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8.554533 - CHOPIN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3
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 Adalbert 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 first of Chopin's three piano sonatas, the Sonata in C minor, Opus 4, was completed in 1828, at a time when the composer was still a student of Jozet Elsner at the Warsaw Conservatory The sonata was published posthumously, in 1851. It was inevitable that at some point in his career Chopin should tackle a form that had proved of such vital importance in the development of instrumental music of all kinds. Later he was to treat the sonata with characteristic originality, of which there are already distinct traces in this early example.
The first movement, marked Allegro maestoso, opens solemnly, proceeding with an increased chromaticism remarkable enough for its place and period. The second movement E flat major Minuet is precise in its use of the traditional dance, contrasted with an E flat minor Trio. There follows a slow movement in an unusual 5/4 metre and in the key of A flat major, a gentle interlude before a final Presto of greater energy, interspersed with contrasting episodes, subject to development. The sonata ends with a forceful enough conclusion, the whole representing an achievement that is no mere student work, however it may appear by comparison with the two later sonatas.
The Sonata in B flat minor, Opus 35, was written in 1839, including the Funeral March, the work of 1837. It starts with a brief introduction, followed by a more rapid accompanying figure, above which the excited first subject appears. In contrast is the slow second subject in D flat major. Chopin modifies traditional classical sonata form by omitting the first subject from the recapitulation of the movement, which begins, instead, with the major key second subject.
If the central development section of the first movement had been harmonically varied, the central section of the second movement, the trio, is simple in its harmony, a marked contrast to the agitated chromaticism of the Scherzo that frames it. Tranquillity return, with the solemnity of the Funeral March, which is followed by a rapid final movement which is daring in its use of a darting single-line melody, doubled at the octave, its only chord in its conclusion.
The Sonata in B minor, Opus 58, was the only composition that Chopin completed in 1844. Its first movement opens with a particularly decisive first subject, followed by a second with all the poetic nuance of a nocturne. There is a central development of contrapuntal and harmonic complexity, before the return of the second subject in the final recapitulation.
The Scherzo, briefer than other movements in this form that Chopin greatly enlarged, is in E flat, framing a serene trio in the key of B major. It is succeeded by a slow movement in which the ambiguous harmony of the opening leads to a melody that would have suited well enough the great operatic singers of the day, and a rhapsodic middle section. There follows a final rondo movement of panache to provide a brilliant conclusion to the work.
Interpreting Chopin by Idil Biret
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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