Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fryderyk Chopin: Preludes, Barcarolle, Bolero

Few other "classical" musicians or composers are so identfied with a single instrument as Fryderyk Chopin is with the piano.  Of the 230 some works that survive from his hand, all involve the piano and most are solely for this most expressive of instruments.  Other than perhaps his good friend Franz Liszt, Chopin was also regarded as the ultimate virtuoso as a performer, though his light touch on the keyboard made him more a sensation at salons and smaller gatherings than in the concert hall, unlike the powerful and dramatic Liszt.

Chopin's father was a Frenchman who moved to Poland in his teens and was a clerk and then a private teacher before achieving some renown as an instructor in French at the Warsaw Lyceum.  Nicolas Chopin played the flute and violin and his Polish wife, Justyna Krzyzanowska, played and taught piano.  Born near Warsaw in 1810, their only son became a child prodigy, composing two polonaises (a Polish dance form done slowly in three-quarter time) at age seven that were highly regarded.  His fame in Warsaw lasted until he was 20 and set out for Vienna, planning to go to Italy.

When Chopin was in Austria, however, a revolt erupted in his homeland, which was controlled by the Russian Empire, led by Polish nationalist military figures.  The uprising was quashed and Chopin who went to Paris shortly afterward never saw Poland again.  As noted above, the pianist performed mostly in intimate settings and a concert career was also inhibited by poor health, stemming from what was likely pulmonary tuberculosis.  In addition to his growing fame as a musician and composer, Chopin became known for his decade-long love affair with the famed French writer George Sand (Amandine Dupin).

By the time his relationship with Sand ended in 1847, Chopin's health had deteriorated greatly and the following year, following the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848 in Paris, the musician departed for a tour of the British Isles.  Unable to teach because of his failing condition and his writing limited, Chopin's finances were extremely precarious.  In November he was back in Paris and lived only eleven months more, dying on 17 October 1849.  Three thousand people attended his funeral, at which Liszt played organ, and his remains were interred at Pére Lachaise Cemetery.

Chopin had an enormous influence on major pianists of the 19th century, like Liszt, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, and beyond.  His Minute (as in small) Waltz, composed in 1847, is likely his most famous work, but this Naxos label release of the Preludes and other pieces is an extraordinary journey through a variety of exciting presentations of solo piano, expertly performed by Idil Biret, who has made wonderful recordings of Chopin's works for the label.

While one of the Preludes runs nearly six minutes, most are between forty second and two-and-a-half minutes, but there is such an amazing variety of tempos (including the ample use of rubato in which the tempo is suddenly quickened or slowed), melodies and coloration that provde for a wide range of emotional content.  One of these, in particular, stands out for this blogger.  The seventeenth prelude made such an impression that it became the wedding march for YHB in 1997 and evokes many great memories of that day, including just a few moments ago when it played on the computer's disc drive.

A nice feature to this Naxos recording is not just the good biographical summary, but Ms. Biret's essay on "Interpreting Chopin" is a very useful guide to hearing his music and one of her best commentaries is the problematic assignation of the term "Romantic" to pianists as disparate in style and technique as Chopin and Liszt (or Schumann.)  In particular, Ms. Biret highlights the natural and simple approach that Chopin exemplified, noting that "playing his music on the powerful modern pianos [which were really developed fully by 1900 or so] and in large concer halls is often problematic."  As she expresses it, "it is therefore better to somewhat reduce sonority without sacrificing the quality of the sound."  In other words, the clarity and purity should not be lost in flourishes and aggressive clusters of chords and other structural elements that detract from the former aspects.

Fryderyk Chopin:  Preludes, Bacarolle, Bolero (Naxos, 1992)

Preludes 1-24
Prelude in A Flat Major
Prelude, Op. 45
Bourrée I and II
Feuille d'Album

Total Time: 71'30"

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