Long read guest post by Walter Simmons Witt

”It is not the piano that speaks, but a soul.”

Marquis de Custine, in a letter to Chopin, April 1831.

As a pianist and connoisseur of Chopin, I have always been fascinated by how Chopin’s contemporaries perceived him, be they friends, admirers or critics. What insights can be gained from those that heard him play?  A voluminous and sometimes misleading literature on Chopin already exists, in particularly regarding Chopin and Sand and their tortured relationship, of little importance to a musician. What about Chopin’s artistry, his music? What did Chopin’s contemporaries say?

In order to understand Chopin’s music, one must first acknowledge his twin Polish and French roots. Both nationalities defined him. He was a mixture of the Polish “zal,” or spleen, and the French “bon usage et bonne manière.” Anguished, yet aristocratic. Patriotic, yet politely so.   As Jane Stirling, Chopin’s friend and ardent admirer observed: “he was not like other men.” While devoid of any particular depth or subtlety, her description is revealing. Chopin clearly was not like other men. As Debussy himself observed, “By the very nature of his genius, the music of Chopin escapes any classification.”

The intensely private nature of Chopin – his desire to keep personal matters to himself – cannot be overlooked. Perhaps due to his status as a refugee, afraid to reveal himself to his French or Polish hosts, as well as his chronic, debilitating illness, Chopin hid his real personality and thoughts behind a veneer of “courtoisie.”   As Liszt said of him, “Chopin’s character is composed of a thousand shades which in crossing one another become so disguised as to be indistinguishable.” Or as the biographer Louis Esnault remarked: “Chopin lent of himself sometimes, but gave of himself never.”

Chopin – of whom the Princess Belgiojoso said “is greater than the greatest of pianists, he is the only one” – was entirely self-taught. Consider this fact for a moment – Chopin had no elementary instruction in the piano or piano technique. Instead, he learned technique by creating it and refining it, ultimately revealing a poetic virtuosity which has never known a rival.

It must also be remembered that Chopin’s fame as a young man allowed Chopin to be welcomed as an equal in the highest levels of society. This is where Chopin acquired the habits of scrupulous politeness, considered essential to the maintenance of style in social relationships. Liszt, who understood this well, was probably not far off when he described Chopin’s bearing as “princely.” Despite Chopin’s intense social activity, however, Chopin craved solitude. From his stay in Vienna, Chopin gives us an opening into his state of mind in a letter to his childhood friend, Titus: “It is only the various dinners, evening parties, concerts, and balls that I am obliged that sustain me a little. I feel so sad, lonely, and abandoned here. I have, of course, to dress for these receptions with a reasonably contended countenance. But I hurry back to my room, where I can give rein to my suppressed emotions by sitting down at my piano, which now is only too well accustomed to the expression of all my sufferings.

As for the level of admiration which Chopin elicited, one cannot do better than the Marquis de Custine, a neighbour of Chopin’s in the “New Athens” district in Paris: “Not only do we love him, we love ourselves in him.” Despite this perhaps overly romantized description expressed by the Marquis in a letter to Chopin following Chopin’s debut concert in 1831, Chopin confessed the following to his beloved friend, Titus: “Outwardly I am gay, especially among my own, I mean by ‘my own,’ all the Poles. But, at the root of my being I am suffering an indefinable torment – full of presentiments, uneasiness, nightmares, when it is not insomnia. Sometimes I feel indifferent to everything and sometimes a prey to the most intense homesickness; I long to live as much as to die and sometimes I feel a sort of complete numbness which incidentally is not without a certain pleasure but which makes me feel away from everything. Then suddenly vivid memories arise and torture me: hatred, bitterness, a frightful mixture of unhealthy sensations which attack me and leave me exhausted.

This startling lucidity and self-awareness can be safely described as Chopin’s Polish “zal.” Chopin reveals, in almost clinical terms, the depth of his nature – a nature exacerbated by illness as his symptoms increased with time. Add to this Chopin’s apparent discomfort with familiarity, – “he did not understand, or would not understand anything, that was not personal to himself” as Sand put it – and we have the elements of Chopin’s character in a nutshell.

