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Hyperion Records

CDS44351/66 - Chopin: The Complete Works
Frédéric Chopin in concert at the Hotel Lambert, Paris (1840) by Antar Teofil Kwiatowski (1809-1891)
Bibliothèque Polonaise, Paris / Archives Charmet / Bridgeman Art Library, London
CDS44351/66
(Originally issued on Arabesque)

Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: November 2008
DISCID: 9911370C DF11E81F 5C117707 90124408 9310A60B 80120A0B 93110F0C E812B70F 4E110006 180D7D14
Total duration: 1152 minutes 55 seconds

PIANIST MAGAZINE RECOMMENDED RECORDING

'Hyperion's big deal … Ohlsson is a powerful and committed player, and is afforded very good sound by the engineers … this is almost certainly how these pieces were played in Chopin's time' (The Mail on Sunday)

'This is an oustanding achievement, which any genuine Chopin lover and student of Romantic music should own … a landmark in the recording of Chopin's music … Garrick Ohlsson and Hyperion deserve the greatest success in bringing this important undertaking to such a consistently impressive conclusion' (International Record Review)

'An attractively priced box set … Ohlsson is in a class of his own' (Pianist)

'The collaborative works receive particularly rewarding performances … Ohlsson arguably offers more consistent artistry than Biret, Ashkenazy, Magaloff, and Harasiewicz' (ClassicsToday.com)

'Garrick Ohlsson’s complete survey of everything Chopin wrote for piano (including chamber music, songs, and for piano and orchestra) will delight the completist and the Chopin connoisseur. Ohlsson (who won the Chopin International Piano Competition in 1970) gives us accounts of this wondrous repertoire in weighty and commanding style, aristocratic and impulsive (but not lacking light and shade or contemplative contrasts) and, at times, very sensitive and searching. These vivid recordings were made in the second half of the 1990s and have previously appeared on the Arabesque label. They now sit very well in Hyperion’s catalogue' (ClassicalSource.com)

The Complete Works
Garrick Ohlsson (piano) 16CDs Boxed set (at a special price)  
CD1
Allegro maestoso  [8'30]
Menuetto  [4'50]
Larghetto  [4'41]
Presto  [6'43]
Scherzo  [7'11]
Marche funèbre  [7'09]
Presto  [1'33]
Allegro maestoso  [9'35]
Largo  [10'47]
CD2
CD3
CD4
CD5
CD6
CD7
CD8
CD9
CD10
D major  [0'53]
G major  [0'38]
D flat major  [0'42]
CD11
CD12
CD13
CD14
Andante spianato  [4'38]
CD15
Largo  [3'59]
with Carter Brey (cello)
CD16

“This monumental recording project first came about when the American record company Arabesque approached me with an irresistible offer to record the complete works of Chopin. I accepted with enthusiasm and an awareness of the magnitude of the task. My total immersion in the Chopin project was enhanced by a concurrent series of recitals of the complete solo works in the US and several European capitals from 1995 to 1997. I am delighted that these recordings are now available again as a boxed set on Hyperion.” Garrick Ohlsson

Since his triumph as winner of the 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition, pianist Garrick Ohlsson has established himself worldwide as a musician of magisterial interpretive and technical prowess.


Chopin’s very existence is one of pleasing symmetry. Though Polish by birth, he was half-French by blood. Just as his father Nicolas Chopin changed his name to Mikolaj, becoming more Polish than the Poles (and, incidentally, never revealing to his children his French origins), his son, christened Fryderyk Franciszek, metamorphosed into the dandified Parisian known to the world as Frédéric François Chopin. For the first twenty years, his life was based in Poland; for the remainder of his life, just six months shy of a further twenty years, he was based in France. This duality was central to (and is reflected in) his music—the epic struggle and nationalist characteristics of the Poles and the refined elegance of the French.

Chopin was one of the greatest and most original pianists in history. More than any other, he was responsible for the development of modern piano technique and style. His influence on succeeding generations of writers for the instrument was profound and inescapable. He introduced a whole range of new colours, daring harmonies and means of expression in which he exploited every facet of the new developments in piano construction. His career coincided happily with a period in which significant improvements were being made constantly.

