About this Recording
8.553170 - CHOPIN: Piano Favourites, Vol. 1


Piano Favourites

Fryderyk Chopin was born in 1810 at Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw. His father Nicolas Chopin was French by birth but had moved to Poland to work as an accounting clerk, later serving as tutor to the Laczynski family and thereafter to the family of Count Skarbek, one of whose poorer relatives he married. His subsequent career led him to the Warsaw Lyceum as a respected teacher of French, and it was there that his only son, Fryderyk, godson of Count Skarbek, whose Christian name he took, passed his childhood.

Chopin showed an early talent for music. He learned the piano from his mother and later with the eccentric Adillbert Zywny, a violinist of Bohemian origin, and as fiercely Polish as Chopin's father. His later training in music was with Jozef Elsner, director of the Warsaw Conservatory, at first as a private pupil and then as a student of that institution.

In the 1820s Chopin had already begun to win for himself a considerable local reputation, but Warsaw offered relatively limited opportunities. In 1830 he set out for Vienna, a city where he had aroused interest on a visit in the previous year and where he now hoped to make a more lasting impression. The time, however, was ill-suited to his purpose. Vienna was not short of pianists, and Thalberg, in particular, had out-played the rest of the field. During the months he spent there Chopin attracted little attention, and resolved to move to Paris.

The greater part of Chopin's professional career was to be spent in France, and particularly in Paris, where he established himself as a fashionable teacher and as a performer in the houses of the rich. His playing in the concert hall was of a style less likely to please than that of the more flamboyant Liszt or than the technical virtuosity of Kalkbrenner. It was in the more refined ambience of the fashionable salon that his genius as a composer and as a performer, with its intimacy, elegance and delicacy of nuance, found its place.

Chopin could not but admire the ability of Liszt, while not sharing his taste in music. His own background had been severely classical, based on the music of Bach, Mozart and Haydn, and by these standards Beethoven, the object of adulation for Liszt and his circle, seemed on occasion uncouth, by comparison with the classical restraint of Mozart's pupil Hummel. At the same time he held reservations about the Bohemian way of life that Liszt followed, although he himself was to become involved in a liaison with the novelist George Sand (Aurore Dudevant), which lasted for some ten years, coming to an end two years before his death, while Liszt's more dramatic association with another married woman, a less successful blue-stocking, the Comtesse d' Agoult, forced his withdrawal from Paris society. Both women were to take literary revenge on their paramours.

Paris was to provide Chopin with a substantial enough income as a teacher, and there was a ready market for his compositions, however reluctant he might be to commit them to paper. The country retreat of George Sand at Nohant provided a change of air that was certainly healthier for him than that of Mallorca, where, in 1838, the couple spent a disastrous winter that intensified the weakness of Chopin's lungs, already affected by the tuberculosis from which he was to die.

In 1848 political disturbances in Paris made teaching impossible, and Chopin left the city for a tour of England and Scotland. By this time his health had deteriorated considerably. At the end of the year he returned to Paris, now too weak to play or to teach and dependent on the generosity of others for subsistence. He died there on 17th October, 1849.

The greater part of Chopin's music was written for his own instrument, the piano. At first it seemed that works for piano and orchestra would be a necessary part of his stock-in-trade, but the position he found for himself in Paris enabled him to write principally for the piano alone, in a characteristic idiom that derives some inspiration from contemporary Italian opera, much from the music of Poland, and still more from his own adventurous approach to harmony and his own sheer technical ability as a player.

The Impromptu, in title at least, was typical of its period in its suggestion of romantic abandon and freedom. In common with much else in European music, it had its origins in Prague with the publication in 1822 of Impromptus by Jan Vaclav Vorišek, followed five years later by the Bohemian-born composer Marschner. Schubert's publisher in the 1820s, Tobias Haslinger, found the title commercially attractive, and thereafter the name endured, descriptive of an independent piano piece, lacking the formality of a sonata movement. The fourth of Chopin's essays in the form, the Fantaisie-Impromptu, published posthumously in 1855, predates the other three and was completed in 1835. Its intense and excited outer sections frame a central Largo in D flat major, in which, as so often, an arpeggio left-hand accompaniment points an upper singing melody.

Chopin made the nocturne his own, developing the form from the earlier work of the Irish pianist John Field. He wrote the three Nocturnes published as Opus 9 before he left Warsaw. They were published in Paris in 1833, with a dedication to Marie Moke, once engaged to Berlioz but from 1831 until their separation four years later wife of the piano-manufacturer Camille Pleyel. The second is probably the most immediately familiar of the set. The two Nocturnes that make up Opus 27, published in 1836, were dedicated to Countess Apponyi, wife of the Austrian ambassador to France. The second of the set, in D flat major, marked Lento sostenuto, includes considerable chromatic embellishment.