As Chopin grew older, his anger and outbursts of rage only intensified. Georges Sand, who had ample opportunity to observe Chopin’s temper, said that “Chopin in a rage was terrifying.” Sand’s thinly veiled and no doubt vengeful characterization of Chopin as “Prince Carol” in her book, Lucrezia Floriani, is revealing: “he showed a charm which was false and glittering, with which he tortured those who loved him. He had the air of one who bites gently for the pleasure of doing it and his bite went deep. Everything seemed strange and uninteresting, he held aloof from everything, every opinion, every idea.

Liszt, Chopin’s friend, admirer and sometimes rival, described it this way: “Never was there a nature more imbued with whims, caprices, and abrupt eccentricities. His imagination was fiery, his emotions violent, and his physical being feeble and sickly. Who can possibly plomb the suffering deriving from such a contradiction?

These are the descriptions of Chopin the man. What of his music and his piano? The number of concerts which Chopin gave was surprisingly few – a handful when compared to today’s typical concert pianist. And yet, Chopin’s reputation and fame was established early on and was widespread. He had no rival, notwithstanding the spectacular fame of Liszt and to a much lesser degree, Thalberg, both regulars on the platform. What was the secret of Chopin’s success as a pianist? Certainly, the opinion of contemporary aristocratic circles magnified Chopin’s reputation. Statements such as those of Princess Belgiojoso led many no doubt to accept Chopin’s greatness as a matter of faith. This cannot explain however the worship of Chopin, or Chopin’s recognition as the supreme master of the keyboard.

This idea is borne out by the contemporary descriptions we have of Chopin’s playing. Gustave Chouquet, director of the Musée du Conservatoire, had the good fortune as a boy to hear Chopin play in the Ancien Conservatoire concert hall in 1835. He compared Chopin to Liszt, who appeared in the same concert hall a few days later. “After praising Liszt’s rendering of Weber’s Koncertstük; Chouquet compared Liszt’s playing with the ‘ineffable poetry’ of Chopin’s.

Chouquet writes: “In 1835, Liszt was the perfect example of the virtuoso. He made the most of every effect as if he were a Paganini of the piano. Chopin, on the other hand, communed with voices within himself, and never appeared to notice his audience. He was not always in form, but when in the mood he played as one inspired and made the piano sing in an ineffable style.

Chouquet repeats the word “ineffable” in his letter – ineffable in the sense of passing beyond the bounds of music. The embodiment, the very meaning itself, of musical revelation.

Writing about a concert given by Chopin in Rouen for his fellow Polish countrymen, Legouvé Orlowski gives us an eyewitness account which merits quoting in its entirety:

“This event is not without significance in the world of music. Chopin, who has retired from playing in public for some years past, Chopin who confines his fascinating genius to an audience of five or six, Chopin who resembles those enchanted islands on which so few here set foot, who recount such marvels that they are accused of falsehood, Chopin whom one can never forget once having heard him.

And indeed, his success was immense. Immense! All those ravishing melodies, that ineffable delicacy of touch, that melancholy and passionate inspiration, the poetry of execution and composition, which grips both the imagination and the heart, penetrated, stirred, enraptured all five hundred listeners, as they do the five or six chosen ones who form his audience and religiously attend to him for hours on end. The atmosphere was electric, murmurs or ecstasy and wonder filled the hall, which are the applause of the soul.”

Even discounting for hyperbole, Orlowski’s description of Chopin is most revealing. It reveals the power of Chopin as a pianist, equal if not greater – impossible to imagine – than the esteem given to Chopin as a composer.

In April 1841, during Chopin’s mature compositional period, following a long period of public silence, Chopin decided to give a concert at Monsieur Pleyel’s salons. He appeared for the first time without an orchestra, as a soloist. Chopin introduced that evening the Ballade Op 38, the Polonaise Op 40, the Second Scherzo, four Mazurkas from Op 41, as well as Etudes, Preludes, Nocturnes. The cream of Parisian society fought each other to attend. Perhaps there is no better witness to Chopin’s playing that evening than that of Liszt himself.

