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ClassicsOnline Home » CHOPIN, F.: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Biret, Slovak State Philharmonic, Stankovsky)
Complete Piano Music
Relatively early in his career Chopin realised that he excelled in
performance of more intimate delicacy than was generally possible in the
concert hall. Nevertheless in a world that still made little distinction
between composer and performer, he provided himself with compositions for piano
and orchestra with which to make his name at the start of his career. It was
only once he had established himself in Paris in the l830s that he turned
rather to the kind of playing that he made so much his own, performances that
demanded great technical proficiency, but made no attempt to impress, as Liszt
and Kalkbrenner did, by displays of sound and fury.
Born in Warsaw in 1810, the son of a French émigré father and a Polish
mother, Chopin studied with the director of the Warsaw Conservatory, at first
as a private pupil and later as a full-time student. At home he had already
impressed audiences, but fame lay abroad, and in pursuit of that chimera he set
out for Vienna, a city where he had already attracted some attention on an
earlier visit. On the second occasion he achieved nothing, and travelled
instead to Paris, while his native Poland, to his dismay, was in the turmoil of
political disturbance that led to the firm establishment of Russian hegemony.
It was in France that Chopin was to remain, favoured by Society as a teacher
and as a performer.
The Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor was actually the second of the two
to be composed and was written, like its companion, in Warsaw, before Chopin
left Poland. The concerto was tried out in private and then given its first
public performance on 11th October 1830, at the composer's last Warsaw concert.
On 2nd November he left home for good. Chopin dedicated the work to his friend
Tytus Woyciechowski, and while it expresses something of his love for his
closest companion, it summarises in its slow movement his feelings for the
young singer Konstancja Gladkowska. He described the Adagio as
"like dreaming in beautiful spring-time – by moonlight".
The concerto relies heavily on the solo instrument, and Chopin himself
played it on occasions without the assistance of an orchestra. The orchestral
exposition has been considered by some to be too long, while others have found
fault with the orchestration, and editors have sometimes seen fit to make
change, to remedy these supposed
faults. The idiom of the solo part remains entirely characteristic of the
composer, with a slow movement "reviving in one's soul beautiful
memories", as Chopin put it, and a final rondo providing a
structure into which the composer's genius fits rather less easily.
The Piano Concerto No.
2 in F minor was, like No. 1, initially tried out in a private performance at
home. Two weeks later it was repeated in public, in a programme that included
the Fantasy on Polish Airs, before an audience of some 800 and performed
again five days later, together with the Krakowiak, using a louder
piano, to overcome objections of inaudibility.
Reminiscent in style
of the work of Spohr or Hummel, leading composers of the time, the F minor
Concerto follows its dramatic first theme with a second, gentler subject,
announced by the woodwind, before the entry of the soloist with the first
striking theme. The romantic second movement has a brief orchestral
introduction before the entry of the piano, in the mood of a Nocturne. The
last movement may appear to bear all the marks of a Mazurka, its music
characterised by novel orchestral effects, as the violins accompany one episode
with the wood of the bow and a horn-call heralds the movement's final section,
during the course of which the second horn descends to the depths, while the
piano brings the work to a climax.
Interpreting Chopin by
Although the romantic
era in its music and its performances is not so far from our own time, for
various reasons we seem to have distanced ourselves from it. As a consequence,
often composers very different from one another like Chopin, Liszt, Schumann
and Wagner are brought under the same title of Romantic Composers. In this
context it is quite normal to find Chopin and Liszt mentioned together as
composers of similar style, while there are no two sound worlds as different
from one another as those of Chopin and Liszt. The conception of the piano
sound that Chopin created is based on the model of the voice. Liszt, on the
other hand, fascinated by the development of the modern piano during his
period, challenges the orchestra in an attempt to reproduce on the piano the richness
of the orchestral palette.
It must be among the
fondest wishes of any pianist to be able to have heard Chopin perform his own
music. Fortunately there are some recordings providing indirectly some evidence
of this way of approaching the piano. One may in particular mention the
recordings of Raoul von Koczalski who studied with Chopin's pupil Karol Mikuli.
It is also enlightening to listen to the recordings of Cortot, a pupil of
Decombes who received precious counsel from Chopin. Further, Friedman, de
Pachmann and Paderewski who were not direct descendants of Chopin were still
close enough to his aesthetic conceptions to be able to convey the spontaneity
Chopin is said to have brought to his playing as well as the polyphonic and
rhythmic richness which are so apparent in Chopin's conception of the piano. In
spite of the inferior quality of the recordings from the earlier part of this
century, a considerable number of common points are audible in the performances
of these pianists. Notably, a very fine legato, a piano sound that never loses
its roundness since intensity replaces force, the exact feeling of rubato,
recognition of the importance of inner voices and consequently a remarkable
sense of polyphony. Contrary to the popular image of the romantic virtuoso,
simplicity and naturalness remain exemplary in the way these great Chopin
interpreters approach music.
It is interesting to
note also the evidence left by musicians, contemporaries of Chopin, and
Chopin's pupils about his interpretations. A perfect legato drawing its
inspiration from bel canto and unimaginable richness in tone-colour were the
product of subtle variations in a sound full of charm and a purity that lost
none of its fullness even in its forte passages. Chopin could not sound aggressive,
especially on the pianos of that period. Berlioz wrote, "To be able to
appreciate Chopin fully, I think one must hear him from close by, in the salon
rather than in a theatre."
Chopin's sense of
rubato was unrivalled. The temps dérobé (stolen time) assumed under the
hands of the great master its true meaning. Mikuli gives a description of the
rubato as Chopin conceived it, which seems to be of penetrating clarity. After
recalling that Chopin was inflexible in keeping the tempo and that the
metronome was always on his piano, Mikuli explains, "Even in his rubato,
where one hand – the accompanying one – continues to play strictly in time, the
other – the hand which sings the melody – freed from all metric restraint
conveys the true musical expression, impatience, like someone whose speech
becomes fiery with enthusiasm."
Together with a
certain classicism, moderation was the basis of the world of Chopin. Hence,
playing his music on the powerful modern pianos and in large concert halls is
often problematic. One should ideally never go beyond a self-imposed limit of
sound and keep in mind as the criteria the possibilities of the human voice. It
is therefore better to somewhat reduce sonority without sacrificing the quality
of the sound.
In performing Chopin's
works one should neither try to reconstruct nor imitate the interpretations of
the past which remain unique, but try, with the help of all the recorded and
written material we are lucky to possess, to penetrate deeper into the musical
texts and advance further in the unending quest for a better understanding of
the art of Chopin.
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