CHOPIN: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3 (Idil Biret) (Naxos: 8.554533)
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Complete Piano MusicVol. 7
Fryderyk Chopin wasborn in 1810 at Zelazowa Wola, near Warsaw. His father Nicolas Chopin wasFrench by birth but had moved to Poland to work as an accounting clerk, laterserving as tutor to the Laczynski family and thereafter to the family of CountSkarbek, one of whose poorer relatives he married. His subsequent career ledhim to the Warsaw Lyceum as a respected teacher of French, and it was therethat his only son, Fryderyk, godson of Count Skarbek, whose Christian name hetook, passed his childhood.
Chopin showed an earlytalent for music. He learned the piano from his mother and later with theeccentric Adalbert Zywny, a violinist of Bohemian origin, and as fiercelyPolish as Chopin's father. His later training in music was with Jozef Elsner,director of the Warsaw Conservatory, at first as a private pupil and then as astudent of that institution.
In the 1820s Chopinhad already begun to win for himself a considerable local reputation, butWarsaw offered relatively limited opportunities. In 1830 he set out for Vienna,a city where he had aroused interest on a visit in the previous year and wherehe now hoped to make a more lasting impression. The time, however, wasill-suited to his purpose. Vienna was not short of pianists, and Thalberg, inparticular, had out-played the rest of the field. During the months he spentthere Chopin attracted little attention, and resolved to move to Paris.
The greater part ofChopin's professional career was to be spent in France, and particularly inParis, where he established himself as a fashionable teacher and as a performerin the houses of the rich. His playing in the concert hall was of a style lesslikely to please than that of the more flamboyant Liszt or than the technicalvirtuosity of Kalkbrenner. It was in the more refined ambience of thefashionable salon that his genius as a composer and as a performer, with itsintimacy, elegance and delicacy of nuance, 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, bycomparison with the classical restraint of Mozart's pupil Hummel. At the sametime he held reservations about the Bohemian way of life that Liszt followed,although he himself was to become involved in a liaison with the novelistGeorge Sand (Aurore Dudevant), which lasted for some ten years, coming to anend two years before his death, while Liszt's more dramatic association with another married woman, a less successfulblue-?¡stocking, the Comtesse d'Agoult, forced his withdrawal from Parissociety. Both women were to take literary revenge on their paramours.
Paris was to provideChopin with a substantial enough income as a teacher, and there was a readymarket for his compositions, however reluctant he might be to commit them topaper. The country retreat of George Sand at Nohant provided a change of airthat was certainly healthier for him than that of Mallorca, where, in 1838, thecouple spent a disastrous winter that intensified the weakness of Chopin'slungs, already affected by the tuberculosis from which he was to die.
In 1848 politicaldisturbances in Paris made teaching impossible, and Chopin left the city for atour of England and Scotland. By this time his health had deterioratedconsiderably. At the end of the year he returned to Paris, now too weak to playor to teach and dependent on the generosity of others for subsistence. He diedthere on 17th October, 1849.
The greater part ofChopin's music was written for his own instrument, the piano. At first itseemed that works for piano and orchestra would be a necessary part of hisstock-in-trade, but the position he found for himself in Paris enabled him towrite principally for the piano alone, in a characteristic idiom that derivessome inspiration from contemporary Italian opera, much from the music ofPoland, and still more from his own adventurous approach to harmony and his ownsheer technical ability as a player.
The first of Chopin'sthree piano sonatas, the Sonata in C minor, Opus 4, was completed in1828, at a time when the composer was still a student of Jozet Elsner at theWarsaw Conservatory The sonata was published posthumously, in 1851. It wasinevitable that at some point in his career Chopin should tackle a form thathad proved of such vital importance in the development of instrumental music ofall kinds. Later he was to treat the sonata with characteristic originality, ofwhich there are already distinct traces in this early example.
The first movement,marked Allegro maestoso, opens solemnly, proceeding with an increasedchromaticism remarkable enough for its place and period. The second movement Eflat major Minuet is precise in its use of the traditional dance,contrasted with an E flat minor Trio. There follows a slow movement inan unusual 5/4 metre and in the key of A flat major, a gentle interlude beforea final Presto of greater energy, interspersed with contrastingepisodes, subject to development. The sonata ends with a forceful enoughconclusion, the whole representing an achievement that is no mere student work,however it may appear by comparison with the two later sonatas.
The Sonata in Bflat minor, Opus 35, was written in 1839, including the Funeral March, thework of 1837. It starts with a brief introduction, followed by a more rapidaccompanying figure, above which the excited first subject appears. In contrastis the slow second subject in D flat major. Chopin modifies traditionalclassical sonata form by omitting the first subject from the recapitulation ofthe movement, which begins, instead, with the major key second subject.
If the centraldevelopment section of the first movement had been harmonically varied, thecentral section of the second movement, the trio, is simple in its harmony, amarked contrast to the agitated chromaticism of the Scherzo that framesit. Tranquillity return, with the solemnity of the Funeral March, whichis followed by a rapid final movement which is daring in its use of a dartingsingle-line melody, doubled at the octave, its only chord in its conclusion.
The Sonata in Bminor, Opus 58, was the only composition that Chopin completed in 1844. Itsfirst movement opens with a particularly decisive first subject, followed by asecond with all the poetic nuance of a nocturne. There is a central developmentof contrapuntal and harmonic complexity, before the return of the secondsubject in the final recapitulation.
The Scherzo, brieferthan other movements in this form that Chopin greatly enlarged, is in E flat,framing a serene trio in the key of B major. It is succeeded by a slowmovement in which the ambiguous harmony of the opening leads to a melody thatwould have suited well enough the great operatic singers of the day, and arhapsodic middle section. There follows a final rondo movement of panache toprovide a brilliant conclusion to the work.
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, S