Chopin occupies a unique position in the pantheon of great composers in three respects: he wrote no symphonies, operas, ballets or church music, and very little chamber music; his claim to immortality rests not on large-scale works but on miniatures (even his concertos and sonatas are really shortish pieces sewn together into larger classical forms which, he realized early on, were not his strength); thirdly, every single composition that he ever wrote, regardless of form, involves the piano.

Compared to some others—Bach, Schubert and Liszt are just three random examples—he composed very little music. Yet the proportion of it that is regularly played and recorded compared to those three composers is extraordinarily high. It has never fallen out of favour with those who play or listen to it, unlike much of Mozart, say, or Vivaldi. Chopin was hypercritical of everything he wrote and allowed to be published. In contrast with the apparently effortless flow of ideas and melodies, we know that his compositional process was far from fluent. Though an brilliant improviser, the act of committing his works to paper caused him anguish: a glance at some of the autograph scores offers graphic evidence of that. George Sand described Chopin frantically trying to capture on paper all that he had in his head—crossing out, destroying, beginning afresh, scratching out once more, and re-working a single bar until he was satisfied. Yet there are few works that do not seem to be the result of spontaneous inspiration, few that fall below Chopin’s discriminating standard and taste, and few that do not add to the inexhaustible variety of moods and ideas in this remarkable body of work.

Chopin was born in 1810 probably on 1 March (though some sources favour 22 February) in Zelazowa Wola, a small village about twenty miles west of Warsaw. He began his piano studies with Adalbert Zwyny in 1816, made his public debut at the age of nine, and then became a student of Józef Elsner, director of the Warsaw Conservatory. It is largely due to Zwyny and Elsner allowing him to develop in his own way that Chopin became an original creative force. Though far from being his earliest composition, the Rondo in C minor was published in 1825 as his Op 1.

He first attracted attention outside Poland in 1829 when he gave two concerts in Vienna, including a triumphant performance of his Variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano’, Op 2. The fading attractions of Warsaw and his unrequited love for a young soprano persuaded Chopin to leave Poland in November 1830. He never returned. Paris remained his base for the rest of his life.

Here he lived a fashionable life in the highest echelons of society, making his living as a highly paid piano teacher to the aristocracy, gradually turning his back on a career as a pianist in favour of composition. He made his Paris debut in February 1832 but gave no other concert in which he was the principal artist until 1841. It is reckoned that in his entire career Chopin gave as few as thirty public concerts. His art was more suited to the intimate surroundings of the salons and, because of his weak constitution, he was keenly aware that he could not compete with the virile, barn-storming manner of players like Liszt.

For the first six years of his life in Paris, Chopin’s sex life is a blank. He was far from being a Byronic, red-blooded ladies’ man (though he was never short of female admirers). Then in 1836 he met the novelist George Sand and lived with her from 1838 until 1847, dividing his time between Paris and her chateau in Nohant some 180 miles south of the capital. The relationship, always one more of mother and son than husband and wife, was ended acrimoniously by Sand.

Emotionally broken and suffering increasingly from the effects of tuberculosis, Chopin left for London after the revolution of 1848 in need of money. With the help of his wealthy benefactor, Jane Stirling, he gave concerts in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh. By the time he returned to Paris his health had been fatally undermined and for the final year of his life he became a virtual recluse, unable to compose or teach and reliant on the charity of friends. He died choking and spitting blood on 17 October 1849. Chopin was buried in the cemetery of Père Lachaise near his friend Bellini. His heart was taken to Warsaw and placed in an urn in the Church of the Holy Cross.

Piano Sonatas
Chopin wrote four sonatas—three for piano and one for piano and cello. The Piano Sonata No 1 in C minor Op 4 was written while he was still studying with Elsner at the Warsaw Conservatoire. It is generally reckoned to be one of his least successful compositions. There are no reviews or reports of it ever having been played in the nineteenth century, let alone by the composer. This work exhibits little of Chopin’s unique later style and is an effortful attempt to struggle with formal sonata structure. The opening Allegro, pianists will tell you, is technically awkward. Interest picks up in the pretty but derivative Minuet only to be quelled by the meandering Larghetto in 5/4. Perhaps the most successful movement is the Presto finale, almost a moto perpetuo in its constant quaver motion.