Liszt, in the Gazette Musicale on May 2, 1841, penned the following, taking us into the very heart of Chopin himself:

“A grand piano stood on the platform, everyone sought the nearest seats and settled down to listen, telling themselves in advance that they must not miss a chord, a note, a suggestion, a though that might fall from him who was to play.

They were right to be so eager, attentive to the point of worship, for he whom they awaited, whom they were so desirous of hearing, admiring, applauding was not merely a skilled virtuoso, a pianist who was master of the keyboard, not only an artist of renown, he was someone far beyond all this – they awaited Chopin!

Music was his language, a divine language by means of which he expressed a whole range of feelings which could be appreciated only by the few. The music of his homeland sang to him the songs and sad lays of Poland, lending to his art some strange and mysterious poetry, which for those who have taken it to their hearts, is incomparable..

Without an affected striving for originality, he has expressed his personality both in his style and in his ideas. For new ideas, he has adopted a new style. The hint of a wild and fiery nature, which is a part of his inheritance, finds expression in strange harmonies and deliberate discords, while all his delicacy and grace is shown in a thousand touches, the thousand tiny details of an incomparable fantasy….

Chopin selected those of his works most remote from classical forms. Instead of the Concerto, Sonata, Fantaisie or Variations, he played Preludes, Etudes, Nocturnes, and Mazurkas. He had no need to startle or grip his audience; he was playing in an atmosphere of quiet understanding, not one of boisterous enthusiasm. From the striking of the first chords a bond of closest sympathy was established between the artist and the audience….

Chopin’s Preludes are in a category by themselves. They are not solely, as their title would lead one to suppose, items intended to be played by way of introduction to other items. They are poetic preludes similar to those of the great poet Lamartine, which bathe the soul in golden dreams and lift it to the realms of the ideal. Admirable in their variety, the work and skill and skill that has gone into their composition is not obvious until after a careful examination. Every note seems to be utterly spontaneous and inspired. They have the great attractiveness which is to be found in all works of genius.”

No clearer understanding of Chopin’s pianistic abilities and music in my view has been written. Later, on May 2, Liszt went further, drawing the comparison between Chopin and Schubert: “I have referred to Schubert because there is no other composer with so complete an affinity with Chopin. What one has done for the voice, the other has done for the piano. Chopin composes for himself and plays for himself. Listen to him as he dreams. As he weeps. As he sings, with tenderness, gentleness, and melancholy; how perfectly he expresses every feeling, however delicate, however lofty.”

“Chopin is the pianist of pianists.”

Despite the reviews and his success, Chopin continued to be filled with self-doubt. Before Chopin’s final concert in Paris, February 16, 1848, he wrote this: Such excitement surprises me. And now comes the question of playing, which I only do to satisfy my conscience, for it seems to me that I play worse than ever. I shall play a Mozart trio with Allard and Franchomme (cellist and friend of Chopin who succeeded Fontana as Chopin’s secretary).

The description of this concert from the critic of the Gazette Musicale leaves me in a state of wonder as to what it must have been like to witness this moment: “The ‘sylph’(Chopin) has kept his word. And with what a success, what enthusiasm!
If I possessed the pen that calls forth Queen Mab:
“In shape no bigger than the agate stone,
On the forefinger of an alderman,”
“it would be difficult to give any idea of a talent so completely ethereal that it transcends all earthly things. To understand Chopin we need but to know Chopin himself. All those present at the concert were as convinced of this, as we were ourselves..”

Unknown to the audience was that they had just heard Chopin’s final performance in France, his swan song. After this concert, Chopin collapsed with fatigue, perhaps from the stress of his relationship with Sand at Nohant and certainly from the worsening illness which had finally caught up with Chopin’s body. Not long afterwards, Chopin left for England, in the care of Jane Stirling.

While in England, Chopin played at several private houses, including a concert on July 7 1848 together with his friend and musical confidante, the singer Pauline Viardot. “She sings my Polish songs. It went off very well. But I don’t know whether I shall get a hundred guineas out of it.” He adds: “Coughing the way I do, I often wonder on a morning if I am going to cough up my soul.”

