About this Recording
8.554539 - CHOPIN, F.: Waltzes Nos. 1-19 / Ecossaises, Op. 72 / Tarantelle, Op. 43 (Biret)

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)

Complete Piano Music Vol. 13
3 Ecossaises

Fryderyk Chopin was born near Warsaw in 1810, the son of a French émigré, Nicolas Chopin, who had established himself in Poland as a teacher of French, married a Polish wife and embraced his new nationality with the greatest patriotic enthusiasm. Chopin himself was to settle in Paris and remain chiefly in France for the greater part of his career. At the same time he retained his full share of Polish patriotism, associating with refugees from Poland and grieving for the fate of his country under continued Russian domination.

Chopin's early career was in Warsaw, where he studied at first privately with the Director of the Conservatory, Jozef Elsner, before continuing with the same teacher as a student at the Conservatory. He was already beginning to win something of a reputation at home, when he took the inevitable and natural decision to seek his fortune in the wider musical world. A visit to Vienna in 1829 seemed promising, with a good response from the public to his Polish music, in spite of the grumbling of orchestral players, handed illegible parts. This first success was not repeated when Chopin returned to Vienna in the autumn of the following year, now in earnest. He passed there a winter of considerable discontent.

In July 1831, Chopin set out for Paris, having with some difficulty procured a passport that would have taken him to London, a less revolutionary part of Europe, at which the Vienna authorities looked less askance. Poland itself was in turmoil, and Russia had finally occupied the country, to his patriotic dismay. Paris was to prove a centre for Polish nationalists, and it was in these circles that Chopin was first to mix.

In Paris Chopin was not, in any case, without friends and connections, and he was to establish himself as a teacher of the piano to the most distinguished families, and as a performer at elegant soirées in the French capital. At first he entertained considerable suspicion of the unorthodox behaviour of musicians like Liszt, and his Bohemian associates. Nevertheless by 1837 he had embarked on a liaison with the writer George Sand (Baroness Dudevant), a woman whose femininity he had first doubted.

The affair with George Sand was to continue for ten years, allowing Chopin to retreat in summer to her country house at Nohant, and bringing in 1838 a very much less desirable winter in Mallorca, which decisively weakened his health, already debilitated by tubercular infection. The couple finally separated in 1847, after a period in which George Sand's two children, Maurice and Solange, made life difficult either by their resentment, in the case of the former, or by enlisting his support, as Solange did, against her mother.

The political disturbances in Paris in 1848 deprived Chopin of his usual sources of income, and he took the occasion to visit England and Scotland. By this time, however, his health was already extremely weak. He returned to Paris at the end of the year and died there on l7th October 1849.

As a composer Chopin was innovative. In particular he developed his own idiosyncratic and poetic way of playing, lacking the thunder and histrionics of Liszt and Thalberg, but offering instead an infinite range of delicate nuances. In melody he was influenced by the Italian opera of Bellini and Donizetti, while in harmony he devised his own remarkably adventurous language that later composers were to extend still further.

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. Even Lord Byron objected. Fashion, however, could not be denied, and the waltz was to grow in popularity, particularly with the help in Vienna of Lanner and the Strauss family. The dance made its way into opera and into ballet, and, with the work of composers like Chopin, into the salon. It was to undergo a later apotheosis in the concert hall in the symphonies of Bruckner, Mahler and Tchaikovsky, and in the evocative choreographic poem of Ravel, La valse.

Chopin had first turned to the form in Warsaw in 1827, having already adapted Polish dances, the Mazurka and the Polonasie, to his artistic purposes. He was to continue to write waltzes until the year before his death. Within the form itself there still remains scope for variety of harmony and melody and even of speed and mood, since these dances are not intended for the ball-room. It might be added that there is no sign of a final flagging of spirits. The last three surviving waltzes that Chopin was to write, in 1846 and 1847, open with the famous "Minute" Waltz, published with the rather less exuberant C sharp minor Waltz and the remarkable, chromatic A flat Waltz that completes the set of Opus 64.

It should be added that Chopin's dislike of writing his music down has complicated the work of later editors and scholars. The opus numbers do not represent the order of composition of the Waltzes, with the B minor Waltz, Opus 169 No. 2, and the Waltz in D flat, Opus 70 No. 3, the work of 1829, and similar discrepancies of opus number and date of composition throughout.

The listing of the complete Chopin waltzes here recorded includes, for greater clarity, the chronological numbers assigned by Maurice Brown (Chopin: An Index of his Works in Chronological Order). Julian Fontana, a musician who was a contemporary of Chopin in Warsaw, later settled in France, near Paris, and copied out some eighty of Chopin's compositions by hand and after Chopin's death was responsible for the publication of works numbered from Opus 66 to Opus 77. It is his version of these later publications that is here followed.

Chopin's short G flat major Contredanse, with its C flat major Trio, was composed in 1827 and perhaps sent to the composer's intimate friend Titus Woyciechowski as a name-day present. The three Ecossaises written during his student days in Warsaw in 1826 use a form based on a French ball-room conception of a Scottish dance, with foreign echoes of the pipes in a form that had acquired considerable popularity in the earlier years of the nineteenth century, whatever its national origin. The A flat major Tarantelle of 1841 preserves the more typical form of the energetic dance, reputedly either caused by or a cure for the bite of the tarantula spider. In the hands of Chopin and of Liszt it is a vehicle for virtuosity.

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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