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Hyperion Records

CDA67803 - Hommage à Chopin
Adaptation of the cover illustration for Franz Bendel's Hommage à Chopin, Trautwein, Berlin (1867).

Recording details: August 2009
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Hayes
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: February 2010
Total duration: 78 minutes 6 seconds


'A fascinating collection, brilliantly dispatched by Plowright' (The Mail on Sunday)

'All of these multifaceted offerings (jewels as well as gemstones) show Jonathan Plowright as beguiling in intimacy … as he is magisterial in virtuosity. Such quality will leave lesser pianists bemused, as as on Plowright's earlier superb Hyperion recordings he has been immaculately recorded' (Gramophone)

'Mompou's 11th variation is the sublimest track on the disc. It is in places like these that Plowright shows his real qualities as a virtuoso, especially his clarity of texture and instinct for phrasing. Warmly recommended' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Jonathan Plowright provides a fascinating conspectus of how Chopin’s example has sparked ideas in others … this disc is a delight' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Fascinating, seldom-trodden paths of the vast 19th- and 20th-century piano literature that rarely find their way onto disc … Plowright's dazzling playing can't be faulted' (The Sunday Times)

'Jonathan Plowright has assembled a towering monument to the Chopin style' (Audiophile Audition, USA)

Hommage à Chopin
Allegro  [2'01]
Allegretto  [1'51]
Allegro  [1'56]
Nocturne  [2'55]
Ballade  [4'08]
Theme: Andantino  [0'38]
Lento  [1'28]

2010 sees the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, and among the many celebratory recordings, this disc will stand out as an historic record of the composer’s extraordinary influence and legacy.

Chopin’s unique style of piano writing was to utterly transform the way in which composers wrote for and thought about the instrument. Few escaped some aspect of that legacy until the early years of the twentieth century; and few pianists have not had Chopin’s music in their concert repertoire. Small wonder that so many composers and pianist-composers—major and minor—have felt moved to pay their respects to a musician for whom there is almost universal approbation. A fascinating selection of hommages are represented here.

Jonathan Plowright has recently been described as ‘one of the finest living pianists; the possessor of qualities that should no longer remain a secret’ (Gramophone). His formidable technique and musical integrity combine in a disc which is a must for any pianophile.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In 1831 a young writer and aspiring composer, Robert Schumann, penned an article for the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung. It contained the now-famous invocation ‘Hut ab, ihr Herren, ein Genie!’ (‘Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!’), the first acknowledgement in print of a new and unique voice in music.

It was the same Schumann, Chopin’s junior by four months and still largely unknown, who in 1835 composed the earliest musical tribute to Chopin in his Carnaval Op 9. The twelfth number is entitled ‘Chopin’, a sincere and notably affectionate imitation of Chopin’s unique way of writing for the piano, a style that was to utterly transform the way in which composers wrote for and thought about the instrument. Few escaped some aspect of that legacy until the early years of the twentieth century; and few pianists have not had Chopin’s music in their concert repertoire. Small wonder that so many composers and pianist-composers—major and minor—have felt moved to pay their respects to a musician for whom there is almost universal approbation. Schumann’s portrait serves as a model for the wealth of hommages that followed, a handful of which are represented here.

One such was by Mili Balakirev (1837–1910), godfather to a whole generation of Russian composers. He was an excellent pianist, sight-reader and improviser (though the demands of his best-known work, Islamey, still one of the most technically challenging pieces in the repertoire, were apparently beyond him). Chopin’s music had an incalculable influence on his own piano compositions, many of which bear Chopinesque titles (mazurkas, nocturnes, waltzes, scherzos and even a piano sonata in B flat minor). He made an arrangement for string orchestra (published in 1904) of Chopin’s Mazurka No 7, and a transcription for solo piano (1905) of the second movement (Romanza) of the E minor Piano Concerto; he also re-orchestrated and partly re-wrote the entire concerto in 1910, and produced a four-movement Chopin Suite for orchestra in 1909. In 1907 he was persuaded by his friend Konstantin Tchernov to write down his improvisation on two of Chopin’s Op 28 Preludes, one of many works Balakirev had kept in his head for some years without getting around to notating. The result was the Impromptu on the themes of two Preludes by Chopin, the models being Preludes No 11 in B major and No 14 in E flat minor. In the latter, Chopin’s quaver triplets in C are transformed into semiquaver triplet groups in 12/16, later reassembled in octave figurations for alternate hands to bravura effect. The contrast between this and the gentle B major section, linked by a barely perceptible modulation, is satisfyingly effective because of the subtle thematic relationship between the two Chopin originals. Balakirev rouses the player in the final page to a triple forte passage marked delirando (‘deliriously’).

