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Hyperion Records

CDA67706 - Chopin: Piano Sonatas Nos 2 & 3
Reclining Female Nude (c1844/5) by Jean-François Millet (1814-1875)
Musée d'Orsay, Paris / Peter Willi / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: March 2008
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: January 2009
Total duration: 75 minutes 59 seconds


'Though Hamelin has made many fabulous discs, particularly in repertoire of superhuman virtuosity, this is one of his very finest achievements to date' (Gramophone)

'Hamelin's impeccable pianism allows him to make light work of the most demanding passages. The first movement [Third Sonata] is as imposing as you would expect of a player renowned for his staggering virtuosity, but a solid framework also underpins moments of wonderful delicacy. Hamelin builds the Second Sonata just as unerringly, producing a poetic and passionate performance that is finally carried off on a spectral wind … Hyperion's new release adds up to a hugely satisfying Chopin recital' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Hamelin's fabulous, transcendental technique takes all the challenges of the treacherous keyboard writing in its stride … Hamelin's pianissimos have a wonderful purity and definition' (The Guardian)

'In the Op 27 Nocturnes his hesitations are masterly, while the Berceuse, the seductive opening track, shimmers with pensive beauty … an excellent excursion into standard repertoire for this adventurous pianist' (The Times)

'Chopin’s second and third piano sonatas lie at the heart of the Romantic piano literature, and Hamelin, a poet among virtuosos, brings sensibility and a brilliant technique in equal measure to this oft-recorded music … this is the Chopin of a true Romantic, spellbinding at its (considerable) best and superbly recorded' (The Sunday Times)

'This is Chopin playing of a superior kind in which a musician of penetrating intellect is able to observe every detail of these miraculous scores … this is a fine example of supreme technical skill at the service of musical poetry' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Hamelin turns on the nightlight, emphasizing the music's poetry as Chopin's nearly elfin lyricism is the engine behind his music's unearthly beauty. Hamelin inhabits this music utterly, revealing a purely aesthetic ear that is not usually attributed to him. He allows each piece to unfold organically while shaping its broad outlines with a seductive lyrical poetry. Hamelin unfurls Chopin's elegant filigreed lines with ease while never losing the music's inner logic … these are world class Chopin performances' (Audiophile Audition, USA)

'It has been a delight to see Marc-André Hamelin, who long explored the bravura fringes of the piano literature, work his way deeper into the standard repertory. The second volume of his survey of Haydn piano sonatas for Hyperion could just as easily have been listed here. Chopin, meanwhile, offers full scope not only for his bravura impulses (which he indulges lustily) but also for an astonishing lyrical gift that increasingly comes to light. The opening Berceuse in D flat is melting' (The New York Times)

Piano Sonatas Nos 2 & 3
Scherzo  [5'47]
Marche funèbre  [7'25]
Presto  [1'38]
Allegro maestoso  [12'44]
Largo  [9'43]

Recent discs from Marc-André Hamelin have concentrated on music which is obscure, under-recorded or virtually unplayable. However in this latest recording he turns his attention to two mainstays of the Romantic repertoire: Chopin’s Piano Sonatas Nos 2 and 3. The results are simply staggering: playing of matchless brilliance and consummate artistry, stunningly recorded. As a recent critic of Hamelin’s live performance of the B minor sonata remarked, ‘Hamelin starts where most other pianists leave off … such was his control that frequently it seemed as though an extra dimension were being added, the music’s teeming internal life clarified by his ability to voice the inner parts’.

