Monday 16 April 2012

Chopin – What kind of pianist was he?

Chopin is remembered today as probably the finest composer for the piano, but in his lifetime it was equally his unique skills as a pianist that captivated audiences.

It was Liszt that had enthralled audiences throughout Europe with playing that was described as causing ‘…terrified pianos flee into every corner…gutted instruments strew the stage…’

So at Chopin’s Vienna debut at the Karntnertor Theatre, although he received an enthusiastic reception, there was criticism that his playing ‘… lacked vigour and volume…’.

Chopin himself accepted that his playing was ‘…too delicate for those accustomed to the piano bashing of local artists…’ It had been Liszt that had popularised a kind of virtuosity that was far from delicate.

Yet for all of Liszt’s virtuosity, Chopin was also described as ‘…so very masterly in his piano playing that he may be called a really perfect virtuoso.’

A friend and pupil, Ernest Legouve, shows the effect of Chopin’s playing on his listeners, ‘Those who have heard Chopin may say that nothing approaching it has ever been heard. What virtuosity! What power! Yes. What power! But it only lasted a few bars; and what exaltation and inspiration! The whole man’s being vibrated. The piano was animated by the intensest life: it sent a thrill through you.’

There perhaps lies the answer to Chopin’s brand of virtuosity ‘…power…but only lasting a few bars...’

He may have been a quieter player but as another pupil, Karol Mikuli remembers ‘…the tone which Chopin drew from the instrument, especially in cantabile passages, was immense…(the) energy given to appropriate passages an overpowering effect, energy without coarseness; but, on the other hand, he knew how to enchant the listener by delicacy, without affectation…’  Virtuosity doesn’t necessarily need volume.

Writing to his parents from Vienna in 1829 he said,’ I expect that criticism to be made in the papers, particularly as the editor’s daughter enjoys nothing like a good thump at her piano…’

His Paris debut in 1832 at the Salle Pleyel, was another triumph, but the concert appears to have been strange to say the least, with Beethoven’s Quintet Op. 29 played by the best musicians the city had to offer, some arias and a performance of Kalkbrenner’s Polonaise for six pianos played by the composer himself with Chopin, Hiller, Sowinski, Osborne and Stamaty. Mendelssohn had the good sense to drop out at the last minute.  Chopin played his E minor concerto which received an enthusiastic response, with Liszt, who was in the audience, applauding furiously.

The Revue Musicale reported that ‘…an abundance of original ideas of a kind to be found nowhere else…’

A later concert in the Paris Conservatoire was more problematic as again his style of playing caused difficulties. He had played the first movement of his E minor concerto with ‘the best orchestra in Europe’ but his soft playing was drowned by it.

He told Liszt ‘…I am not fit to give concerts, the crowd intimidates me and I feel asphyxiated by its eager breath…silenced by its alien faces…but you, you are made for it, for when you cannot captivate your audience, you at least have the power to stun it.’

Chopin’s playing developed with time and he achieved a distinctive reputation and by 1833 he was considered the brightest musical star in Paris. It was his uniqueness that had achieved this, with a style like no one else.

Charles Halle heard him in Paris ‘…I sat entranced, filled with wonderment and if the room has suddenly been peopled with fairies I should not have been astonished…the marvellous charm, the poetry and originality, the perfect freedom and absolute lucidity of Chopin’s playing at that time cannot be described. It was perfection in every sense…’

It was also said that ‘…his delicate and slender hands cover wide stretches and skip with fabulous lightness.’  He could play rapid trills and legato like no one else producing the effect of strings of pearls or, as Hiller put it ‘…the flight of a swallow…’

Chopin had a distinctive touch; he could play the same note in various ways producing a variety of nuances. These nuances would be heightened by his use of the sustaining pedal and perhaps more importantly by his use of tempo rubato. This is where the art of Chopin playing is most important ‘…his left hand would keep strict time whilst his right had the freedom to give the melody.’ It is said that his right hand would just hint at the anticipation of a phrase or reluctance to begin it.

He told his pupils ‘..Let your left hand be your conductor and keep strict time.’