Franz Bendel prefers to celebrate the long, singing lines of a Chopin nocturne in his Hommage à Chopin (1867), subtitled ‘pièce caractéristique’, the first of three disparate pieces published as Op 111. Without being forewarned, one might just be convinced that it is by Chopin himself. Bohemian-born Bendel (1833–1874) was a Liszt pupil in Weimar, composed symphonies, a piano concerto and much salon music. If he is remembered at all now it is for his once-popular Mozart pastiche Pastorale variée and the saccharine Julia’s Arbor at Clarens.

Edvard Grieg (1843–1907) was dubbed ‘the Chopin of the North’ by Hans von Bülow, a not inappropriate soubriquet since both composers were essentially miniaturists who used the piano as the basis for their musical expression. Grieg’s final work for piano was his Stimmungen (‘Moods’) Op 73, a collection of seven pieces, all except one in the same vein as his Lyric Pieces. These were, according to Grieg in a letter of 1905, ‘a booklet of piano pieces to bring in money … They are Norwegian pieces that are a few years old, which I like, but which have not cost me blood.’ The exception is No 5, Studie, subtitled ‘Hommage à Chopin’, a virtuosic imitation in F minor of two Chopin Études. Grieg had originally considered the piece for inclusion in the earliest Lyric Pieces, for the ‘Study’ is based on sketches made as far back as 1867. It would have stood out like a sore thumb.

Two years before his death in 1924, Ferruccio Busoni admitted that ‘Chopin has attracted and repelled me all my life; and I have heard his music too often—prostituted, profaned, vulgarized …’. There are two versions of the Variations inspired by the funereal C minor Prelude Op 28 No 20, a miniature that would also inspire Rachmaninov to compose his Variations on a theme of Chopin. Busoni’s Variations and Fugue in free form on Chopin’s C minor Prelude (Op 22/BV213), dedicated to Carl Reinecke, was composed in 1884 and published the following year by Breitkopf und Härtel. It consists of eighteen variations, a four-voice fugue and extended coda à la Liszt. Busoni was barely eighteen when he wrote it, a calling card if ever there was one of sophisticated pianism and contrapuntal ingenuity. Later in life he came to view the work as reckless and excessive. In 1922 he produced a revised and compressed version for inclusion in his Klavierübung, and it is this revision, the Ten Variations on a Prelude of Chopin in C minor (BV213a), dedicated to Busoni’s erstwhile pupil Gino Tagliapietra, that Jonathan Plowright plays here. A sostenuto re-harmonized version of part of the famous theme serves as an introduction to a complete statement of Chopin’s original. The first variation builds over a left-hand step-wise accompaniment leading seamlessly into a scherzando treatment (at 3'58) and a third marked en carillon (4'32). After further virtuoso demands leading to a fugal scherzo finale (7'00), the tempo changes at 8'15 for a waltz variation (actually marked ‘Hommage à Chopin’) before returning at 9'48 to the tempo of the scherzo.

Though he may be a less familiar name, the Bohemian Eduard Nápravník (1839–1916) was central to Russian musical life from his arrival in St Petersburg in 1861 until his death. He was the conductor of the Imperial Opera from 1869 to 1916 giving the premieres of dozens of important works including operas by Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. He composed four symphonies, four operas, much chamber music and many piano works. (You can hear his Concerto symphonique and Fantaisie russe in Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series on CDA67511.) Nápravník’s Notturno, subtitled ‘La réminiscence de Chopin’, is the first of his two pieces Op 48 (No 2 is entitled Scherzo), published in 1894. Its main theme in D flat major (strikingly similar to Ketèlbey’s Bells across the meadows) leads to a more animated central section in A major before returning via a series of Chopinesque modulations to the maddeningly catchy first subject.

Tchaikovsky’s final work for the piano was a set of short pieces published as Dix-huit Morceaux Op 72. In a letter, he wrote that he had decided ‘for the want of money, to write a few little piano pieces within ten days, and conditioned myself to write at least one a day’. He began their composition on 19 April 1893 at his house in Klin and finished on 4 May, six months before his death, each one dedicated to one of his friends. The amount, fluency and variety of music produced in such a short time are quite remarkable. No 15 is ‘Un poco di Chopin’, a mazurka in C sharp minor in which, over a characteristic theme, Tchaikovsky mischievously deceives the ear by making the heavily accented second and third beats seem to be the first and second.

Had Tchaikovsky lived longer he would have surely been attracted to writing music for the cinema. The Swiss composer Arthur Honegger (1892–1955) wrote many distinguished film scores, for Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1924) and Anthony Asquith’s Pygmalion (1938) among others—he even made a brief appearance as a composer in a 1946 film called Un Revenant. His Souvenir de Chopin (in E flat major/minor) is one of three pieces extracted from the music he wrote for the 1946 film Un ami viendra ce soir (‘A friend will come tonight’), one of the first French post-war films to deal with life during the conflict, a Resistance story set in an insane asylum. The last of Honegger’s works for the piano, like his earlier Hommage à Ravel and Hommage à Albert Roussel, it captures by means of charming pastiche something of Chopin’s compositional personality.

Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903–1989) became acquainted with Honegger during his studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris between 1927 and 1932. He also studied with Ravel, who was a key influence on his music; so too was Chopin, alluded to in his Three Pieces Op 2 (for piano), especially the central ‘Berceuse’, the Four Concert Studies Op 14 No 1, and more overtly in the Three Mazurkas Op 32 No 1. In January 1940, Berkeley wrote to his then friend Benjamin Britten: ‘Since I finished the Serenade [for strings] I’ve been working on some Piano Studies. They’re real virtuoso music—I can’t play a bar of them. I’ve also written a Mazurka, which I think you’d like.’ It was not until 1949 that he added two more, when along with eleven other composers he was invited by UNESCO to contribute to a concert in Paris on 3 October 1949 to celebrate the Chopin centenary. Though only the third Mazurka was played on that occasion, it opened proceedings.

Among the other composers asked by UNESCO to submit works were Alexandre Tansman, Andrzej Panufnik, Jacques Ibert, Howard Hanson, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Bohuslav Martinuo, Florent Schmitt and Heitor Villa-Lobos, the last being an obvious candidate, as he was a member of the Brazilian National Committee for UNESCO. Villa-Lobos’s Hommage à Chopin is in two movements, both musical forms associated with Chopin: ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Ballade’. While using recognizable Chopinesque figurations and accompaniment, he goes beyond mere pastiche to create a dark, brooding undercurrent with his own idiomatic harmonies. The atmospheric ‘Nocturne’ has a timeless quality; the ‘Ballade’ is stormy and confrontational with strong references to Chopin’s First Ballade. The premiere performance in Paris was given by Arnaldo Estrella.

By far the longest work presented here is the twelve Variations sur un thème de Chopin by the Spanish/Catalan composer Federico Mompou (1893–1987). The theme in question is the little A major Prelude Op 28 No 7. All but two of the variations, Nos 7 (Allegro leggiero) and 12 (Galope y epílogo), retain the character of the original, their lucid textures and conservative harmonies beguiling the ear. Free from cynicism and knowing comments, Mompou’s music offers us, in the words of Stephen Hough, the ‘magic of childhood … [his] eyes are wide open, sparkling like a child’s, and his smile has all the surprise and enthralment of Creation itself’. No better examples can be found than Variation 3 (for the left hand alone), Variation 4 (almost begging to have lyrics attached), the achingly touching Variation 8 (surely modeled on Chopin’s E minor Prelude) and Variation 10, which quotes the central section of the Fantasy Impromptu.

The final three hommages are, like Tchaikovsky’s and Grieg’s, to be found nestling in suites of self-contained works. Benjamin Godard (1849–1895), whose ‘Berceuse’ from the opera Jocelyn remains his best-known work, composed several sets of short piano pieces under the evocative title of Lanterne magique; Op 66, published in 1888, is the third of these. Of the six pieces, the first three are hommages to Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann respectively. ‘Chopin’ is a graceful little waltz in D flat major alternating a sequence of three ideas, the third (heard first in the bass and marked con fantasia) a close relative of any number of Chopin themes.

Godowsky’s Walzermasken (composed in 1911) has the somewhat prosaic subtitle ‘Twenty-four tone poems in triple time’. Godowsky had been living in Vienna for three years by the time these appeared, the entire set permeated with the spirit of the Waltz City, though devotees of the cycle may discern the spirit of Chopin hovering over many more of the individual numbers than the one specifically addressed to him: No 7, ‘Profil (Chopin)’.

We remain in Vienna for the final work on this disc, for that is where Theodor Leschetizky lived for almost the last forty years of his long life (Godowksy became a close friend). Leschetizky (1830–1915) was, with Liszt, the most important and influential piano teacher of the nineteenth century but he also composed many effective and charming trifles. His Contes de jeunesse (‘Tales of childhood’) Op 46 was published in 1902 and contains hommages to Czerny (with whom he studied), Henselt, Schumann, and Chopin—the ninth and final piece of the set and dedicated to his most famous pupil, Paderewski, himself the most celebrated Chopin player of his day. Though he never met Chopin, Leschetizky befriended his pupil Carl Filitsch (while he was studying with Czerny) and one of his circle, Julius Schulhoff. The latter had a decisive influence on Leschetizky’s musical personality and his Chopinesque ideal of ‘singing on the piano’. Leschetizky’s hommage is an ingratiating Waltz-Mazurka that ends with an elegantly laid out coda in which Chopin gives way to Moszkowski—yet another of the myriad composers of piano music whose style derived directly from that of Frédéric Chopin.

Jeremy Nicholas © 2010

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