The waltz, a German country-dance in origin, had by the end of the eighteenth century won considerable popularity in the ball-room, in spite of the warnings of doctors and moralists, who feared physical and spiritual degeneration as a result. Chopin had first turned to the form in piano pieces written in Warsaw. The seventh of his nineteen waltzes, the Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64, No.2, is here coupled with the famous "Minute" Waltz, the rapid Waltz in D flat major, Op. 64, No.1, written towards the end of Chopin's life, one of a series of works that starts with the Grande valse brillante in E flat major, Op. 18.

The famous funeral march of Chopin forms the slow movement of the second of his three sonatas, the Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 35. In its original context it forms a contrast with the movements that precede and follow it.

Among forms that Chopin made his own was the Mazurka, a Polish dance that takes its name from the Mazurs, inhabitants of the province of Mazovia, near Warsaw. Chopin wrote some fifty compositions under this title, making use of the characteristic rhythmic patterns of the dance. The Mazurka in B flat major, Op. 7, No.1, was published in Paris in 1834.

The Polish dance, the Polonaise, also found its way from village to ball-room and thence abroad. In Paris in 1830 Poland was in the news, with the attempted rising against Russia and its suppression, and things Polish enjoyed considerable popularity, a fact from which Chopin benefited on his arrival in the city. As with other relatively trivial dance forms, he was able to raise the Polonaise to a new level, imparting a degree of complexity and a degree of feeling that had not always been present in the work of his elders in Warsaw. His first attempts at the form were at the age of seven and his last in 1846, three years before death. The two Polonaises that make up Opus 40 were published in 1840 by Troupenas, who for the moment replaced Chopin's usual publisher Schlesinger, suspected now of duplicity. The first of the pair, in the key of A major, is among the best known of all. The set was dedicated to Julian Fontana, Chopin's friend and contemporary at the Warsaw Conservatory, who had taken refuge first in Hamburg, after the abortive Polish rising, and then, in 1832, in Paris, afterwards to seek his fortune for some years in the New World, in New York and in Havana. Fontana helped Chopin in negotiations with publishers and also as a copyist, serving his friend's memory with a posthumous edition of a number of later works, in spite of a measure of ill-feeling between the two as Chopin prospered and Pontana failed to make any significant name for himself. Chopin w rote his A flat major Polonaise, Opus 53, in 1842, dedicating it to the banker August Léo, a man who had earlier been the object of the composer's anti-semitic complaints during the traumatic winter spent with George Sand on the island of Mallorca in 1838-9.

It was in Mallorca that Chopin, suffering from bronchitis and then tuberculosis, continued work on the set of twenty-four Preludes, a series of generally short pieces of contrasting mood, of which the so-called "Raindrop" Prelude in D flat major is the longest. The twenty-four Études, published as Opus 10 and Opus 25, represent a rather different form of music in which technical problems for the pianist are tackled in an overwhelmingly musical form. The Opus 10 Études were written between 1829 and 1832 and published the following year with a dedication to Franz Liszt. The so-called Revolutionary Étude has been popularly and apocryphally associated with the composer's feelings on hearing the news of the Polish rising against Russian domination and its suppression in 1831. The G flat major Étude confines the player's right hand to the black keys of the piano, while the E major Étude, No. 3 breathes gentle serenity.

The four Ballades of Chopin are said to have been inspired by the verses of the poet Adam Mickiewicz, an exile in Paris and a friend of the composer. The source of the first Ballade, it has been suggested, was the poem Konrad Wallenrod, a medieval story of patriotic vengeance wrought through treason, and a thinly disguised attack on the Russian domination of Poland. Here the characteristic lilt of the music is preceded by a dramatic introductory passage, a call to the listener's attention. After this the tale unfolds, a story of increasing intensity, with moments of serenity, moments of passion, and what seems to be the recurrent voice of the narrator, captured in the first, principal theme. The first Ballade was completed in 1835 and published in 1835 with a dedication to the Hanoverian ambassador in Paris.

Idil Biret
Born in Ankara, Idil Biret started to learn the piano at the age of three and later studied at the Paris Conservatoire under the guidance of Nadia Boulanger, graduating at the age of fifteen with three first prizes. A pupil of Alfred Cortot and of Wilhelm Kempff, she embarked on her career as a soloist at the age of sixteen, appearing with major orchestras in the principal musical centres of the world, in collaboration with conductors of the greatest distinction. To many festival appearances may be added membership of juries for international piano competitions, including the Van Cliburn, Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians and Busoni Competitions. She has received the Lili Boulanger Memorial Award in Boston, the Harriet Cohen / Dinu Lipatti Gold Medal in London, the Polish Artistic Merit Award and the French Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Mérite. Her more than sixty records include the first recording of Liszt's transcription of the symphonies of Beethoven, and for Naxos the complete piano works of Chopin, Brahms and Rachmaninov, with a Marco Polo disc of the piano compositions and transcriptions of her mentor Wilhelm Kempff.

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