CHOPIN: Polonaises, Vol. 1 (Idil Biret) (Naxos: 8.554534)
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Complete Piano MusicVol. 8
Polonasies Vol. 1
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 Paris society.
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 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 benefited on his arrival inthe city. As with other relatively trivial dance forms, he was able to raisethe Polonaise to a new level, imparting a degree ofcomplexity and a degree of feeling that had not always been present in the workof his elders in Warsaw. His first attempts at the form were at the age ofseven and his last in 1846, three years before his death.
Chopin had writtensome nine Polonaises before settling in Paris. These were publishedposthumously. His first published examples of the form in Paris were issued in1836, the year after their completion, with a dedication to the Bohemiancellist and composer Joseph Dessauer, George Sand's melancholy Ma?«tre Favilla,a man who seemed to Wagner a hypochondriacal eccentric. Dessauer had beenChopin's companion at Carlsbad in the summer of 1835. The Opus 26 Polonaisesare in the melancholy keys of C sharp and E flat minor.
The two Polonaises thatmake up Opus 40 were published in 1840 by Troupenas, who for the momentreplaced Chopin's usual publisher Schlesinger, suspected now of duplicity. Thefirst of the pair, in the key of A major, is among the best known of all,closely rivalled by its C minor companion. The set was dedicated to JulianFontana, Chopin's friend and contemporary at the Warsaw Conservatory, who hadtaken refuge first in Hamburg, after the abortive Polish rising, and then, in1832, in Paris, afterwards to seek his fortune for some years in the New World,in New York and in Havana. Fontana helped Chopin in negotiations withpublishers and also as copyist, serving his friend's memory with a posthumousedition of a number of later works, in spite of a measure of ill-feelingbetween the two as Chopin prospered and Fontana failed to make any significantname for himself.
By 1841 Chopin hadreturned to his earlier publisher Schlesinger, who issued the F sharp minor Polonaise,Opus 44, in 1841. The Polonaise, which in passing is transformed into amazurka, was dedicated to Princess Ludmilla de Beauveau, sister of DelfinaPotocka, whose association with Chopin was once the subject of gossip fromneighbours, and a leading figure in Polish migrant circles in Paris.
Chopin wrote his Aflat major Polonaise, Opus 53, the following year, with a dedication tothe banker August Leo, a man who had earlier been the object of the composer'santi-semitic complaints during the traumatic winter spent with George Sand onthe island of Mallorca in 1838-9. Three years later he wrote his last Polonaise-Fantaisie
in A flat major, Opus 61, dedicated to his pupil Madame Veyret. In structuraland harmonic terms the Polonaise looks forward to the music of the future, toterritory to be explored by Wagner and Liszt, and later still by Debussy.
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, Lisz