Chopin Liner Notes

In search of the ‘perfect’ Chopin interpretation…

Chopin’s music presents us with a strange paradox: the average listener will find it instantly accessible, at an emotional level at least; some of the nocturnes, for instance, are often heard in movies and will easily bring a tear to the eye of the average movie-goer. Yet for the performer, in my experience and in the experience of many of my colleagues, the music’s raw, direct appeal to human emotions presents huge dilemmas when it comes to execution, and when searching for answers to certain interpretative problems one will usually end up with more questions. Inevitably it becomes a tough balancing act on a tightrope: on the one side, naïvety and blandness threaten, while, on the other side, a laboured and contrived approach could potentially damage the music even further. It is not easy to articulate these interpretative challenges properly but, simply put, the notes as they stand have such an incredible power of expression that imposing yourself can often diminish the piece’s expressive impact. This can make our job (as interpreters) deceptively easy or impossibly difficult.

This problem is much more apparent in certain of Chopin’s works, which is possibly one reason why today the mazurkas, ballades and some of the nocturnes are not as often performed as they used to be earlier in the last century. Chopin’s Second Sonata, scherzi, preludes and études are, on the other hand, encountered much more often in recitals. Age also certainly makes a difference. It is easier to find access to Chopin as a child, when one tends to analyse less and fear nothing, and one’s emotions and world view have not yet been polluted by experience of life and worldly concerns. (Admittedly, some acquired human qualities, such as scepticism or sarcasm, can actually be quite helpful when approaching the demons of Liszt, the impatience and fury in Beethoven and most of the licentious Romantics of the 19th century.) In childhood, everything evokes a sense of wonder and the music has the freedom to flow through the innocence and sincerity of the child, without interference. One can simply pick up an early Kissin recording of Chopin and just marvel at the purity of the musical thought. Chopin once said that ‘simplicity is the highest goal, achievable when you have overcome all difficulties. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art’. Approaching Chopin as an adult is often anything but simple, however; it is like looking in the mirror at your own inner self; you will not like what you see (and if you do, you should probably get a new mirror) and this will significantly inhibit access to Chopin’s music.

So how can one gain access as an ‘impaired’ adult? Examining historical recordings by the great artists of the past might provide valuable insights. When I first heard a recording of the Polish-born pianist Ignaz Friedman playing a Chopin mazurka it opened a door to a whole new world for me. The approach was in such stark contrast to everything that I had heard or learned previously; there was so much personality in the playing, with the beguiling rhythmic swings, incredible freedom in phrasing, delicate voicing, a rubato that is more paralyzing than an epidural and articulation that tickles you all over. The approach seemed so original yet extremely natural: a combination of qualities that, if kept in the right balance, seems close to that ‘perfect’ interpretation. It led me later to the recordings of de Pachmann, Rosenthal, Hambourg and one of my favourites: Benno Moiseiwitch, who, like Friedman, studied with the legendary Theodor Leschetitzky.

Friedman’s style may seem shocking to many Chopin ‘purists’ but descriptions of Chopin’s own mazurka playing left to us by Meyerbeer and Hallé are remarkably similar to what we hear from Friedman. Ironically, even though strong preconceptions exist in people’s minds about how Chopin’s music should or should not be played, there are in fact no sources that clearly describe Chopin’s style of playing without at least some contradiction. Moreover, neither the worn-out image of a pale, slim, sickly man, nor the different accounts of his personal life, tell us anything about the underlying spirit of his works, which have an incredible dynamic range – contrary to claims that his music should not be played above mezzopiano – and although it is often extremely sensitive and sensual (for example in the Nocturnes), it can also exhibit very masculine qualities (such as the stormy passages in the Fantaisie).

In fact while learning more about different approaches, I am tempted to ignore his biography in favour of listening to those historic recordings. But these recordings are not easily available and, moreover, the poor sound quality does not help to attract widespread interest beyond serious record collectors. Another problem is that most annotated Chopin editions have systematically been abandoned or discontinued (such as Friedman’s own Chopin edition which is so hard to obtain) and the Urtext is today the main accepted version. Yet that is nothing more than the skeleton of a work, unless viewed in the context of the often contradictory accounts of Chopin’s playing style given by pupils of Chopin’s pupils, and so on. This means that the performance practice of a previous generation is to a large extent being forgotten.