The Piano Sonata No 2 in B flat minor Op 35, by contrast, is one of the most beloved and original extended works in the piano literature. Known universally as the ‘Funeral March’ Sonata because of its celebrated third movement (originally composed as a separate piece in 1837), Chopin completed the work in Nohant in 1839. The first of its four movements opens with a brief Grave introduction before an agitated first subject (marked doppio movimento, i.e. ‘twice the preceding speed’) which is repeated before a loose development of the themes culminating in an exciting and forceful coda. A brief Scherzo follows with a songful contrasted central section. The Funeral March comes next, its grief-wracked tolling surely one of the best-known (and certainly most parodied) themes ever written. Contrast is again provided by the consoling melody of the central trio before the march resumes, taking us in the words of one writer ‘into the very luxury of woe’. If the Funeral March is the Sonata’s most famous section, the most discussed is the final Presto. It is a mere 75 bars long and consists of the two hands playing swirling triplet quavers in unison an octave apart, like ‘the wind blowing over my grave’ (Carl Tausig).

The Piano Sonata No 3 in B minor Op 58 (1844) follows classical sonata form more closely but one is hardly aware of any such formal structure, so freely does its profusion of melodic ideas flow. The second subject of the Allegro maestoso first movement, for example, is one of the most heart-melting themes that the composer ever penned. The Scherzo which follows is succinct, dazzling and graceful, a jeu d’esprit in distinct contrast to his four independent Scherzos. The third movement announces itself as another funeral march but in fact is a languid barcarolle, nocturne-like in its dreamy, almost hypnotic reverie. The finale, a galloping rondo, is a masterstroke of originality, not merely one of the most difficult movements to play of all Chopin’s music but the most exultant. A triumphant coda concludes one of the finest of all Chopin’s mature works. The composer himself never played the Sonata in public, undoubtedly prevented from doing so because of his frail health and lack of stamina.

Preludes
Described prosaically, Chopin’s Preludes Op 28 are a cycle of twenty-four short pieces in all the major and minor keys paired through tonal relatives (the major keys and their relative minor) progressing in the cycle of fifths. Seven of them last less than a minute; only three last longer than three minutes. But if any piano music was less deserving of such pedestrian characterization, it is these miniature gems which would, on their own, have ensured Chopin’s immortality.

In Bach’s time a prelude usually preceded something else, whether a fugue (as in his many organ works and the two books of the Well-Tempered Clavier) or dance movements in a suite, although Bach himself also composed short independent preludes for the keyboard. By the early nineteenth century it was common practice for pianists to improvise briefly as a prelude to their performance, an opportunity for them to loosen the fingers and focus the mind, and this tradition spawned several sets of Preludes encompassing all the major and minor keys, including examples from Hummel (1814), Cramer (1818), Kalkbrenner (1827), Moscheles (1827) and Kessler (1834), whose set is dedicated to Chopin.

These antecendents rarely stray beyond brief technical exercises. Not for the first or last time, Chopin took an existing form and raised it to a new level, establishing the solo piano Prelude as a miniature tone poem conveying myriad emotions and moods. They in turn provided a model for the Preludes of Heller (Op 81), Alkan (Op 31), Cui (Op 64), Busoni (Op 37) and Rachmaninov (Opp 23 and 32), all of which also embrace all twenty-four keys.

Chopin’s first essay in the genre was an independent Prelude in A flat major (composed in 1834 but not published until 1918), although this was not so titled by him (he gave it only a tempo indication). Here, as in several of the Op 28 Preludes, there are certain affinities with some of Bach’s Preludes, in this instance with the Prelude in D major from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. However, Chopin never includes any specifically fugal or canonic passages; his counterpoint emerges as a natural result of the musical texture. In the B minor Prelude, for example, the bass serves the dual function of melodic line and harmonic support. It is significant that Chopin took with him his copy of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier on his ill-fated trip to Majorca in 1838 with George Sand. It was here that he put the finishing touches to the cycle that had occupied him on and off since 1836. The final Prelude was completed on 22 January 1839.

Many of the Preludes have attracted descriptive titles. Chopin would not have approved: none of the music is programmatic, attractive though it may be to think of the best-known of them—No 15 in D flat major, nicknamed ‘The Raindrop’—as depicting the steady drip-drip-drip of rain on the roof of their lodging in Valldemosa. No 4 in E minor and No 6 in B minor, known to all young pianists, were played on the organ at Chopin’s funeral. The tempestuous No 16 in B flat minor ranks among the most treacherous to play of all his works, while No 20 in C minor inspired two sets of variations by Busoni and one from Rachmaninov. Chopin returned to the form only once more in 1841 when he composed the enchanting Prelude in C sharp minor Op 45.

