About this Recording
8.554540 - CHOPIN, F.: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Biret, Slovak State Philharmonic, Stankovsky)

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)

Complete Piano Music Vol. 14
Piano Concertos

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 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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