Judging from various accounts, that performance practice seems to have profited greatly from the active promotion of individuality and the breeding of extraordinary personalities. The priority was to excel absolutely at one task, rather than becoming an adequate multi-tasker. This ambition is more difficult to sustain in today’s frenetic society: there is no time for moments of introspection, or for gathering sufficient energy to pursue the answers to one’s own enquiries. Some of the teaching methods of the past would now also be regarded as controversial. In Vienna, for example, Leschetitzky’s students were not only drilled musically by him and his technical assistants until they were blue in the face; they were also introduced to certain other pleasures such as hard-playing card games ending at dawn, as well as the company of the young ladies who lived on the upstairs floors of his house (as later described by Friedman’s wife). When the time was right (and after taking a nap, I presume), the pupils would then be launched into a career through their teacher’s personal contacts with famous conductors and concert promoters. But competition and commercial success were not the only ultimate goals, and Vienna was of course the place to be: it was just buzzing with musicians such as Mahler and Strauss dominating the concert scene while writers such as Zweig, Hofmannsthal and Broch were often to be found in the local cafes. Similarly, Paris in 1926 offered a newly arrived Horowitz the opportunity to attend the concerts of such greats as Rachmaninov, Cortot, Schnabel and Hoffman, but also to have coaching sessions with them.

Fortunately some of the spirit of that time survived and lives on in the form of historic recordings, such as Friedman’s. At first, one might be a little baffled about the added octaves or filled out harmonies which Friedman used at his discretion (particularly in the mazurkas); but soon it becomes clear that they serve mainly as a tool to aid the synthesis of the classical and folk music elements in Chopin, without interfering with his original thought. This laissez-faire approach also testifies to an abundant artistic freedom, which seems both so intuitive to Friedman and perfectly compatible with Chopin. It is utterly impossible to imitate this sort of playing, however; indeed, one should never attempt it, as it is only likely to result in a caricature, a deviation from one’s artistic goals. Imitation was apparently also difficult when it came to Chopin’s own playing style. The pianist-conductor Sir Charles Hallé remarked: ‘The marvellous charm, the poetry and originality, the perfect freedom and absolute lucidity of Chopin’s playing cannot be described. It is perfect in every sense.’

How does any of this help us further in the quest for the ‘right’ approach? I believe it is another piece of the puzzle that brings us closer to ‘the truth’. We don’t know for certain, however, whether our perception of the playing of those great artists would remain exactly the same if the same performances were recorded with modern equipment. There is a lot to be said about the special sound world of these historic recordings which, I feel, contributes to the overall impression of this special, warm and intimate atmosphere; whether it’s the friendly crackling noises from the shellac or the emphasis on some frequencies over others. In fact many frequencies and overtones are missing altogether. We are used to thinking about how disadvantaged recording artists were in this era (which is true most of the time), yet sometimes certain ‘magical’ aspects can come through which are difficult to explain through the playing alone. The principle of how our perception works with an old recording might be similar to that of a black-and-white photo: there is much less information on it compared with the same photo in colour, yet the former is able to trigger certain emotions, associations and even memories which a colour photo cannot induce – or, at least, not with the same intensity. I believe a similar principle might apply to certain aspects of historic recordings. This is in no way to denigrate the artistry; the photograph (or the playing) has to be highly inspiring to start with!

In any case, it seems the search will continue. And whether or not the ‘perfect’ interpretation exists, it is precisely the search for it that keeps me going.

This recording presents a snapshot of Chopin’s mastery of different genres, some of which are very much his own – like the ballade and mazurka – and some attributable to others, like the nocturne, ascribed to the Irish composer John Field, the ‘father of the Romantic nocturne’, even though later, Chopin clearly became a more celebrated ‘parent’. I paid little attention to the chronology of the works; the emphasis is more on diversity. Clearly Chopin’s relationship with the piano was very special – as he heard reports of the fall of Warsaw in 1831 he wrote in his diary: ‘I sit here idle… sometimes just groaning, grieving at the piano, in despair’. There is perhaps little surprise that most of his output is devoted to piano solo, with the exception of some chamber music, concertos and works with orchestra accompaniment and songs for voice and piano. It is also obvious that Chopin transformed the piano into an instrument with distinctly vocal possibilities. For Chopin, playing the piano seems to have been more native than speaking or breathing. He himself exclaimed that the instrument was his ‘second self’.

I find that his mazurkas tell us a particularly personal story of Chopin’s development since he composed them throughout his life. Indeed George Sand described two ‘mazourkes adorables’ in a letter to Eugène Delacroix as being ‘worth more than forty novels and are more eloquent than the entire century’s literature’. No surprise there, perhaps, as this dance aroused deeply rooted memories of childhood and national pride in him. Chopin poured some of his most sincere and profound emotions into these pieces. Although the origin of the mazurka is a Polish folk dance (mazurek), Chopin used only the rhythms as a point of departure to create independent worlds of his own invention. He became a true master of the mazurka form as we know it in classical piano literature and many composers adopted a similar approach later. The mazurkas certainly contain an incredible palette of ideas and wide-ranging depictions of moods that can be coquettishly naughty, like Op.33 No.2 in D major (1838), or preciously mesmerising, or encapsulating overwhelming poignancy and nostalgia, like in Op.33 No.4 in B minor (1838) and particularly in Op.50 No.3 in C sharp minor (1842). Sometimes one becomes intoxicated by the exotic flavours and exhilarating dance rhythms, as for instance in Op.7 No.3 in F minor (1830–32).

