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A journey through the piano music of Fryderyk Chopin

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On 4th September 2015, British pianist Warren Mailley-Smith embarked on year-long survey of the complete piano music of Fryderyk Chopin through a series of 11 concerts at St John’s Smith Square, London.

Chopin’s life and music was a phenomenon. Unlike most composers, his music has never been out of fashion and this series is a rare opportunity to explore the reasons for his enduring popularity. The concerts focus on various aspects of Chopin’s output, including the Waltzes, the Preludes, the heroic Polonaise, the Ballades and the Scherzi.

Here Warren to explains what makes the piano music of Chopin so special and describes how he planned and prepared for this pianistic marathon.

What do you love about Chopin?  

Chopin is one of those composers whose music is equally rewarding to play, as it is to listen to. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but it isn’t necessarily always the case. Some composers can create the most heavenly music to listen to, for example Beethoven or Rachmaninov, but it doesn’t necessarily ‘fall under the fingers’ or ‘lie in the hand’ in the same way that Chopin does.

Why is Chopin’s music so amazing to play?

His music is written in a way that allows the hand to follow a very natural movement over the keys, but is so much more than that. There is something very sensual and beautiful about the whole experience of PLAYing Chopin which is present in almost every one of his pieces. They are so driven by this ever-­present, persistent  cantabile line, which really gives you, as a performer, a feeling of singing through the piano.

Chopin also has the most amazing way of building up the most deeply felt and exhilarating climaxes in his music so that it can becomes the most overwhelming feeling when you are actually  performing  it.

Tell us more about your feelings on Chopin’s music  

For me there has always been something very exciting and gratifying about the way Chopin uses harmony to surprise and enthrall – for example, in the 2nd subject of the Barcarolle, or the transitional passage in the G-flat-major Impromptu. And in equal measure the way that he uses it to say something profound – as in the opening bar of the Polonaise Fantasy -­ and magical, for example, in the middle section of the Scherzo No. 3. But above  all, it’s the way that Chopin uses his harmonic progressions to build up to the most overwhelming climaxes,  for example in the last full statement of the theme in the 4th Ballade.

What is it like to play some of Chopin’s hardest music?

The short answer is exhilarating. Chopin rarely writes difficult music ‘for the sake  of  it’ – and there’s always an underlying musical idea, phrase or shape that  is involved. So, even when your fingers are flying around at 60 notes a second, your brain is able to focus on the bigger picture which makes it easier to make the passage sound convincing. But of course the complex passages (of which there are many!) require hours of slow, careful, repetitive practice in order to train the fingers, almost (but not quite) into ‘auto pilot’ which allows you to take your focus away from each individual note and concentrate more on the bigger shapes in the music – and of  course certain key turning points!

Concept of the programmes  

When you have an almost infinite number of possible combinations of pieces to build 11 programmes, it becomes necessary to have a structure behind it.  So I decided each programme had to:

  1. feature an important work, or group of works that stands out from his output as being exceptional or ground­‐breaking in some way.
  2. contrast well-known Chopin with lesser-known Chopin
  3. contrast early Chopin with late Chopin
  4. follow a chronological thread, through the Mazurkas.
  5. offer a sufficient contrast of moods, emotions and colour for the audience
  6. be well timed, with good key relationships

It’s actually been a lot of fun designing them over the past 3 years – and, as you can imagine, there has been a lot of tweaking, and juggling over that time.

Journey of the series  

Each individual programme is designed to stand alone as a compelling presentation of the composer’s genius. However, the series as a whole is designed to take you on a bold journey from his Op 1 in the first concert through to one of his last masterpieces, the breath-­taking Sonata No. 3.  By experiencing EVERYTHING, we can gain a fuller understanding of both the music and the man.

What is so special about Chopin  

As a man, Chopin was highly refined and reserved in manner, moving as he did in the upper echelons of society. But his music belies a highly-charged emotional and sensual depth – to the extent that, I believe he was using his music to express what he felt unable to say in words -­ or indeed actions.  It is surely the underlying emotional depth in every note he wrote that accounts for the enduring popularity of his music. 200 years on and his music is arguably more popular today than it has ever been, bearing in mind that his music has never really been out of fashion!