Rondos
Chopin wrote four rondos, not including the two-piano version of the Rondo in C major Op 73 (published after his death), the Rondo à la krakowiak for piano and orchestra Op 14 (1828), and the arrangement made in 1834 for piano duet of the first in this genre, the Rondo in C minor Op 1.

The rondo form was popular in the early years of the nineteenth century—Hummel and Weber wrote many outstanding examples—but there is little of Chopin’s unmistakable voice in the C minor Rondo that he designated as his Op 1 (it was, after all, composed when he was fifteen). The following year came the Rondo à la mazur in F major, Op 5, the only one of Chopin’s rondos not written in 2/4 time (the mazurka being a 3/4 dance step). The mazurka, throughout his life, was the form for which Chopin reserved his most private thoughts. From his earliest years he improvised mazurkas and was well acquainted with both the genuine rural form of the dance and the popular salonized versions. Though still an apprentice piece, his Op 5 shows what immense steps forward he had taken in the short time since Op 1.

The Rondo in C major Op 73, composed two years later (also in a version for two pianos) but published posthumously, shows that Chopin was not yet consistent in his compositional evolution. There is less of the idiosyncratic figuration and harmony heard in Op 5 and, unusually for Chopin, one hears in the introduction the unmistakable (and still inescapable) voice of Beethoven, a composer towards whom Chopin had notably ambivalent feelings; nor, in the sparkling rondo theme itself, has Chopin entirely escaped the influence of Weber. Chopin returned to the rondo form only once more, in 1833, for the Introduction and Rondo in E flat major Op 16. By now established and living in Paris, Chopin composed a small number of pieces that are concessions to public taste—this exuberant showpiece written in the stile brillante is a convincing example. The haunting melancholy of its C minor introduction gives no hint of the glittering and graceful rondo section. Modelled on Hummel but identifiably Chopin, this is one of the early works that deserves to be far better known.

Études
The collection of twenty-four studies that comprise Chopin’s Études Opp 10 and 25 is a milestone in the piano’s literature. On one level they form a bridge between Chopin’s apprentice years and his stylistic maturity, for almost all his subsequent developments in harmony, modulation and fingering have their precedents here. They also offer a vade mecum of piano technique which, once mastered, gives unfettered access to all subsequent piano writing until well into the twentieth century, even if their comparative brevity does not prepare the pianist for the stamina needed.

On another level, Chopin’s Études, while by no means the first works to be called ‘studies’, nor the first written with the specific aim of addressing particular aspects of piano technique, were the first to consistently subsume technical exercises into music of sublime poetry.

Because the Études have always been regarded as the sine qua non of their kind since their publication in 1833 and 1837, there has been a tendency to view them as isolated phenomena that appeared almost magically from nowhere. In fact, as with the Preludes, many have clear precedents that time has forgotten but which today, now that such works are more easily accessible, allow us to put Chopin’s music in context. For instance, Cramer’s D major and D minor studies (1815) and Moscheles’s Étude Op 70 No 11 (1827) use similar figurations to Chopin’s Op 10 No 1 in C major, designed for the expansion and contraction of the right hand; the chromatic runs in Moscheles’s Op 70 No 3 in G major has similar chromatic runs to Chopin’s Op 10 No 2 in A minor; No 60 of Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum has an almost identical harmonic progression to Chopin’s Op 10 No 6 in the same key of E flat minor. Yet in every such example, Chopin exceeds these earlier models in harmonic invention, melodic inspiration and technical development, extending the range of tonality and revolutionizing finger technique in the process. The Études of Op 25 consolidate the achievements of Op 10, addressing similar technical aspects—octaves, staccato articulation, legato phrasing, arpeggios, sixths and the like—by different means. Many of the best known Études have acquired nicknames: ‘Tristesse’ (Op 10 No 3), ‘Black Keys’ (Op 10 No 5), ‘Revolutionary’ (Op 10 No 12), ‘Aeolian Harp’ (Op 25 No 1), ‘Butterfly’ (Op 25 No 9) and ‘Winter Wind’ (Op 25 No 11). The Op 10 set is dedicated to Liszt, Op 25 to Liszt’s mistress, the Comtesse Marie d’Agoult.

