Now today he was alone in this vast opera house just him,a beautiful Steinway and the genial music of Chopin paying homage to the man that had inspired him and many others with his passion,inspiration and total dedication to music and in particular Chopin.

Three nocturnes op 9;Two waltzes op 64;Two nocturnes op 27and op 62 ;Fourth Ballade op 52 and an encore of the nocturne op posth in C sharp minor.Between the nocturnes op 27 and op 62 there was a world premiere of a work written by the composer in residence Virginia Guastella called ‘ Quella che resta ‘ .

A composer writing a nocturne with new piano techniques of plucking and stroking the strings to produce magical new sounds.Rubinstein would often play Mazukas by Szymanowski in his all Chopin programmes that had the effect of a sorbet ,renewing the taste buds at a particularly rich banquet.Roberto had explained that he had some very fruitful rehearsals with the composer.Insistent repeated notes like the ‘Raindrop’ prelude of Chopin on which appeared fragments of mellifluous sounds over subtle clouds that Robert had achieved by running his fingers over the strings inside the piano.

Sounds purposfully muted by striking the key whilst blocking the string with his hand.It had the same delicacy and magic that Roberto had demonstrated in his performances of Chopin but with an augmented kaleidoscope of sounds that was every bit as poetic.

It was Fou Ts’ong who would liken the works of Chopin to the poetry of Chinese poets telling us that it was the same message whether in China or wherever.A soul is unique and has no boundaries which is why indeed music is a universal language.

A very personal and ravishing sound in the opening Nocturne op 9 n.1 but with a scrupulous attention to Chopin’s indication with so many magical moments.The opening had seemed a little agitated until he reached the pianississimo,legatissimo horn like passage before the return of the main theme where the sounds seemed to float into the air into this enormous space.As Roberto later confided it was bitterly cold due to the theatre lying obsolete for so long in these barren times.However now fully acclimatised he gave a truly aristocratic performance of the famous E flat nocturne op 9 n.2.Such extreme elegance and simplicity with the bel canto embellishments worthy of a Caballe or Sutherland .There were such subtle inflections in the third of this first set of op 9 that it reminded me of the famous recording by Josef Lhevine with its haunting nostalgia and beguiling barely whispered sounds of another age.Even the turbulent middle section was played with a fluidity and delicacy but always with such scrupulous respect for the score.

The waltz in C sharp minor op 64 n.2 was shaped with such beauty and care,each note a pearl in his sensitive hands.Thanks to his superb sense of balance the melodic line sang so naturally with a feeling of timelessness in a journey where we could savour the gems that Chopin had strewn in our path.A ‘minute’ waltz played in ‘two’as Roberto spiritedly remarked,but played with an irresistible forward movement and a beautiful sense of cantabile in the middle section.There was mystery in the opening of the Nocturne op 27 n.1,the melody emerging on a sea of sounds obviously the inspiration for Debussy.A melodic line played with such delicacy with great sentiment but never dissolving into sentimentality.The bass in the middle section,on the other hand,was played with a remarkable clarity with the più mosso played with great passion and mazurka like in its rhythmic impulse.The imperiously rhetorical bass cadenza dissolving so magically to recreate the atmosphere of the opening.The extraordinarily beautiful final chords prepared the scene for the opening of the following nocturne op 27 n.2.The final C sharp becoming the opening D flat of what must be one of Chopin’s loveliest creations.It was played with a radiance and heart rending simplicity that reminded me of the many memorable performances by Artur Rubinstein.Barely touching the keys after the momentary turbulence of the middle section as it gave way to a deep D flat held by the pedal for many bars at a time as Chopin most precisely indicates .The final few bars were of a whispered magic and as Roberto said afterwards where even he could feel the baited breath of this invisible audience.

The final works in the programme were those with which Fou Ts’ong was particularly associated.I remember the memorable suggestions that he shared with Roberto for the fourth ballade ,one of the greatest works of the piano repertoire.But also the last two nocturnes where Chopin had created a world in which every note and every inflection has a significance but with an architectural shape and direction that all truly great works of art must have.Robert gave exemplary performances of which I am sure Ts’ong would have approved.Maybe Ts’ong would have played with more passion and abandonment but certainly not with more loving care.

This beautiful article was written by Jessica Duchen after an interview with Fou Ts’ong at the Piano Academy in Lake Como.

The final word though must go to Ts’ong which I am sure Roberto would more than agree with.

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