The disc is completed by some of Chopin’s greatest single-movement works; the contrasting two Nocturnes of Op 27, the extraordinarily colouristic Berceuse Op 57 and the monumental Barcarolle in F sharp major. We think this is one of the most authoritative and important Chopin discs to have appeared in recent years—an unmissable release.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The genre title ‘nocturne’ was fairly commonplace in early nineteenth-century piano music, influenced no doubt by the enhanced cultural status of the night (famous texts by Novalis and Madame de Staël), and also by the growing importance of the salon as a site of pianism. Initially it was applied to a wide diversity of pieces, but in the hands of John Field and Chopin it came to be associated with a pianistic style shaped by vocal imitation, whether of the French romance or the Italian aria. By the time Chopin came to compose his Nocturnes Op 27 in 1835, the genre was already a well-established one, with the archetype of the ‘nocturne sound’—ornamental melody supported by widespread arppeggiations—firmly in place. The Nocturnes of Op 27 are broadly conformant, but they did mark an intriguing change in how Chopin presented this genre to the world. From this point onwards, he published his Nocturnes in contrasted pairs rather than in groups of three, giving greater weight to the individual pieces within an opus but at the same time preserving a sense of their mutual compatibility. Chopin was happy to perform the individual Nocturnes of Op 27 separately (especially the second, which he played in Paris, England and Scotland), but he conceived them as perfectly complementary, with the darkly brooding C sharp minor of the first (James Huneker referred to ‘the gloomiest and grandest of Chopin’s moody canvasses’) transformed enharmonically into the consolatory, oneiric D flat major of the second. That these were pieces of exceptional artistic quality was immediately recognized when they were published in 1836, not least by Schumann in the pages of Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, where he described them as exemplifying a ‘new wave’ of piano music.

There are two formal principles underlying a good deal of Chopin’s music, and they are neatly exemplified by the two Nocturnes of Op 27. The C sharp minor relies on contrast. It is an expansive ternary design in which the middle section steps up the tempo and even more the drama, culminating in a brief waltz-like episode (another typical gesture; compare the First Ballade and Second Scherzo). The D flat major, on the other hand, is through-composed and goal-directed, and its construction is immensely subtle. There are two alternating melodies, of which the first is non-repetitive and aria-like, elaborated with an ever more expressive ornamentation, but remaining essentially static, if music can ever be static. The energy and momentum is provided by the second, stanzaic melody, which is developmental in character. Here the ornamentation has a rather different function. It is not so much an expressive enhancement of the melody as a means of driving the music in a dynamic and evolutionary way towards its major tension points; in other words it plays a key structural role in the music. Taken together, the two themes represent Chopin’s ornamental melody at its finest. The opera house was one obvious influence; Mozart another.

Two years after composing the Op 27 Nocturnes, Chopin wrote a Marche funèbre (1837). It was shortly after his hopes of marriage to Teresa Wodzin´ska had been dashed, but perhaps we should be cautious about inferring too much from that. At any rate two years later, during the summer of 1839 (the first of the seven highly productive summers he spent at George Sand’s country estate at Nohant in the French provinces), he wrote a further three movements to complete his Piano Sonata No 2 in B flat minor Op 35. The work was published the following year (1840). This time Schumann was not so generous. His reference to the four movements as ‘four unruly children smuggled under this name into a place they could not otherwise have penetrated’ is intriguing. As a criticism it is hardly fair, criticizing Chopin for failing to achieve something that was never really in his sights, but at the same time it does point to what is really singular about this work. Of course it is possible to relate it to the historical archetype of the Austro-German sonata (the overall shape, with the funeral march following rather than preceding the scherzo, is close to Beethoven’s Op 26, a sonata that Chopin taught and played), but really Chopin was trying to create something quite different: a new kind of sonata, albeit based on the old kind. Essentially he used the sonata genre as a framework within which the achievements of his earlier music—the figurative patterns of the Études and Preludes, the cantilenas of the Nocturnes, and even the periodicity of the dance pieces—might be drawn together in a kind of synthesis.

It is possible, for example, to analyse the first movement as a sonata form with the inverted reprise that is so characteristic of Chopin (compare the Ballades). But equally it is possible to hear it as a double cycle where figurative patterns are followed by cantilenas. Moreover, just as Nocturnes are embedded in the first movement in this way, so another Nocturne is trapped within the Scherzo and yet another haunts the middle section of the funeral march. In neither of these inner movements does the central song feel like a natural outgrowth of the flanking sections. It remains remote from them, strengthening our impression of a series of contrasted, relatively self-contained musical worlds juxtaposed rather than smoothly joined. And in this reading the notorious finale assumes the character of a baroque-like Étude or Prelude (compare Nos 14 and 19 from the Op 28 Preludes). This in no way diminishes the powerful affective quality of the sequence, where the funeral march yields first to the detached, otherworldly song of its ‘trio’, and then to the disintegrative, harmonically elusive, and purposefully insubstantial finale. But it does reinforce (in a positive way) the gist of Schumann’s observation. The components of this work are formally separated, albeit thematically linked.