The Fantaisie in F minor, Op.49 (1841) is, like the fantasy form in general, very much improvisatory in style and entirely free from the predetermined formulas that are found, in more rigid forms like, for example, the sonata. One notices immediately that the piece begins in one key (F minor) and ends in another (A flat major). The Fantaisie is full of contrasts and never fails to surprise with its changes of volume, texture or key. To illustrate this, just take a look at the opening section: it opens with a dark, foreboding march-like section, which never appears again. What follows is a wildly unpredictable, improvisatory segment that moves freely through different keys, never ceasing to maintain the feel of mystery and instability.

There is some irony in the fact that early in his youth, Chopin was frequently told that his compositions sounded much like John Field’s – while later, Field was described as distinctly ‘Chopinesque’. It is clear, especially from his early nocturnes, that Chopin drew much inspiration from Field (not something that could have been said about Field who reportedly described Chopin as a ‘sickroom talent’ after hearing him play). The main aspects that Chopin retained from Field are the use of the right-hand melody as a voice and providing the left hand with a soft accompaniment, usually in the form of broken chords, as well as extensive use of the pedal. Chopin’s own contributions were the use of much more freely flowing rhythms, in bel canto style, combined with sonata form and plenty of counterpoint, all contributing to an enormous range of colours and contrasts. For this recording, I tried (admittedly not terribly hard) to avoid the most popular nocturnes, but there are many incredible moments in them. The wondrous and meditative moods of Op.55 No.2 in E flat major (1842–44), in my opinion one of the most challenging miniatures ever written, provides a much needed antidote to the bleak and brooding sound world of Op.27 No.1 in C sharp minor (1835) and the tragic Op.48 No.1 in C minor (1841).

The ballade genre, much like the mazurka, was very much personalized by Chopin, in order to suit his medium of expression. Even though it is heavily disputed whether individual ballades were influenced by poems of the Polish-Lithuanian poet Adam Mickiewicz, there are certainly strong narrative elements in them. The true origin for the inspiration for the Ballade No.3 in A flat major, Op.47 (1841) will probably remain unknown. Some say this ballade recreates Mickiewicz’s poem Undine, where a young girl questions the fidelity of men and is transformed into a water nymph, luring a young sailor to his destruction, ‘his fate to pursue her evasive image forever’. The piece was described by the American music writer James Huneker as ‘aristocratic, gay, piquant and… delicately ironical’. It is possibly Chopin’s most innocent piece, yet there have been some unusual, extra-musical ‘comments’ inspired by the work, among them a drawing by the English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. It depicts a neatly dressed equestrian woman taming a careering white stallion while riding him. Or more bluntly: ‘a prim dominatrix astride a whopper of a phallic symbol’ (Skye Sherwin, AnOther Magazine) – hardly the first thing that comes to mind when listening to the cantering gait of the broken octaves in the right hand or the stormy middle section in C sharp minor (which is the only instance in his ballades where Chopin actually changes the key signature).

Apropos dominatrices, the true climax in all of Chopin’s ballades seems always to follow on from the arrival on the dominant, which is delayed until the last possible moment in order to build up as much tension throughout the piece and then release it in the coda. In the Ballade No.4 in F minor, Op.52 (1842), the closing section is much more than just ‘white heat’: it ingeniously blends the various thematic elements and gives them new forms through complex polyphonic means. Many critics regarded this ballade as inaccessible during the 19th and early 20th centuries, complaining about ‘ear-splitting discords, tortuous transitions, harsh modulations, ugly distortions of melody and rhythm, the strangest tonalities’ and so on. Even critics can sometimes make mistakes, as nowadays the piece is widely regarded not only as one of Chopin’s masterpieces but also as one of the greatest masterpieces of 19th-century piano music. John Ogdon remarked that the fourth ballade is ‘the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions… It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.’ What we can observe for certain is the unique blend of sonata form and variation form. The static design of the ballade and its repetitions of the first theme already imply a set of variation ‘in progress’. The idea is then fully developed in the reprise, where the theme appears as a pair of variations, first as a fugal-canonic statement, then as a decorative cantabile element: Bach-like counterpoint and Italian bel canto are juxtaposed to augment the means of expression.

This is where the recording should have ended. What follows next is a brief afterthought. À la minute is a frivolous indulgence into the realms of how some of my ‘longtime heroes’, Rachmaninov for example, might have had their fun with Chopin’s Waltz in D flat major, had it managed to spin a little longer and break out of its loop.

© Yevgeny Sudbin 2011

Posted: Aug-5-2011
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