Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was born on this day in 1810 in Zelazowa Wola, a village in the Duchy of Warsaw. He left Poland when he was 20 and never returned. He settled in Paris for the rest of his life. His heart was returned to Poland when he died.

He is, dare I say it, one of the greatest composers for the piano ever, and he wrote some of the most arresting, absorbing, sublime and touching music for the instrument, music which has become part of the pianist’s standard repertoire and is regularly performed around the world by pianists amateur and professional. It is also some of the most difficult music in the repertoire, yet it is wonderful to play because, as a pianist himself, he knew what he was writing, so to speak.

Chopin “highlights”:

The Nocturnes: as I said in an earlier post (Must Plays for Pianists), the Nocturnes are amongst his most exquisite miniatures for piano, and are some of the most charming and expressive pieces he wrote.

The Études, Opus 10 and 25: Chopin took the student study, a genre developed by earlier composers such as Clementi and Czerny, and elevated it to a concert piece while retaining the crucial attributes of the form – that it is intended to practice specific technique or techniques. There is huge variety of mood, texture, sound and technical difficulties throughout the two opuses; some are very famous, others less so. Here is Sokolov in one of my favourites, and the first Étude by Chopin I learnt:

The Mazurka and the Polonaise: peasant and folk music from his homeland, like the Études, Chopin elevated both forms into refined, drawing room music. He gave the Waltz the same treatment: these are not pieces to dance to, but to perform and enjoy, in the salon or at home, amongst friends. The Mazurka in F minor, Opus 68, No. 4 is one of the most beautiful and poignant pieces Chopin wrote, with the ambiguous direction in the score regarding the repeat: ‘D.C. al segno senza fine‘. In effect, the keep repeating and eventually fade away to nothing). My teacher told me she “never teaches” this piece because it is so special. Here is Ashkenazy:

Vladimir Ashkenazy – Chopin: Mazurka No.51 in F minor Op.68 No.4 – Revised version

The ‘infamous’ Marche Funèbre from the B-flat minor Sonata. Much has been written and posited about this work, many commentators suggesting that Chopin wrote it with intimations of his own death in mind. In fact, it was composed some years before he conceived the Sonata, and he then included it in the work. Played well it is grandiose and soaring, its darkness offset by the trio with its beautiful cantabile melody.

The Ballades. Chopin ‘invented’ the Ballade, deriving it from its poetic and vocal cousins, and was the first composer to apply the term to a purely instrumental piece. It was later taken up by composers such as Liszt and Brahms. The Ballades are innovative in form in that they cannot be placed in any other form, for example, Sonata form. Despite sharing the same title, each is highly distinct, with its own character, though all share certain attributes, such as the clever use of “lost” or “ambiguous” keys, exquisite delayed gratification through unresolved harmonies, contrasting, climactic passages, and moments of pure romanticism. The structure of the pieces does not suggest a firm narrative; rather, the listener is able to form his or her own narrative as the music unfolds. (The Third, for example, has a “ticking clock” motif which brings to mind a lovely image of Chopin working at Nohant, while an elegant carriage clock chimes on the mantelpiece, perhaps reminding him, poignantly, of the passing of time.)

Chopin and me:

Hearing English pianist John Lill play the B-flat minor Sonata on the Southbank, circa 1980. A highly emotional experience (Lill was in tears at the close of the work) and the first time I’d seen red roses thrown onto the stage at the end of a concert.

Visiting Chopin’s frugal accommodation at the monastery in Valldemossa, where Chopin and Sand spent their ill-starred holiday in 1838 (documented in Sand’s book A Winter in Majorca). The museum there contains some touching memorabilia – a lock of Chopin’s hair, letters and manuscripts.

Hearing Chopin’s music played on a piano which belonged to him when he visited England in 1848, held in the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands. The programme – the Opus 55 Nocturnes and the Sonata in B minor. That same day, in the evening at the Royal Festival Hall, I heard Nelson Freire play the B minor sonata on a modern concert Steinway – the difference was extraordinary, yet it was clearly the same work.

Learning to play some of the Études, and feeling I had finally “arrived” as a pianist. This sense of having entered a rather exclusive “pianistic club” was enhanced further when my teacher suggested I should learn some of the Ballades and/or Scherzi.

A handful of my favourite works by Chopin:

Murray Perahia – Impromptu in G-flat Major, Op. 51

Freddy Kempf – Polonaise No. 7 In A Flat Major, Op. 61, “Polonaise-fantaisie”

Martha Argerich – Chopin: Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise brillante in E flat, Op.22

Peter Katin – Waltz No. 5 in A flat major, Op. 42

Truls Mørk – Sonata For Cello And Piano, Op. 65, Allegro Moderato

Image credit: Peter Donohoe © Sussie Ahlburg

 

Elder statesman of British pianism and soloist of international renown, Peter Donohoe, gave a richly varied and, at times, highly emotional recital as part of the Southbank Centre’s ongoing International Piano Series, featuring music by Debussy, Liszt, Brahms and Bartok. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here.