Hiller recalled ‘Rhythmic precision in his case was linked with a freedom in his leading of a melody, which gave the impression of improvisation.’

With an expression of deep thought, Chopin always gave the impression that what he was playing was a spontaneous creation. ‘The whole man seemed to vibrate, while under his fingers he piano came to life with its own intensity’, wrote another pianist.

And of a performance of his Aand F minor etudes Op.25 ‘…let one imagine that an Aeolian harp had all the scales and that an artist’s hands had mingled them together in all kinds of fantastic  decorations, but in such a way that you could always hear a deeper fundamental tone and a softly singing melody – there you have something of a picture of his playing…it is wrong to suppose that he brought out distinctly every one of the little notes, it was rather a billowing of the chord of  A, swelled here and there by the pedal; but through the harmonies could be heard in sustained tones a wonderful melody, and only in the middle section did a tenor part once stand out more prominently from the chords and the principle theme. When the study has ended you feel as you do after a blissful vision, seen in a dream, which, already half awake, you would fain recall…and then he played the second, in F minor…so charming, dreamy and soft, just as if a child were singing in its sleep…’

Chopin was careful in his manuscripts to make his intentions clear regarding the use of the pedal, however, his publishers weren’t so careful and, in many cases, the engraver took no notice whatsoever of what the composer had written and used his own ‘judgment’ when placing pedal markings over the printed copies.

It has been generally accepted, even until recently, that original editions of Chopin's works contained errors and inaccuracies, which to a large extent deformed the composer's intentions. Studies also revealed numerous discrepancies between French, English and German editions.

The late 20th century has seen an editorial tendency for editors to base their work mostly on manuscripts and original editions, i.e. the most authoritative sources, reducing the subjective intervention of the editor to a minimum.  The evolution of the piano as an instrument has of course, to an extent, influenced later editions of Chopin's works.

So how do pianists measure up to playing Chopin today? Well I for one would not like to have only one or two recordings of his works as there is no way that a single pianist can bring to a performance every aspect of Chopin’s music.

I must briefly mention that Sony Classical have recently re-issued Murray Perahia’s Chopin recordings in a five CD box set.


These fabulous recordings show a master pianist at work. Just listen to the disc containing the Op.10 and Op.25 Etudes to hear such commanding fluency, and poetry. There are probing performances of Sonatas 2 and 3 and the four Ballades are played with freshness and passion. There is only one Nocturne included, the Nocturne in F Op.15, and, such is its exquisitely paced beauty that I can only hope Perahia records the whole set one day.

This is a set that no Chopin lover will wish to be without and it comes at a low price that makes it irresistible.

A new issue this month comes from Nimbus Alliance and features Vladimir Feltsman playing Chopin’s complete Waltzes and Impromptus. Let me say from the outset that this is quite remarkable Chopin playing from an artist that has received far too little attention.


I had, of course, heard much about Feltsman before but had not heard him play, so I was keen to hear this new CD.

These are wonderful performances of the waltzes. Just take the A minor Op.34 No.2 where Feltsman brings an extraordinary poetry to the music followed by the F major Op.34 No.3 where there is quicksilver playing interspersed by a rhythmic quality that brings to mind that description of Chopin’s playing mentioned above ‘…his right hand would just hint at the anticipation of a phrase or reluctance to begin it.’

Elsewhere there is a feeling of freedom and spontaneity such as the C# minor Op.64. No.2, which is simply entrancing and played with such fluency.

In the Impromptus there is again that feeling of anticipation in the beautiful phrasing of his playing. Impromptu No. 2 in F# major op.36 in particular, has a captivating quality with playing of such limpid fluency and poetic feeling.

The recording in the Fisher Performing Arts Centre at Bard College, New York has an intimate sound well suited to the performances. The notes by Vladimir Feltsman himself are extremely perceptive and informative. By now you will have gathered that this is a special Chopin disc which I thoroughly recommend to all.

Feltsman has already recorded two other Chopin discs for Nimbus that include the complete Nocturnes and the four Ballades. Can we hope that they will continue with a complete Chopin cycle?

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