His remaining concerts were few. In Manchester, he shared the stage with three other singers and with other repertoire than his own – The “Barber of Seville” by Rossini, “Prometheus” by Beethoven, and “Rübezahl” by Weber.   Between these items, Chopin played an Andante, no doubt his Andante Spianato Op 22 (the only work which Chopin marked using the word “spianato,” or “smooth”), a Scherzo (we do not know which), some Etudes, a Nocturne, as well as the Berceuse. The newspapers in Manchester dutifully reported Chopin’s concert: “Chopin appeared to be about thirty years of age. He has a very distinguished bearing, an almost sorrowful expression, and appears to be in delicate health. His melancholy and fragile appearance disappears when he takes his place at his instrument, which from then on seems to absorb his entire interest.”

Subsequently, in Glasgow, a late afternoon performance was given at Merchants’ Hall, with his intimate Polish friends the Prince and Princess Czartoriski in attendance. “I have come back to life again, thanks to the presence of the Polish element, which gave me the strength to play.”

Finally, Chopin played at the Hopetown Rooms on Queen Street, in Glasgow, at the insistence of Jane Stirling. It is doubtful we will ever know the extent of Stirling’s relationship with Chopin, nor the extent of her actions to help Chopin behind the scenes. We do know from Chopin’s correspondence that Stirling suggested that he marry her. This no doubt crossed the line for Chopin and his distaste of familiarity.

It is not difficult to imagine that Chopin knew, as he stepped in front of the relatively small audience in Edinburgh, that this could be the last time he would perform in public. He performed the demanding F minor Ballade, arguably Chopin’s greatest work and a monument to art itself. The piece must have put a strain on his weakened physical resources. He also played smaller works, including Nocturnes, Etudes, Preludes and Waltzes. The account in the local Edinburgh Courier was not particularly flattering: “Chopin’s compositions may be counted among the best in the classical style. His execution is the most delicate that one could possibly hear. He does not, however, possess the power or the brilliant technique of a Mendelssohn (note that Mendelssohn resided in England) or a Liszt. In consequence, his playing has less effect in a hall of considerable size. But as a performer of chamber music, he has no equal.

Perhaps to escape Scotland and the desires of Jane Stirling, Chopin arranged a concert in London as a way to return to Paris. It was his last public performance, a benefit concert for his fellow Polish countrymen. Chopin knew his days were waning. He played only a few pieces, including what we believe to be the first two Etudes of the Op 25. He left the concert afterwards scarcely able to breathe.  Clearly Chopin desired his final musical act to be that of a patriot – a final effort made on behalf of the Polish people, whose soul Chopin immortalized in his music.

Complementary with written accounts, the artistic representations of Chopin can give us insight into Chopin, notably those of Delacroix and Ary Scheffer, as well as the Italian painter Luigi Rubio. A reproduction of these well known portraits is included here. I leave it to the reader to decide for him or herself which image reveals the most. The only verified photograph of an ailing Chopin, taken not long before Chopin died, does little in my view to give us any real insight into Chopin’s true nature.

As a pianist and lifelong performer of Chopin’s music, I believe that words alone are not adequate to describe Chopin. I am not talking about translating Chopin’s music into words, since every listener of Chopin has his or her own impressions.  There may be no point after all to verbal descriptions of music – playing it and hearing it are the point.

I have known some pieces by Chopin for decades and play them regularly. However, each time I play a piece by Chopin, even a shorter work such as a Mazurka or an Etude, a new idea is generated. It doesn’t have to be a large idea or a radical new way of playing the piece either. It can be as small as a pause between notes in the middle of a phrase or within a chord. It can be so small that you simply feel something but can’t articulate it. There was something different. That is all you know.

For me, this applies is particular to Chopin’s Fourth Ballade. The introduction of the Fourth Ballade, the first seven measures alone, is a masterpiece. If Chopin had stopped there, it would have been enough. Each time I play the introduction, I don’t want to leave. My left hand lingers on the F, the E, then the C, holding on to each note, ever slightly. The exposition in F minor begins, gently rocking and moving me forward at the same time. It is aching yet mysterious. So I brace myself and play the phrases cleanly and directly.

