The refugee crisis might seem a world away from the glamour of the concert hall but musicians, like all of us, are not immune to the horrors of war. This is something 36-year-old pianist Ivana Gavric knows only too well.
This month she releases a new album, Chopin, the fourth in a series that so far has drawn warm praise from critics and audiences. In 1992, however, her circumstances were very different. She was 11 years old and her parents made the decision to flee their home in the former Yugoslavia, following the outbreak of the war in the region, and travel to the UK.
“A very contemporary story,” Gavric says, and also one that colours her perception of the current refugee crisis.
“I do feel it more strongly because I have, in some ways, experienced it – but luckily not in such awful circumstances. We were lucky to escape early on and get to the UK in safe means but, yes, I think it’s really upsetting to see what’s happening and hope there’s something that can be done to stop it because they are people.”
Interestingly, Gavric’s choice of composer of the music on her fourth album was another refugee – albeit from a very different time: Frederic Chopin, one of the most celebrated musicians in history.
He dramatically changed the contours of classical music in the mid-19th century. Like Gavric he was a pianist – although, unlike her, he notoriously hated performing in public and did so only 30 times.
While on an international tour of Europe as a young man, his beloved homeland, Poland, succumbed to an invasion by Tsarist Russia. This resulted in the composer’s permanent exile; a situation that affected him deeply for the rest of his short life (he died at the age of 39).
“In vain does Malfatti try to convince me that every artist is a cosmopolitan,” he wrote to a friend in November 1830, when he was a 20-year-old. “As an artist, I am still in my cradle, as a Pole…”
This burning sense of national pride finds its way into much of his music, but in particular the Mazurkas, the 59 or so piano works that Chopin based on the familiar skipping rhythm found in the Polish folk dance of the same name.
It is also what attracted Gavric to record a selection of Mazurkas on her album.
“He captures the essence of these dances and national feeling and I find that quite interesting,” she says. “I realise now, retrospectively, that I’ve been drawn to composers that try to create a national voice or some sort of national flavour in their music. And this actually fits the bill.”
Being the genius he was, Chopin did not stick to mere imitation, however.
“Yes, they are called Mazurkas after the mazurkas in Poland, but I think he’s not so careful to only use the mazurka rhythm in them,” says Gavric. “In some of the works, it feels like he’s dancing. In others there’s more of a sense of walking. While others have a more melancholic song.
“They really vary in character and mood and colour. They’re fun to play.”
At recitals and on recordings, Chopin’s Mazurkas tend to lose out to the more famous Etudes or Preludes. This means that for the casual listener there can be some surprises – and even for the professionals.
“I ended up being particularly drawn to the early ones,” says Gavric, who decided to stick to Mazurkas composed before 1838 for her recording.
“I was almost shocked by how rustic or unsophisticated some were. You can really hear Chopin developing his language. He wrote them throughout his life, so it’s nice to think of them as his little diary entries, in a way.
“The early ones, especially, sound much more like folk music, if you like. And then, as we progress through them, you can see that they become much more stylised; much more sophisticated.
“They’re very playful. They’re all tinged with some kind of nostalgia or memory. They’re also very erratic; they change mood,” she adds.
For many pianists, Chopin is revered as the Shakespeare of the piano repertoire. But now that we live in a world where we get most of our music from the cloud and it is the Super Bowl half-time show that makes the news, is there still a place for someone like Chopin?
Very much so, according to Gavric.
“His music is quite special,” she says. “He has this incredible ability to speak to an individual rather than the masses, and that really gets to you; it speaks directly to the heart.
“He was such an intriguing figure and composer; and he stands quite alone in history – although, he went on to influence a lot of composers after him, of course.
“But I think there’s still this mystery and this awe of him being this poet at the piano – both as a pianist and as a composer – and I think that we still really love hearing these poems in music.”
• Chopin by Ivana Gavric is available now on Edition Classics