The Trois nouvelles études were written to order in 1839–40 for a ‘Piano Method’ (Méthode des Méthodes de piano) of Moscheles and Fétis. When compared with any of the Opp 10 and 25 studies, let alone the bravura études by Liszt, Mendelssohn, Henselt and Thalberg also written specially for the Method, Chopin’s are more introspective, although they are still centred on matters of technique (cross rhythms, articulation).

Ballades
Chopin assigned the title ‘Ballade’ to four works composed in 1831–5, 1835–9, 1840–41 and 1842. From the beginning of the nineteenth century the literary ballad had become a popular form of lyric poetry characterized by vividly contrasted moods, and Chopin’s appropriation of the term was inspired. His Ballades are the solo piano’s first tone poems. None have any specific ‘story’ though he was undoubtedly stimulated by the nationalist poetry of his compatriot Adam Mickiewicz.

While he devoted much of his creative output to the shorter forms of the waltz, mazurka, nocturne and prelude, Chopin here not only writes in an extended form but abandons any preconceived or classical structures to compose music of liberated, poetic expression. Significantly, each Ballade was allotted a separate opus number and, though they are frequently performed as a group, they should be savoured for what they are—independent works that share the same title.

The Ballade No 1 in G minor Op 23 was almost certainly sketched out in Vienna in 1831 but not completed to Chopin’s satisfaction for a further four years. The writing, between its arresting opening and conclusion shows a remarkable assurance, evidence of a rapid development from the extrovert pieces of his youth to a more mature and novel means of expression. When Schumann told Chopin that he liked the G minor Ballade best of all, after a long pause, Chopin replied: ‘I am glad of that. It is the one I too like best.’

The Ballade No 2 Op 38, dedicated to Schumann, is unusual in beginning in one key (F major) and ending in another (A minor). The gentle pulse of the sotto voce opening leads one to believe that this is to be an innocent pastoral narrative—but no. The idyll suddenly turns into a nightmare with a furious flurry, fortissimo and Presto con fuoco, reminiscent of the ‘Winter Wind’ Étude Op 25 No 11. The gentle theme returns only to be crushed once more. When it surfaces for a final time after the coda, it is reduced to a pathetic whimper in the minor.

After such anguish, the Ballade No 3 in A flat major Op 47 is an optimistic, endearing affair that even its stormy central section in C sharp minor cannot dispel. Indeed, the ending is a triumphant affirmation of the soothing rocking theme that opens the work. Chopin composed the Ballade No 4 in F minor Op 52 in the summer of 1842 at Nohant where he was regaining his strength after months of ill health. This work finds Chopin at his most adventurous and skilful; its concluding pages—with its mini-cadenza, canonic treatment of the opening theme and the coruscating coda—are as remarkable as anything that he wrote.

Scherzos
The four Scherzos have many features in common with the four Ballades: a quartet of independent works never intended to be heard as a group; a title appropriated by Chopin for his own interpretation (these Scherzos have little to do with the earlier scherzos of Beethoven and Mendelssohn or with the derivation of the word ‘scherzo’ meaning a ‘joke’ or ‘jest’, although Chopin preserves the A–B–A structure of its musical antecedent, the minuet and trio, by introducing a contrasting calm central section into each work); lastly, the Scherzos were composed almost in tandem with the Ballades—in 1831–5, 1837, 1839 and 1842–3 respectively.

There are a few earlier instances of instrumental pieces called ‘scherzo’ (Beethoven’s Bagatelle Op 33 No 2, for example) but with the Scherzo No 1 in B minor Op 20 Chopin established a new independent musical form. He began work on it in Vienna in 1831, completing it in Paris in 1835. It opens with two crashing dissonant chords, which must have seemed audacious to Chopin’s contemporaries, before hurtling into a sea of turbulent and tormented passion. The quasi-trio in B major is one of the few passages in the whole of Chopin where he makes use of a direct quote—a Polish folksong called ‘Lulaj-ze Jezunia’ (‘Sleep, little Jesus’). A repeat of the earlier material leads to a furious coda with a chromatic scale which Liszt (and many virtuosi since) played with interlocking octaves.

The Scherzo No 2 in B flat minor Op 31, one of Chopin’s best-known works, has a similarly arresting and original opening before its highly lyrical main theme in D flat major. After a chorale-like central section the music becomes increasingly agitated, reaching a climax before a return to the opening theme and a final rush to the triumphant coda.