Then Chopin starts me on a journey.  It begins with the addition of thirds, a simple harmonic structure. And yet, the theme is transformed. Chopin picks me up and I see over the horizon, into a new world ready to explore. Then other harmonies approach – sixths, then octaves. Again, I enter new territory. The Fourth Ballade is like a never ending exploration. It is accessible, yet never completely fathomable. There is nothing like it in music, as James Huneker observes – nothing so intimate, so intoxicating, so provocative.

Chopin uses harmony in the Fourth Ballade like a palette of colors of infinite richness added to a sketch. Sometimes though, Chopin gives us only that – a sketch. Take the Prelude No. 11 for instance. It is a brief instant, the hands barely trace the outlines of a melody with soft harmonies. And yet this single page of music in my view is worth a dozen symphonies.

Or the Mazurka in A minor. A note changes in each chord, creating the leading tone. Then, liking the snuffing out a candle, Chopin extinguishes the piece. He simply stops. It is one of the most remarkable endings of any piece I know. When I play this mazurka, I think of a conversation between two people. I watch their faces as they talk. They are sharing something which happened long ago about which only they know. Their words overlap and weave together. And I know the scene before me, unique in that particular moment, will end and I will no longer be able to appreciate its beauty. It is painful to look at. So I close my eyes. The scene is no more. The piece simply stops.

Chopin was not a greater composer than Bach or Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert, an absurdity in itself. But for me, Chopin is unique. He understood as no other composer did what the piano can do. Chopin gave us the full emotional range of what a piano can express. Judging from the descriptions left to us by Liszt, or by the Marquis de Custine, Chouquet and others, I have no doubt his contemporaries felt the same way as well.

This is the English translation of an original article for the French magazine Histoire.

avatars-xsmrnf1veyiqv3qe-66unuq-t500x500Walter Witt is a classical pianist, composer and educator based in Paris. A lifelong student of the works of Chopin, Walter captivates audiences with his innate musicianship and dynamic presence  at the piano. Together with his advocacy for classical music and its educational importance, these talents make him one of the most compelling figures in classical music today.

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Header image: 3D image of Chopin by Hadi Karimi


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As part of the celebrations for my blog’s 10th anniversary, I asked people to submit recordings. Here are two very contrasting pieces by friends of mine, who are, like me, very keen amateur pianists and lovers of the piano and its literature. In recent years, I’ve had the pleasure of performing with Neil and Julian at the very popular and enjoyable house concerts which Neil organises in his home in West Sussex.



Guest post by Julian on the piano course at Lot in France


The Cross-Eyed Pianist is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours every month to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of the site

Guest post by Dr James Holden

I’ve always really enjoyed playing the piano. However, I’ve always avoided doing my piano practice. This spring I decided to put an end to that. I was particularly motivated by the start of the annual 100 Day Project, in which people commit to doing something creative for 100 days. I determined that my project would be to teach myself how to play Chopin’s Nocturne op. 27 no. 2, a piece I’ve always loved but lacked the impetus and dedication to learn. To do this, I committed myself to practising for at least 30 minutes every day. What’s more, I decided to make myself publicly accountable by streaming my practice sessions on my Twitch channel.

In case you’re not aware, Twitch is a streaming platform usually used by gamers to broadcast themselves playing videogames. However, it’s also used by artists and other creatives to stream their ongoing work. At any one time you can usually find several pianists playing live in the ‘Music & Performing Arts’ category. These players are often watched by hundreds of viewers as they perform arrangements of popular songs and other tunes, improvisations and more.

If these pianists are giving online concerts, they are less like modern concerts than they are nineteenth-century salon performances. Twitch allows real time interaction through a chat window which means that these pianist-streamers can engage with their audiences in real time between and even during pieces, and are therefore able to perform requests, respond to suggestions and otherwise chat with viewers.

My own Twitch streams are a little different. Firstly, my standard of playing is generally lower: I am an intermediate level amateur at best with limited repertoire (largely the result of my limited practice!). Secondly, I’m not attempting to give salon style performances. Instead, I’m ‘just’ broadcasting my daily piano practice.

