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NBD0011 - CHOPIN, F.: Piano Concerto No. 1 / Fantasy on Polish Airs / Rondo a la krakowiak (Nebolsin, Warsaw Philharmonic, Wit) (Blu-ray Audio)
Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849)
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.
Born in Warsaw in 1810, Chopin had piano lessons from the age of six with the old Czech musician Adalbert Żywny and from the age of twelve with Józef Elsner, director of the Warsaw Conservatory, where Chopin was enrolled as a pupil in 1826. By the end of the decade he had begun to win a considerable reputation at home and a visit to Vienna had allowed him to play his two piano concertos there. It was this success that persuaded him to leave Warsaw to seek his fortune abroad. In 1830 he set out for Vienna, hoping to repeat his earlier success, but on this second occasion he achieved nothing, and after an unsatisfactory winter he turned his attention to Paris. At the same time his native Poland was in the turmoil of a political disturbance that led to the firm establishment of Russian hegemony. By early October 1831 Chopin was in Paris, a city of pianists, where contacts in Polish émigré circles and, above all, with the pianist Kalkbrenner, brought his concert début there in 1832.
It soon became clear that Chopin’s particular genius lay not in competition with the virtuosi of Paris, with more ostentatious performers such as Liszt, Thalberg or Kalkbrenner, but in more intimate performances and in teaching. He found a congenial position for himself with a socially distinguished clientèle and was able, at the same time, to enjoy the society of Polish friends. Through Liszt, at whose way of life he had previously looked askance, Chopin met the blue-stocking writer George Sand (Aurore Dudevant), recently separated from her husband. The two became lovers and in the winter of 1838–39 travelled together to Mallorca, where the climate had a deleterious effect on his health, with further signs of tuberculosis that were alarming not only to the couple but also to the local people, who had already nurtured suspicions of the strange couple, accompanied, as they were, by George Sand’s two children. In France again he returned to his life in Paris, generally spending the summer months at George Sand’s country-house at Nohant. The complications of involvement with George Sand’s now adult children led to their separation in 1847. During the political disturbances of 1848, when normal life was impossible in Paris, Chopin accepted an invitation to Britain, but the climate greatly affected his weakened health. He returned to Paris, where he died in 1849.
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 Polish source of his inspiration remained at the heart of much that he wrote, with new forms freshly minted or created from earlier genres.
Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor was actually the second of the two he composed and was written, like its companion, in Warsaw, before he left Poland. The concerto was tried out in private and then given its first public performance on 11 October 1830, at the composer’s last Warsaw concert. On 2 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 Gładkowska. He described the Romanza 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 changes, to remedy these supposed faults. The idiom of the solo part remains entirely characteristic of the composer, with the 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 Fantasia on Polish Airs, Op. 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 Józef 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 17 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 Już Miesiąc 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 Kurpiński, 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 Grand Rondeau de Concert, the Krakowiak, which, like the Concerto No. 1 can be performed 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.
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