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8.554538 - CHOPIN: Scherzos / Impromptus / Allegro de concert
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Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)

Complete Piano Music Vol. 12
Scherzi and Impromptus
Allegro de concert

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.

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 four Scherzi explore a new form of piano composition. Originally a musical joke, with Beethoven the scherzo had come to replace the more limited minuet as the third movement of a symphony. Chopin, however, made of it an independent virtuoso form. He completed his first Scherzo in 1832 and dedicated it to Tomas Albrecht, wine-merchant and Saxon consul in Paris and a good friend, who was present at the composer's death-bed in 1849. Two emphatic chords summon attention before the impetuous principal material of the piece makes its appearance, with its contrasting B major trio section, a Polish folk-song transformed into a Berceuse. The second Scherzo, Opus 31 in B flat minor and D flat major, was written in 1837 and dedicated to a pupil, Countess Adälè von Fürstenstein. Once again the Scherzo opens with a call to attention, this time ominously quiet, until the answering burst of sound, followed by a display of agility, leading to a central oasis of general A major tranquillity that is not without passing excitement. The third Scherzo, in the key of C sharp minor, belied in its opening, was written in 1839 and dedicated to his favourite pupil, Adolf Gutmann, one of the few professional pupils that he took during a teaching career largely devoted to the interests of rich amateurs. Marked Presto con fuoco, the Scherzo embarks on a series of open octaves with which and with wider intervals Gutmann would be well able to cope and includes a central D flat major passage in contrast. The last of these pieces, the Scherzo in E major, Opus 54, composed in 1842 and published with a dedication to his pupil Countess Jeanne de Caraman, after its introduction, moves into the fairy scherzo territory of Mendelssohn, a delicately nuanced conclusion to the series, ending with an appropriate flourish.

Chopin wrote his first Impromptu in 1837, the year of his first liaison with George Sand, dedicating the work, as he so often did, to one of his society pupils, the Countess Caroline de Lobau. Its delicate and lively outer sections enclose a more sustained F minor passage at the heart of the work. The second Impromptu followed two years later, to be issued by Chopin's new publisher Troupenas, who had temporarily replaced Maurice Schlesinger, whom he suspected of duplicity. The left hand establishes a pattern of chordal accompaniment, before the entry of the well-known principal melody and its elaborate embellishment. There is a lilting D major section and an F major restatement of the main theme before a passage of filigree ornament leads to a conclusion. By 1843 Chopin had returned to Schlesinger, who published his third Impromptu in that year, with a dedication to Countess Jeanne Esterhazy, née Batthyany, a member by birth and by marriage of one of the leading families of the Habsburg Empire. Following a pattern he often used, Chopin frames a more sustained central section in the relative minor key with music of a livelier turn. The Fantaisie-Impromptu, published posthumously in 1855, predates the other three Impromptus 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.

The Allegro de concert, Opus 46, was conceived originally as a movement of a projected piano concerto in 1831, when it seemed Chopin might still have use for such material. It was revised as a solo work and published in 1841, with a dedication to a new pupil, Friederike Müller, who noted in her diary the physical weakness of her teacher, his coughing and remedy of opium drops with sugar and his enormous patience. The Allegro de concert preserves something of the rhetoric expected in a concerto.

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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