Practice is normally private not public. It’s what precedes a performance; it’s not the performance itself. And yet, the simple act of streaming it on a public media platform means that my private practice does take on a performative aspect. Even if no one is watching – and that’s often the case on my channel – people could be watching. And that makes all the difference.

The performative aspect of my streams has necessarily altered my relationship to my practice. It has introduced an implied need to make it enjoyable to watch. This means, in the first place, choosing to work on a piece that will appeal quickly to viewers surfing between channels. The Chopin nocturne I’ve chosen is a beautiful work with relatively immediate appeal. However, it simply doesn’t have the mass recognition or popularity that a cover of a hit song would have. Secondly, the need to make my streams an enjoyable watch potentially risks altering how I practice. It feels as though I should play the work through coherently ‘in flow’ rather than working in a more deliberate, detailed fashion. It’s just not that much fun to watch someone play one bar over and over, or play a phrase slowed down to the point of unrecognizability. And yet, that is the kind of effort that is often required when practising.

On the plus side, Twitch’s interactivity means that it’s possible to get immediate positive reinforcement during practice. I was genuinely thrilled when a viewer typed in chat that my playing sounded good. The comment led me to think about the broader possibilities of learning on stream. I can imagine a practice session becoming something like an informal masterclass with knowledgeable viewers offering encouragement and advice.


Given my chosen piece, I can’t help thinking about all these issues in relation to the Romantic virtuosos. Chopin himself, of course, was a brilliant performer but famously averse to giving large concerts. Perhaps he would have enjoyed playing in the privacy of his own home to an invisible public audience on Twitch. I’m not sure how he would have felt about making the private work of practice public though. I certainly know how the older Liszt would have felt. It’s probably true that during his years as a touring virtuoso the younger Liszt did much of his practice in public on the concert platform itself. However, in later life as the stern master of Weimar he was famously dismissive of pupils who displayed poor technique during his masterclasses, berating them with the declaration: “Wash your dirty linen at home!” I am literally counting ledger lines during my streams so am certainly, musically speaking, washing my dirty linen in public.

Franz Liszt in concert in the 1840s

I’m only a short way into #the100dayproject. Despite the complications it has introduced, the decision to stream has already had several positive effects. Firstly, it has given me the necessary commitment to keep practising. My advertised stream schedule makes me publicly accountable for my practice in a way I’ve never been before, not even when I had lessons as a kid. I have, as a result, stuck to the task far more than I would have done otherwise, and my playing has genuinely improved as a result. I’ve certainly made solid progress with the nocturne. Whilst it’s true that I’m still stumbling over the more challenging passages and continue to play wrong notes, I at least play them better than I did before. It turns out that regular practice really does make a difference!

A second consequence of my decision to stream my practice is that I now have a video archive of my progress. I can compare the video of my day 1 stream with, say, that of my day 21 stream and quickly see the progress. This is a source of positive reinforcement that offers continued motivation when things seem challenging. More immediately, the fact that Twitch makes streams available as VODs means that I can watch myself back straight after I finish my practice. I can listen to my playing divorced from the act of playing itself, which means I can hear things much more clearly. The critical reflection for which this allows feeds back into my following practice sessions.

Thirdly, I have become somewhat used to the idea of others watching me play (if not perform exactly) – which was a rare occurrence before. In particular, I’m more accustomed now to the idea of people seeing me struggle with a piece and play wrong notes. I’ve had to get over any embarrassment about my lack of technical ability or competence, and my playing is probably becoming freer as a result. I think, overall, that streaming is making me more forgiving of my mistakes.

I’m excited about where my 100 Day Project is heading. I’m certainly looking forward to hearing the improvements I’m sure to make in the days and weeks ahead, and to exploring new pieces alongside my current choice of nocturne.

I’ll be streaming my practice on my Twitch channel at 6pm UK time for about 30 minutes every evening until I reach day 100. It’d be great if you could tune in, say hi in the chat and give me some encouragement. Please do give the channel a follow whilst you’re there too. Can’t make it at 6pm? Don’t worry, you can always find videos of all of my previous practice sessions, so do stop by.