I stupidly left some of my precious scores at the venue where I attended a photoshoot last week. I put the scores on the windowsill of the theatre while my photographer friend and I moved the piano into position: I remember thinking, “I mustn’t forget to take those scores with me”….. I only discovered I was missing the scores when I went to practice on Saturday morning, and for a moment I suffered that awful heart-in-the-mouth feeling as I tried to recall where I might have left them. Unless I am reading a score away from the piano (usually in bed, when others might be reading a novel!), my scores live on or close to the piano. Having searched briefcase, bedroom and car to no avail, I realised I had left the music at the theatre.

I felt curiously bereft without them: the Dover edition of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage with a rather fine portrait of Liszt on the front cover, the pale mauve ABRSM edition of Chopin’s Nocturnes, which I had when I took my Grade 8 exam over thirty years ago (still with my then teacher’s annotations), the dusky blue Henle edition of Schubert’s Impromptus and Moments Musicaux which accompanied me to my Diploma exam…… “You must have something else you can practice,” my husband said, seeing my miserable face. “You can go back to the theatre on Monday and collect them.”

He was right, of course – and I did retrieve the scores – but without them nearby all weekend, I did feel rather unhinged. It’s not so much the books themselves, which of course can be replaced, if necessary, but all the annotations and personal scribblings on the pieces I’m working on which I missed.

A pianist friend of mine, on seeing my richly annotated score of Liszt’s Sonetto 123 del Petrarca (heavy with my fingerings, comments to myself, and excerpts of the libretto from the song version), suggested that I rub out all but the most essential markings and “clean up that score!”. “Oh no! I can’t possibly do that!” I exclaimed in horror. For to me those markings are as familiar as old friends, and without them it’s just NOT MY SCORE!

I expect we all have our own set of personal markings and annotations: I favour rings around notes to remind me of a place where I regularly make a mistake, exclamation marks (rather like the road signs) to alert me to ‘hazards’, a cartoon pair of spectacles to remind me to look out or ‘watch it’. Then there are general notes about context, the composer, facts about the work. (In the case of the Liszt Sonetto, it was incredibly helpful in my interpretation and shaping of that work to have a translation of the libretto at crucial points in the score, as well as a copy of Petrarch’s original sonnet pinned to the inside cover.) It’s always interesting, almost voyeuristic, to see someone else’s score, for the marks within in are highly personal: someone else’s fingering and comments, which, if analysed, might reveal someone’s deepest insecurities and frustrations, their unspoken hopes and most secret desires.  Someone else’s annotations, their wisdom, the score they have lived in, and worked over many times.

My scores are now safely stowed on the lid of the piano, ready for this week’s practising. Meanwhile, over the weekend, I worked on Mozart’s Rondo in A minor (K.511), and made some useful inroads into Messiaen’s Prelude ‘Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste’ and Rachmaninov’s wonderful transcription of the Prelude from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3.

Tenor John Aler sings ‘I’ vidi in terra’ – Sonetto 156 di Petrarca (S.158/3)

Olivier Messiaen composed his eight Preludes for piano in 1929. Debussy’s own Preludes were less than twenty years old at the time, and the influence of Debussy on the young Messiaen is obvious in these piano miniatures. Like Debussy, Messiaen gave each Prelude a title, suggesting a narrative for the work. Some are obvious, such as ‘La Colombe’ (‘The Dove’), a piece with delicate flutterings and cooings high in the register, or ‘Un reflet dans le vent…’ (‘A Reflection in the Wind…’), with its stormy gusts and eddies, while others have more esoteric titles: ‘Les sons impalpables de rêve…’ (‘The Intangible Sounds of the Dream’) and ‘Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu’ (‘Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell’).

The Debussyan influence is clear in the use of unresolved or ambiguous veiled and misty harmonies, and parallel chords which are used for pianistic colour and timbre rather than definite harmonic progression, but Messiaen’s Preludes are also mystical rather than purely impressionistic, and look forward to his great and profoundly spiritual piano works, Visions de l’Amen (for 2 pianos) and Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jesus.

