CHOPIN: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2 (Idil Biret/ Robert Stankovsky/ Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.554540)
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Complete Piano MusicVol. 14
Relatively early in his career Chopin realised that he excelled inperformance of more intimate delicacy than was generally possible in theconcert hall. Nevertheless in a world that still made little distinctionbetween composer and performer, he provided himself with compositions for pianoand orchestra with which to make his name at the start of his career. It wasonly once he had established himself in Paris in the l830s that he turnedrather to the kind of playing that he made so much his own, performances thatdemanded great technical proficiency, but made no attempt to impress, as Lisztand Kalkbrenner did, by displays of sound and fury.
Born in Warsaw in 1810, the son of a French emigre father and a Polishmother, Chopin studied with the director of the Warsaw Conservatory, at firstas a private pupil and later as a full-time student. At home he had alreadyimpressed audiences, but fame lay abroad, and in pursuit of that chimera he setout for Vienna, a city where he had already attracted some attention on anearlier visit. On the second occasion he achieved nothing, and travelledinstead to Paris, while his native Poland, to his dismay, was in the turmoil ofpolitical disturbance that led to the firm establishment of Russian hegemony.
It was in France that Chopin was to remain, favoured by Society as a teacherand as a performer.
The Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor was actually the second of the twoto be composed and was written, like its companion, in Warsaw, before Chopinleft Poland. The concerto was tried out in private and then given its firstpublic performance on 11th October 1830, at the composer's last Warsaw concert.
On 2nd November he left home for good. Chopin dedicated the work to his friendTytus Woyciechowski, and while it expresses something of his love for hisclosest companion, it summarises in its slow movement his feelings for theyoung singer Konstancja Gladkowska. He described the Adagio as"like dreaming in beautiful spring-time - by moonlight".
The concerto relies heavily on the solo instrument, and Chopin himselfplayed it on occasions without the assistance of an orchestra. The orchestralexposition has been considered by some to be too long, while others have foundfault with the orchestration, and editors have sometimes seen fit to makechange, to remedy these supposedfaults. The idiom of the solo part remains entirely characteristic of thecomposer, with a slow movement "reviving in one's soul beautifulmemories", as Chopin put it, and a final rondo providing astructure into which the composer's genius fits rather less easily.
The Piano Concerto No.
2 in F minor was, like No. 1, initially tried out in a private performance athome. Two weeks later it was repeated in public, in a programme that includedthe Fantasy on Polish Airs, before an audience of some 800 and performedagain five days later, together with the Krakowiak, using a louderpiano, to overcome objections of inaudibility.
Reminiscent in styleof the work of Spohr or Hummel, leading composers of the time, the F minorConcerto follows its dramatic first theme with a second, gentler subject,announced by the woodwind, before the entry of the soloist with the firststriking theme. The romantic second movement has a brief orchestralintroduction before the entry of the piano, in the mood of a Nocturne. Thelast movement may appear to bear all the marks of a Mazurka, its musiccharacterised by novel orchestral effects, as the violins accompany one episodewith 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 thepiano brings the work to a climax.
Interpreting Chopin byIdil Biret
Although the romanticera in its music and its performances is not so far from our own time, forvarious reasons we seem to have distanced ourselves from it. As a consequence,often composers very different from one another like Chopin, Liszt, Schumannand Wagner are brought under the same title of Romantic Composers. In thiscontext it is quite normal to find Chopin and Liszt mentioned together ascomposers of similar style, while there are no two sound worlds as differentfrom one another as those of Chopin and Liszt. The conception of the pianosound that Chopin created is based on the model of the voice. Liszt, on theother hand, fascinated by the development of the modern piano during hisperiod, challenges the orchestra in an attempt to reproduce on the piano the richnessof the orchestral palette.
It must be among thefondest wishes of any pianist to be able to have heard Chopin perform his ownmusic. Fortunately there are some recordings providing indirectly some evidenceof this way of approaching the piano. One may in particular mention therecordings 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 ofDecombes who received precious counsel from Chopin. Further, Friedman, dePachmann and Paderewski who were not direct descendants of Chopin were stillclose enough to his aesthetic conceptions to be able to convey the spontaneityChopin is said to have brought to his playing as well as the polyphonic andrhythmic richness which are so apparent in Chopin's conception of the piano. Inspite of the inferior quality of the recordings from the earlier part of thiscentury, a considerable number of common points are audible in the performancesof these pianists. Notably, a very fine legato, a piano sound that never losesits roundness since intensity replaces force, the exact feeling of rubato,recognition of the importance of inner voices and consequently a remarkablesense of polyphony. Contrary to the popular image of the romantic virtuoso,simplicity and naturalness remain exemplary in the way these great Chopininterpreters approach music.
It is interesting tonote also the evidence left by musicians, contemporaries of Chopin, andChopin's pupils about his interpretations. A perfect legato drawing itsinspiration from bel canto and unimaginable richness in tone-colour were theproduct of subtle variations in a sound full of charm and a purity that lostnone 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 toappreciate Chopin fully, I think one must hear him from close by, in the salonrather than in a theatre."
Chopin's sense ofrubato was unrivalled. The temps derobe (stolen time) assumed under thehands of the great master its true meaning. Mikuli gives a description of therubato as Chopin conceived it, which seems to be of penetrating clarity. Afterrecalling that Chopin was inflexible in keeping the tempo and that themetronome was always on his piano, Mikuli explains, "Even in his rubato,where one hand - the accompanying one - continues to play strictly in time, theother - the hand which sings the melody - freed from all metric restraintconveys the true musical expression, impatience, like someone whose speechbecomes fiery with enthusiasm."
Together with acertain classicism, moderation was the basis of the world of Chopin. Hence,playing his music on the powerful modern pianos and in large concert halls isoften problematic. One should ideally never go beyond a self-imposed limit ofsound and keep in mind as the criteria the possibilities of the human voice. Itis therefore bett