James Holden is an independent writer and academic. He is a Lisztian, a Proustian and a Nerd. He is currently streaming his piano practice every day at 6pm on his Twitch channel. Find out more about his work and publications on his website. You can also follow his progress on Twitter and Instagram.

JS Bach – Chaconne from Partita No.2 in D minor, BWV.1004 arr. Busoni for piano
Busoni – Berceuse élégiaque (Elegy No.7), Op.42
Chopin – Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.35 (Marche funèbre)
Stephen Hough – Sonata No.4 (Vida breve)
Liszt – Funérailles from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173; Mephisto Waltz No.4 (unfinished); Mephisto Waltz No.1

Stephen Hough, piano

Tuesday 19 November 2019, Tuner Sims, University of Southampton

My first visit to Turner Sims concert hall at the University of Southampton, and a treat of an evening in the company of British pianist Stephen Hough playing music by Bach arr. Busoni, Busoni, Chopin and Liszt.

This was a typical Hough programme, thoughtfully conceived and superbly presented, deadly serious, for the theme of the concert was death – pieces inspired by or identified with death, including Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 with its famous Marche Funèbre, and Liszt’s Funerailles, written in the same month as Chopin died and at the time of the violent Hungarian revolution of 1849.


Superlatives quickly become redudant when describing a pianist of Hough’s calibre, whose wide-ranging intellectual acuity always informs his programmes and his playing; therefore this is not a review, rather some reflections on what I thought was a most absorbing programme, especially the first half. In addition to the thematic asssociations between the pieces, there were musical connections too: the dark rumbling bass octaves in the Bach/Busoni Chaconne were reiterated in Chopin’s Marche funèbre – a plangent left hand accompaniment which, in the reprise of the famous theme dominated, with a dark tolling grandeur. And this figure was later heard again in the opening of Liszt’s Funerailles. Likewise, the haunting, unsettling soundworld of Busoni’s Berceuse (more a mourning song than a lullaby) was reflected in the finale of the Chopin Sonata, a curious, hushed fleeting stream of consciousness, and then in the wayward uncertain harmonic language of Liszt’s ‘Bagatelle without tonality’.

The Bach/Busoni Chaconne was a magnificent, emphatic opener for this concert, and Hough gave it a multi-layered, orchestral monumentalism. The Berceuse was a remarkably contrasting work, interior, intimate, mysterious and disquieting, and by segueing straight into the Chopin Sonata, Hough infused this work with a similarly discomforting atmosphere. With agitated tempi the Sonata moved forward with an anxious intensity but Hough lingered over the more lyrical Nocturne-like moments in the opening movement and the Scherzo. Like the Chaconne, the funeral march was magisterial rather than simply funereal and the tender, dreamy middle section lent an other-worldliness to the music’s atmosphere before the tolling bass and mournful theme returned.

Hough’s own piano sonata No. 4 ‘Vida Breve’ opened the second half of the concert, an abstract work constructed of five tiny motivic cells (including a quotation from the French chanson En Avril à Paris, made famous by Charles Trenet) lasting a mere 10 minutes, a comment on the transient, fleeting nature of life, its passions and turmoil. The concert closed with three pieces by Liszt – Funerailles, whose meaning is obvious, and two Mephisto Waltzes, devilish in their whirling virtuosity and frenetic, tumbling notes.

Stephen Hough plays the same programme at the Royal Festival Hall in March 2020. Details here

Guest post by Nick Hely-Hutchinson

I have been longing to share my love of this piano piece by Frederic Chopin (1810-49). So much of his music will be well known to you, since his waltzes, etudes, nocturnes and mazurkas are played widely; less so, what I am posting about today, so I hope it will be something new to many.

Although Chopin did write some instrumental music, notably two concertos, he wrote nothing in his brief life which did not include the piano. And brief it was: he was never particularly healthy, even from a young age, causing Berlioz to observe that “he was dying all his life”. It was probably tuberculosis that killed him, in an apartment immediately opposite the hotel from where the late Diana, Princess of Wales, made her last fateful journey nearly 150 years later.