The Piano Sonata No 3 in B minor Op 58 works rather differently. It was the last of Chopin’s three piano sonatas, written in 1844 during the years of his full maturity as a composer, and in contrast to the ‘Sonata funèbre’ it moves closer to conformity with both the formal and the generic archetypes of what was already becoming recognized as German sonata-symphonic thought. It is as though having come to terms with the four-movement sonata in Op 35, approaching it obliquely by way of the familiar ‘Chopin genres’ of the early 1830s, the composer now felt able to tackle this weighty genre on its own terms. This is apparent in the close-knit motivic argument—the developing variation—of the first movement, and in the measured tread—late Beethoven, late Schubert—of the slow movement. There are some parallels with Op 35, including the sequence of the inner movements where the scherzo precedes the slow movement, and again the inverted reprise of the first movement, but in most respects the two works are poles apart. The outer movements point up the contrast. There could be nothing further from the elliptical, understated finale of Op 35 than the grandiloquent sonata rondo with which Op 58 races, or rather gallops, to its bravura coda. This at least is a more conventional way to end a sonata! As for the first movement, this presents us with a much more closely argued thematicism than its counterpart in Op 35. The principal theme is strong and distinctive, but it is quickly broken down into motivic-contrapuntal working in a process of continuous development and transformation that then characterizes much of the movement. Considerable heads of tension are built up by this process, both in the exposition and in the development, and it is the function of the Nocturne-like second theme—one of Chopin’s happiest inspirations—to resolve them.

A few months before he completed the B minor Sonata, Chopin put the finishing touches to his Berceuse Op 57. The original title was Variantes, and this describes its final form rather well: a set of sixteen short variations on an ostinato ground (there is a sketch of the work that lays this structure out rather graphically, even numbering the ‘variantes’). Another interesting detail here is that Chopin originally intended to plunge straight into the melody, and only added the two-bar genre-defining introduction at a late stage, quite possibly at the moment he changed the title from Variantes to Berceuse. In some ways the work functions rather like a set of baroque ‘divisions’, but this scarcely does justice to the highly original treatment of the ornamental line. The key point is that the curve of complexity (ever more rapid filigree) remains divorced not just from the underlying harmonic progression (a simple repeating cycle) but also from the dynamic shape (a stable level, remaining in low dynamics throughout). What is original here is that the shape of the music—its sense of departure and return—is created almost entirely through texture and sonority. It is not hard to see why Debussy was so interested in the music of Chopin.

In the final years of his short life, Chopin reached a new plateau of creative achievement. His sketches from these years suggest that the agony of composition, the resistance it set up, wrested from him only music of an exceptional, transcendent quality. And nowhere is this clearer than in the three great extended works of 1845–6: the Barcarolle Op 60, Polonaise-Fantasy Op 61 and Cello Sonata Op 65. When he composed his only Barcarolle, artistic appropriations of this popular genre (effectively a gondolier’s song) were to be found mainly in opera, but there were also examples in Lieder (as, for example, in Schubert’s Auf dem Wasser zu singen and Auf dem See), and some in post-classical traditions of popular pianism (including some of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words: the ‘Gondellied’ in A major and ‘Venetian gondolieras’). However, piano works with this title were invariably simple in design and texture, and usually a straightforward transfer from the operatic genre. So Chopin’s monumental work, with its complex formal organization, was quite unlike anything else in piano music at the time, though it did of course set a precedent (Liszt, Fauré, and many others).

A unique synthesis of extended ternary form, sonata form and fantasy, the Barcarolle is separated from its sentimental archetype by an unbridgeable gulf. And the gulf is widened and deepened by some of Chopin’s most sophisticated harmonies, including lengthy chromatic modulations that are seemingly without a clear tonal goal, and a use of dissonance that extends well beyond classical norms. At the same time—and this makes the work all the more powerful—the composer retains the principal outward features of the popular genre: the 12/8 metre, the moderate tempo, the measured, ostinato-like, rocking accompaniment and the cantilena melodic line led in double notes (mostly thirds and sixths). It is worth noting that these generic features do appear in several earlier works by Chopin, including all four Ballades and above all the G major Nocturne Op 37 No 2, really a barcarolle in disguise. But in the end Op 60 stands as a solitary masterpiece, carrying the gentle swaying lyricism of the vernacular genre through to the powerfully climactic perorations of its final stages.

Jim Samson © 2009

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