What does this series mean to you?

This is a truly amazing opportunity for a performer to go on such a journey with an audience.  Although it will be an uplifting experience for me to pass my hands through Chopin’s entire works, I believe it will also be a great experience to offer audiences an opportunity to get to know the music of this great genius of the piano a little better and hopefully discover some  new favourites whilst reacquainting themselves with old ones!  This is something I have wanted to do for nearly 10 years and so for me it is the realization of a great ambition.

Why take on the whole piano works of Chopin?  

When you learn a piece of music by a composer, you obviously learn a little about their style, their feelings and the composer themselves. When you learn a second piece -­ you often discover something further, something contradictory or complimentary. The more works you learn, the more you learn about how to interpret any given piece by that composer and you start to build a very comprehensive picture of both the music and the man. I’ve obviously been playing Chopin for many years – and  after a while you start to fill in the gap your repertoire and before you know it, it’s not quite such a mammoth task as it might first appear.

This also happens at a very relevant time in my life. I will be the same age when I start the series as Chopin was when he died. It is quite a humbling feeling to have absorbed so many masterpieces, written by the same person in so few years

Why do this in London? 

As a Londoner, I began my performing career here in London nearly 20 years ago, at the same venue. I was just thrilled to have the opportunity to give these concerts at St John’s as it is a wonderful feeling to return to the same stage, with so many experiences of performing now behind me. I can honestly say that I am now a very different artist as a result of the many concerts I’ve given since m  student days and the many thousands of hours of practice that I’ve undertaken since then!

Have you got any plans to take the series to Poland? 

I certainly have plans to take these pieces with me everywhere I go from now on!

How long does it take to learn the whole cycle?  

I’ve spent 4 years planning these concerts. But that certainly hasn’t been 4 years of uninterrupted practice. Other concerts and demands have often taken priority for large chunks of time.  But I could not have prepared it any sooner, as the many big, complex works simply take a long time to ‘settle  in’ and you can’t force that number of notes into your fingers all in one go!

Are you doing it all from memory?

That is most certainly my intention. Simply because I believe one can perform to one’s best without the music there, because it removes a constraint between me and the audience.  Most of all I want the audience to feel that the focus of my attention  isn’t on the pages in front of me, but that my whole attention is focused on communicating what is in my fingers, to them. That is the goal!

How many hours a day do you practice?  

It really varies so much from day to day. But it doesn’t seem to matter how many hours practicing  I  do – 2  or 12 – I  always end up wanting to do a bit more.

Why do so many pianists love playing Chopin?  

I am sure that every pianist has had a slightly different reason for playing Chopin.  But the bottom line is that people love listening to his music and to watch a pianist performing his music live takes that experience to a new, more personal and heightened level. But for pianists themselves, I think that Chopin consistently takes the performer on a satisfying journey  – whether it’s a short hop, or an epic voyage, you nearly always feel better for having played it when you reach the last bar!

What will make these Chopin recitals different from the many others before them?

Any one combination of pieces paints a slightly different picture.  I think the 11 pictures, or programmes which I’ve painted, will portray striking contrasts of the man and his music. A number of pre-concert events are also designed to paint a truly comprehensive picture of his music and influences.  There will be talks, dancing, chamber music and workshops to complement the concerts.

How do you prepare for such a marathon as this?        

A lot of careful planning, advice, preparatory performances, honest self-assessment and a good deal of ruthless goal setting! It’s quite a lot of repertoire to learn over a sustained period of time, which makes it essential that one’s love for the music you are practicing is unquestioned. Therefore, it never really feels like work, but more like an extended indulgence in your favourite chocolates.

Browse the complete series of concert

3 thoughts on “A journey through the piano music of Fryderyk Chopin”

  1. I did a Chopin series in & around Yeovil just over 4 years ago [although at my age my memory is no longer infallible, so I did have the music]! It is a mammoth – but very rewarding – undertaking!

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