Chopin was refined, even delicate, impeccably dressed and mannered, somewhat at odds with the writer George Sand, a dumpier, trouser-wearing, cigar-smoking sexual predator with whom he had a troublesome love affair, which did not end well. Although the woman who was probably the most central figure in his life, she was not even at his deathbed.

Chopin was a highly accomplished pianist who preferred the setting of the salons of Paris to the concert hall, and was quickly recognized for his talent – “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” was Schumann’s early assessment of a prodigy whom many viewed as the successor to Mozart. Apart from being born in Poland, there is nothing obviously nationalistic about his work, but it is filled with the broadest spectrum of emotions, always imbued with simple and delightful tunes, even if sometimes fiendishly difficult, as in today’s example.

Chopin wrote four ballades, a term he was the first to apply to a music composition, having been normally associated with poetry and song. The first of these is a piece full of drama, the impact of which grows on every hearing. It does not appear to have any particular reference or story behind it, but unquestionably you can detect a story of sorts unfolding, with elements of despair, yearning and hope all in the mix. It starts simply enough, with a joyful climactic moment a few minutes in, preceded by the sweetest of melodies; before launching into a blistering phase of speed and technical wizardry. The last eighty seconds, ending with an agonizing downward scale, will have you on the edge of your seat.

Unlike Vladimir Horowitz in this 1968 recording. Don’t despair in the first minute: the quality of the film is not great at the start, and it is by no means note-perfect; but his impassive, and expressionless, approach, somehow conveys a far greater understanding and enjoyment of this work than any back-arching ceiling-gazer. You may wonder what all the fuss is about at the opening, but perseverance will be rewarded.

Tenderness, drama, colour and extraordinary clarity. I make no apologies for calling on Horowitz: if ever there was a case of ‘less is more’, surely this is it.


This article first appeared on Nick Hely-Hutchinson’s own blog Manuscript Notes.

Nick worked in the City of London for nearly 40 years, but his great love has always been classical music. The purpose of his blog, Manuscript Notes, is to introduce classical music in an unintimidating way to people who might not obviously be disposed towards it, following a surprise reaction to an opera by his son, “Hey, dad, this is really good!“. He is married with three adult children.

You can be early, you can be late, the two hands are not in phase; then you make a compensation which re-establishes the ensemble.

George Mathias (pupil of Chopin, teacher of Raoul Pugno and Isidor Philipp)

This article examines closely three historical recordings of Chopin’s B minor Prelude Op.28 No.6, made by Vladimir de Pachmann (in 1927), Moriz Rosenthal (in 1935) and Raoul Koczalski (in 1939), with extensive audio and musical examples. Both Pachmann and Rosenthal had contact with Liszt, who could apparently imitate Chopin’s playing very well, Rosenthal in particular receiving extensive instruction from him. In addition, Rosenthal and Koczalski were taught as boys by Chopin’s disciple, Karol Mikuli.  Clearly then these pianists deserve to be taken seriously from a stylistic point of view.  The B minor Prelude is chosen for its brevity, the relative simplicity of its texture, and for the similarities of approach noted in the recordings, all of which use asynchrony as an expressive device in stark contrast to the majority of modern recordings.

Asynchrony is a general term which is used to describe playing notes in a separated or not-quite-together fashion where they are written as if they should normally be played at the same time in the score, for example a chord to which an arpeggiation is applied, or a left-hand bass note and right-hand melody note both written on the same beat but actually played with one hand being placed slightly before the other. It is apparent on many early recordings made of pianists who were born in the nineteenth century and has been the subject of detailed analysis in recent years (see Peres Da Costa’s ‘Off the Record’ cited in the bibliography).  It is an area of performance practice that I find personally very interesting for its role in some of the most exquisite and in other instances most eccentric-seeming performances recorded by such artists.  By incorporating it into my own playing I have found it of great effectiveness in realising the music of Chopin in particular.

Read the full article, with music extracts/examples


Dr Charles Tebbs is a pianist, accompanist and Nottingham-based piano teacher, with a wealth of experience teaching all ages and abilities.  He gives regular concerts and recitals and has made a CD of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as well as an amazing collection of over 50 YouTube videos.  His doctorate is in musicology (concerning musical endings) and he has also written prize-winning compositions and music for TV