Messiaen described his Preludes as  “a collection of successive states of mind and personal feelings”. Sadness, loss, and meditations on mortality are found in many of the Preludes, but there is light (physical and metaphorical) as well, as there always is in Messiaen’s music, and they contain many of the features which are so distinctive of Messiaen’s later works: a masking of literal definitions, shimmering sounds, colours, light, “flashes”, and already suggest the vastness of Messiaen’s spiritual and musical landscape, a landscape which makes the Vingt regards such extraordinary pieces to play and to hear. As Alex Ross says of Messiaen’s music in his book The Rest is Noise, it is “an evocation of the vastness of the cosmos that many experience when visiting mountains.” One has the sense, always, when playing or listening to Messiaen of something that is far, far greater than us.

Messiaen shared Debussy’s fascination with the percussive, tinkling, luminous sounds of the gamelan orchestra of Indonesia, and the piano and pianissimo measures in Messiaen’s music can be very effective if played with a slight stridency and brightness of tone (this is a very ‘French’ style of piano playing, and if you listen to Yvonne Loriod, Messiaen’s second wife, playing his music, you can hear that sparkling clarity). And Messiaen, like Debussy before him, capitalised on the piano’s sonorous potential, for example, in the inclusion of deliberately “wrong” notes (to be played more softly that the rest of the material), which create the illusion of the natural sympathetic harmonics set up by the release of the sustaining pedal.

Here is Yvonne Loriod in the second of Messiaen’s Preludes:

Yvonne Loriod – Messiaen : 8 Préludes : II Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste

And here is French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who went to study with Messiaen at the age of 12:

from the Vingt Regards – X. ‘Regard de l’Esprit de joie’

Revisiting a work one learnt last month, last year, or 20 years ago can be a wonderful experience, like reacquainting oneself with an old friend, while also making a new friendship. Picking up a piece again after a long absence, as I have been with Mozart’s melancholy late work, his Rondo in A minor, K 511, often offers new insights into that work, and reveals layers and subtleties one may not have spotted the first time round.

My experience with my studies for my Performance Diploma taught me how to practice deeply, to the extent that I was on intimate terms with every note, every phrase, every nuance, every shading in all of my exam pieces. After I had performed the pieces for the exam, I might have considered them “finished”: certainly, on the morning of the exam, my thought was “I have done all I can. There is nothing more I can do”. But that was then, on 14th December 2011, and now, mid-February, picking up the Liszt Sonetto 123 del Petrarca again ready for Richmond Music Festival, the piece feels very familiar, yet certainly not “finished”. Of course, it needs some finessing for its next performance in just over two weeks’ time, and some reviewing in the light of the examiner’s comments, and, yes,  it is “all there”, in the fingers. But it has changed since I last played it: it’s more spacious and relaxed, gentler and more songful. It won’t be quite the same piece as before, when I play it in the festival.

The Mozart Rondo K 511 is multi-faceted: it prefigures Chopin in its rondo figure, a weary yet songful and at times highly ornamented melody, and harks back to Bach in its textural and chromatic B and C sections (a more detailed analysis of this work here). This is actually my second revisit of this work: I first learnt it before I started having lessons with my current teacher (about 5 years ago), and then revived it about two years ago. So, third time around, I am finding more subtleties in it, while also being struck at how cleverly Mozart manages to express his entire oeuvre in the microcosm of a piano miniature: there are arias, grand operatic gestures, Baroque arabesques and chromaticism, Chopinesque fiorituras, extremes of light and shade, sometimes within the space of a single bar. All the time when I am working on it, I find aspects which remind me why I picked it up in the first place, while also discovering new things about it.

A work can never truly be considered ‘finished’. Often a satisfying performance of a work to which one has devoted many hours of study can be said to put the work ‘to bed’, but only for the time being. The same is true of a recording: rather than a be-all-and-end-all record, maybe a recording is better regarded as a snapshot of one’s musical and creative life at that moment. As a pianist friend of mine once said “it’s always the way: you commit a work to a CD then discover all sorts of new things about it….”. American Pianist Bruce Brubaker, in his sensitive and thoughtful blog Piano Morphosis, describes this as a process of “continuing”. Thus, one performance informs another, and all one’s practising and playing is connected in one continuous stream of music-making.

Here is Mitsuko Uchida in Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K 511. For me, this is a peerless interpretation of this work.

Mitsuko Uchida – Mozart: Rondo in A minor, K.511

This week I visited Dulwich village, an area of south-east London I have not been to for many years. I had the very good fortune not only to review an exhibition of exquisite Indian miniature paintings at the wonderful Dulwich Picture Gallery, but also to play Bach on a spinet belonging to a friend. The spinet playing will feature in a separate post. Meanwhile, here is my review of ‘Ragamalas’ for OneStopArts.com.

Dulwich on View magazine is running a ‘create your own ragamala’ competition. Details here