CHOPIN: Piano Favourites (Idil Biret) (Naxos: 8.554046)
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Fryderyk Chopin was born in 1810 at Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw. Hisfather Nicolas Chopin was French by birth but had moved to Poland to work as anaccounting clerk, later serving as tutor to the Laczynski family and thereafterto the family of Count Skarbek, one of whose poorer relatives he married. Hissubsequent career led him to the Warsaw Lyceum as a respected teacher ofFrench, and it was there that his only son, Fryderyk, godson of Count Skarbek,whose Christian name he took, passed his childhood.
Chopin showed an early talent for music. He learned the piano from hismother and later with the eccentric Adalbert Zywny, a violinist of Bohemianorigin, and as fiercely Polish as Chopin's father. His later training in musicwas with Jozef Elsner, director of the Warsaw Conservatory, at first as aprivate pupil and then as a student of that institution.
In the 1820s Chopin had already begun to win for himself a considerablelocal reputation, but Warsaw offered relatively limited opportunities. In 1830he set out for Vienna, a city where he had aroused interest on a visit in theprevious year and where he now hoped to make a more lasting impression. Thetime, however, was ill-suited to his purpose. Vienna was not short of pianists,and Thalberg, in particular, had out-played the rest of the field. During themonths he spent there Chopin attracted little attention, and resolved to moveto Paris.
The greater part of Chopin's professional career was to be spent inFrance, and particularly in Paris, where he established himself as afashionable teacher and as a performer in the houses of the rich. His playingin the concert hall was of a style less likely to please than that of the moreflamboyant Liszt or than the technical virtuosity of Kalkbrenner or Thalberg.
It was in the more refined ambience of the fashionable salon that his genius asa composer and as a performer, with its intimacy, elegance and delicacy ofnuance, found its place.
Chopin could not but admire the ability of Liszt, while not sharing histaste in music. His own background had been severely classical, based on themusic of Bach, Mozart and Haydn, and by these standards Beethoven, the objectof adulation for Liszt and his circle, seemed on occasion uncouth, by comparisonwith the classical restraint of Mozart's pupil Hummel. At the same time he heldreservations about the Bohemian way of life that Liszt followed, although hehimself was to become involved in a liaison with the novelist George Sand(Aurore Dudevant), which lasted for some ten years, coming to an end two yearsbefore his death, while Liszt's more dramatic association with another marriedwoman, a less successful blue-stocking, the Comtesse d'Agoult, forced hiswithdrawal from Paris society. Both women were to take literary revenge ontheir paramours.
Paris was to provide Chopin with a substantial enough income as ateacher, and there was a ready market for his compositions, however reluctanthe might be to commit them to paper. The country retreat of George Sand atNohant provided a change of air that was certainly healthier for him than thatof Mallorca, where, in 1838, the couple spent a disastrous winter thatintensified the weakness of Chopin's lungs, already affected by thetuberculosis from which he was to die.
In 1848 political disturbances in Paris made teaching impossible, andChopin left the city for a tour of England and Scotland. By this time hishealth had deteriorated considerably. At the end of the year he returned toParis, now too weak to play or to teach and dependent on the generosity ofothers for subsistence. He died there on 17th October, 1849.
The greater part of Chopin's music was written for his own instrument,the piano. At first it seemed that works for piano and orchestra would be anecessary part of his stock-in-trade, but the position he found for himself inParis enabled him to write principally for the piano alone, in a characteristicidiom that derives some inspiration from contemporary Italian opera, much fromthe music of Poland, and still more from his own adventurous approach toharmony and his own sheer technical ability as a player.
Of the forms that Chopin used, the romantic Impromptu offered aparticular freedom, with its suggestion of music dashed off in some fine, carelessrapture. His Fantaisie-Impromptu was written in 1835, but publishedposthumously. It was followed by three further works under the same generictitle.
The Mazurka, a Polish dance, provided Chopin with a basicrhythmic pattern, his first attempt made in childhood at the age of ten and hislast in the year of his death. The form became one with which he wasparticularly closely associated, an expression of his patriotism.
Writers had started to show an interest in the traditional ballad withthe publication by Bishop Percy of his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, whichfirst appeared in the 1760s. The work of Sir Walter Scott as a collector and asa poet added to the enthusiasm. In Germany further interest was shown, with thepublication of translations of ballads and the creation of new ones, first byB??rger and then by Goethe and Schiller. This literary form, reflected in balladsettings by Schubert, Loewe and others, led Chopin to a purely instrumentalform, based, it has been suggested, on poems by Mickiewicz, contemporaryballads of Polish patriotic purport. The first of Chopin's four Ballades impliesa narrative content, opening with the words of the story-teller and proceedingto events of greater excitement.
Chopin completed his collection of Preludes in 1839, when hepublished a set of 24, using all major and minor keys. A number of the Preludeswere written during his winter in Mallorca with George Sand and her twochildren. They had arrived on the island in November, their appearance arousingsome suspicions in the minds of local people. Deterioration in the weatheraggravated the weakness of Chopin's health and doctors diagnosed tuberculosis.
Forced to leave their lodgings and to pay for their fumigation, the party movedto rooms in the deserted monastery at Valldemosa, where George Sand continuedto nurse him, in spite of considerable local hostility towards this woman whosmoked cigars, the two long-haired boys and a girl who dressed as a man. It waswith some relief that they left Mallorca in February, happy to return toFrance. It was in these circumstances, graphically described by George Sand inher Hiver ?á Majorque, that the Preludes were completed andrevised, before being despatched to Camille Pleyel for publication, each one amusical vignette.
The second of Chopin's three sonatas includes, as a slow movement, hisfamous Funeral March, written in 1837, while the second of his fourscherzos, the Scherzo in B flat minor, was written in the same key andsame year. Originally a musical joke, with Beethoven a relatively jocularsymphonic movement that replaced the traditional minuet as a bridge between aslow movement and a final symphonic rondo, the scherzo, for Chopin, became anextended and independent composition, here passionate in its content. Hissingle Berceuse, completed in 1844, makes much more than might beexpected from the lullaby of the title.
The Polish dance, the Polonaise, found its way from village toball-room and thence abroad. In Paris in 1830 Poland was in the news, with theattempted rising against Russia and its suppression, and things Polish enjoyedconsiderable popularity, a fact from which Chopin benef