About this Recording
NBD0012 - CHOPIN, F.: Piano Concerto No. 2 / Variations on La ci darem / Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante (Nebolsin, Wit) (Blu-ray Audio)

Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849)
Piano Concerto No. 2 • Variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano’
Andante spianato and Grande polonaise brillante


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. For some years he was involved with the writer George Sand (Aurore Dudevant), a woman whose way of life would at one time have caused him, at the least, some alarm. In 1838 they spent a winter together in Mallorca, where Chopin’s health suffered, and in subsequent years he generally spent the summer at her country house at Nohant. Their relationship, complicated by the activities of the two now grown-up children of George Sand’s former marriage, came to an end in 1847. The political disturbances of the following year led Chopin to accept an invitation to visit Britain, where the climate had a deleterious effect on his failing health. He died in Paris in 1849.

Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, like his first concerto, in fact his second, written a year later, was 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 characterized 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.

Chopin’s Variations on Là ci darem la mano, from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, bear witness to his admiration for Mozart, instilled by his earliest teacher, the Bohemian Adalbert 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. It was the Mozart Variations that first drew the attention of the young Schumann to Chopin’s work, although his dramatic interpretation of the variations, in which he imagined characters from the opera, could only cause Chopin amusement.

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 demisemiquavers, 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 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 Polonaise during his unsatisfactory stay in Vienna in the winter of 1830–183l and it represents his last attempt at writing for the orchestra. In Paris he performed the complete work on 26 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.

Keith Anderson

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