About this Recording
8.554541 - CHOPIN: Fantasia on Polish Airs / Andante spianato / Krakowiak

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)

Complete Piano Music Vol. 15
Fantasia on Polish Airs
Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise
Variations on 'Lá ci darem la mano' from Mozart's Don Giovanni Krakowiak

Chopin throughout his life remained a Polish patriot. Paradoxically he was the son of a French father, who had settled in Poland to avoid conscription into the French army and had become a respected teacher of French in Warsaw. To add to the paradox, Chopin spent almost his entire professional career in Paris, where he moved in 1831, quickly winning acceptance as a fashionable piano-teacher and as a performer in the elegant salons of the French capital.

As a pianist Chopin lacked power but commanded a delicate and varied idiom and technique of his own. The greater part of the music he wrote is for solo piano, but at the outset of what seemed likely to be a career as a virtuoso he wrote works for piano and orchestra, the kind of music that any performer-composer might have as part of his stock-in-trade.

The Fantasia on Polish Airs Opus 13, was written in 1828 and published in Paris in 1834, with a dedication to the Mannheim virtuoso pianist Johann Peter Pixis. It came at a time when Chopin, still a pupil of Jozef Elsner at the Warsaw Conservatory, was beginning to experiment more widely with forms beyond those of any prescribed syllabus and was first performed in Warsaw on 17th March, 1830, at a National Theatre concert that included the F minor Piano Concerto. The Fantasia opens with an orchestral introduction, before the entry of the piano with figuration that bears the unmistakable mark of Chopin's own musical language, to which the orchestra has little to add. The first theme, the air Juz Miesiac Zaszedi, is announced by the soloist and repeated by the orchestra, with elaborate piano embellishment, testimony to Chopin's own technical proficiency on the instrument. The second theme chosen is by Karol Kurpinski, principal conductor at the Warsaw Opera and conductor of Chopin's first public concerts, and is thoroughly Polish in form and inspiration. The theme is introduced by the clarinet, leading to a dramatic intervention from the soloist, and a slower, gently lyrical version of the theme, which is later taken up by the orchestra once more, with bravura embellishment from the piano. It is the latter that ushers in the final Kujawiak, a theme typical of the Kujawy region, to the north-west of Warsaw, and once again a framework for characteristic solo display.

The more familiar Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise is a composite work. The Polonaise itself was completed in 1831 and the introductory Andante spianato in 1834. Both were published together in Paris in 1836. Chopin wrote the Polonasie during his unsatisfactory stay in Vienna in the winter of 1830-183 land it represents his last attempt at writing for the orchestra. In Paris he performed the complete work on 26th April, 1835, at a benefit concert at the Conservatoire for the conductor Habeneck. The introductory G major Andante, for piano solo, is entirely typical of the poetic idiom that informed Chopin's musical language. The orchestra embarks on the Polonaise, and after a pause, the soloist enters with his own dashing version of the native Polish dance, now transformed into an art-form and a vehicle for lyrical pianistic panache.

Chopin's Variations on Lá ci darem la mano, from Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, bear witness to his admiration for Mozart, instilled by his earliest teacher, the Bohemian, Wojciech Zywny, an exact contemporary of Mozart. In the summer of 1829 Chopin visited Vienna, in the company of friends from the University. Here he hoped to arrange for the publication of the Variations and of his first Piano Sonata. The Variations formed the substance of a concert urged by his prospective publisher, Haslinger, and given at the Kärntnerthor Theatre. Here he further dazzled the audience by his improvisation, particularly pleasing them by his treatment of a Polish theme. On this occasion the orchestra refused to play his Krakowiak, since the parts provided were illegible, but matters were put to rights by the Warsaw student Nidecki, in Vienna on a government scholarship, and the Krakowiak was performed at a second concert, a week later, with the Mozart Variations as an unexpectedly generous encore.

The Introduction to the Mozart Variations toys with fragments of the well known theme, allowing the soloist an opportunity for brilliantly decorative chromaticism, before tackling the theme itself. The first variation is characterized by its triplet rhythm running accompaniment and is followed by a version that allows the soloist a dramatic development of the theme in demi- semi-quavers, a quadruple division of the beat. The rhythm is continued in the left-hand accompaniment to the third variation, to which the orchestra only adds its own conclusion. The original version of the fourth variation gives the pianist rapid arpeggios in the accompaniment of the theme, played by the orchestra, while a later version provides the soloist with an even more ambitious figuration of leaping chords. The fifth variation opens with a dramatic B flat minor cadenza, this Adagio leading to the final Polish transformation of Mozart's duet in a brilliant conclusion.

The Grand Rondeau de Concert, the Krakowiak, again susceptible to performance without the assistance of an orchestra, an eventuality for which the composer provided in an adjusted solo version, opens with an idyllic introductory Andantino, linked to the Rondo itself by a passage of sudden brilliance. The orchestra announces the rhythm of the Krakowiak, the dance of Krakov, the first F major theme alternating with a second theme in D minor, to which it is linked by an extended bravura passage in which Poland is for the moment briefly forgotten.

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.

Close the window