The Scherzo No 3 in C sharp minor Op 39 is the only work that Chopin dedicated to a male pupil, Adolf Gutmann. It was composed partly in Majorca in 1839 and completed in Nohant the same year. The main theme is a ‘peevish, fretful, fiercely scornful’ (Niecks) burst of octaves, its central section a chorale-like theme decorated with a delicate fall of broken arpeggios. This episode is repeated after the impetuous opening theme has been heard again, but Chopin then unexpectedly treats it with a modulation of striking beauty.

The final Scherzo, No 4 in E major Op 54, is the only one of the four to be written in a major key and its mood, consequently, is predominantly untroubled and sunny. Ironically, it is the most difficult of the four to play. Chopin adheres to a basic A–B–A structure, though with each section subtly expanded through numerous textual and thematic devices. Op 54’s scintillating final pages are far removed from the severity of its siblings’ codas.

Polonaises
Chopin’s first known composition was a Polonaise written when he was seven years old (in B flat major, not published until 1947). His first published work was a Polonaise (in G minor, also composed in 1817 and published privately in Warsaw the same year). So, too, is the earliest surviving autograph we have of his music (in A flat major, published in 1902). His last extended solo work was also a Polonaise—the Polonaise-Fantaisie Op 61—written in 1846, three years before his death.

The Polonaise is another musical form where Chopin raised an existing genre to another musical level, providing models for Liszt, Scharwenka and later generations. Nevertheless, his boyhood attempts not surprisingly show little of the originality that was to come in his mature works in the genre. The six Polonaises published posthumously consist of two written in 1817 and the one in A flat major all referred to above; a fourth composed in 1822 in G sharp minor; a fifth in B flat minor based on an air from Rossini’s La gazza ladra (not published until 1879); and finally a G flat major Polonaise written in 1829 and not published until 1870.

The three Polonaises Op 71 are among the works published after Chopin’s death by his friend Julian Fontana (Opp 66–74), against the wishes of the composer but with the consent of his mother and sisters. The first, in D minor, was probably written in 1825; Nos 2 and 3 in B flat major and F minor respectively, were composed in 1828.

Discounting the Introduction and Polonaise brillante Op 3 for piano and cello (1830) and the Grande Polonaise Op 22 for piano and orchestra (1830–35), seven years elapsed before Chopin turned again to the polonaises for solo piano. The two Polonaises Op 26 (1836), in C sharp minor and E flat minor, are of a completely different order to his earlier attempts. Not only are they written with a new-found maturity but reflect his situation as an exile in Paris. These Polonaises are not virtuosic treatments of a dance form, but are by turns proud celebrations of his country’s past splendours and sorrowful reflections of its fate under Russian subjugation. The trio of the C sharp minor Polonaise could almost stand by itself as a nocturne: the second part is a duet between soprano and bass, the prototype of the Étude in C sharp minor, Op 25 No 7. The E flat minor Polonaise, known as the ‘Siberian’ or ‘Revolt’, has a trio with some melodic similarity with the openings of Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

The first of the two Polonaises Op 40, in A major, is one of Chopin’s most popular works, the so-called ‘Military’ Polonaise. It is, perhaps, the most typical example of his six mature polonaises in terms of its structure, rhythm and character. Here is Chopin at his most patriotic yet it is strange that so heroic a work has no coda but simply restates the opening theme before coming to an abrupt conclusion. If this is a portrait of Poland’s greatness, then Op 40 No 2 in C minor, composed a year later in 1839, depicts its suffering in music of nobility and high emotion. The Op 40 Polonaises are dedicated to Julian Fontana.

The final two Polonaises, in F sharp minor Op 44 and in A flat major Op 53, composed in 1841 and 1842 respectively, are Chopin’s greatest essays in the form. The F sharp minor opens with ‘a rush of exasperation and surprise—and indignant pause—and then a roar of defiance’ (Ashton Jonson) before being transformed midway into a tender and melancholy mazurka. Op 53, nicknamed the ‘Heroic’, is one of the piano’s most celebrated works, a breathtaking epic which can be unforgettable in the hands of a great pianist. The introduction alone is a masterpiece, perfectly setting the scene for what is to come. Its striking central section with its descending semiquaver bass octaves is usually said to depict a cavalry charge, but if it is played at the correct tempo with grandeur and majesty, as Chopin himself insisted, it is more like an approaching cavalcade.

The Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat major Op 61 is, by both its title and structure, in a class of its own. It is an exploratory, original work which, judging from the manuscript, caused Chopin some difficulty before he arrived at a satisfactory version. Although the distinctive rhythm of the polonaise is present in the opening theme, elsewhere it is often absent altogether, the ‘fantasy’ part of the title implying a feeling of rhapsodic improvisation. Through thematic recall and his subconscious sense of form, pacing and proportion, Chopin manages to achieve a remarkably cohesive whole.

Impromptus
The word ‘Impromptu’ comes from the French, meaning ‘improvised’ or ‘on the spur of the moment’. Its musical application is heard most famously in the short song-like works given that title by Schubert and Chopin (here, for once, Chopin alighted on a title without transforming the genre, and Schubert’s examples are generally better known). The first occasion he used it was for his Fantaisie-Impromptu in 1834, one of his most popular pieces and yet never approved for publication (it was issued posthumously by Fontana in 1855 as Op 66). It combines the elements of ‘étude’ and ‘nocturne’ to winning effect. The famous central melody is one of Chopin’s most memorable.

Each Impromptu was, significantly, allotted its own opus number like the Scherzos and Ballades. The Impromptu No 1 in A flat major Op 29 (1837) is among the most beautiful and spontaneous of all Chopin’s compositions, closely following the model of the earlier Op 66. No 2 in F sharp major Op 36 has an entirely novel structure with its dream-like opening progressing to a march in D major and concluding with three pages of brilliant passage work. The third Impromptu in G flat major Op 51 exists in two versions; it is the final form that is recorded here. It is a strange, uncheerful piece for which Chopin had a particular predilection according to his pupil Lenz.

Nocturnes
The Nocturne as a genre of piano composition was the invention of the Irish composer–pianist John Field (1782–1837) in which a graceful melody sings over a gentle accompaniment, rather in the manner of Bellini’s long-breathed opera cantilenas. Chopin elevated Field’s form into an entirely more sophisticated realm both melodically and harmonically, even if most retain a straightforward A–B–A structure and a relatively simple left-hand accompaniment. Between 1830 and 1846, Chopin composed eighteen nocturnes, which were published roughly in the order in which they were written. Outside this ‘accepted’ canon, there is an early example dating from 1827 but not published until 1855—Nocturne No 19, Op 72 No 1, one of the works that Fontana issued. No 20 in C sharp minor dates from 1830 (it was published in 1875). It is unclear whether it was completed before or after his Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor and the song Zyczenie (The Maiden’s Wish), both composed in 1829, but the Nocturne shares material with both of these. No 21 in C minor (1837—some musicologists say 1827—published in 1938), like its predecessor, has no opus number and was not authorized by Chopin to be published.

The second of the three Nocturnes Op 9, published in 1832 and dedicated to the brilliant young pianist Camille Pleyel, is, after the ‘Funeral March’ from the Sonata No 2, arguably Chopin’s best-known work and, ironically, is closer than any others in form and content to a specific Field Nocturne (H30, 1816), also in E flat major, which clearly served as a model. Chopin’s E flat Nocturne did more for his popularity in Paris than anything he had published up to that time. The next set already shows a marked development. The Nocturnes in F major and F sharp major were composed in 1832, their companion in G minor the following year, all three published as Op 15 and dedicated to Chopin’s close friend and fellow pianist–composer Ferdinand Hiller. On the manuscript of No 3, Chopin wrote: ‘After a performance of Hamlet’, then thought better of it and crossed it out, saying ‘No! Let them guess for themselves.’

Two further Nocturnes, Op 27, followed in 1836, in C sharp minor and D flat major, the latter embodying one of Chopin’s most refined and affecting melodies. The second of the two Nocturnes Op 32 will be familiar to ballet-goers as the opening section of Les Sylphides. Reviewing the two Nocturnes Op 37 in G minor and G major, Schumann thought that Chopin had ‘altered and grown older; he still loves decoration, but now of that nobler kind under which poetic ideality gleams more transparently’. Op 37 No 2 was allegedly inspired by the night crossing from the mainland to Majorca; its second subject is certainly one of Chopin’s most beautiful.

With the Nocturne in C minor Op 48 No 1 we come to the grandest and greatest of all Chopin’s works in this form. Various commentators have attached programmatic ideas to it, but whether one can hear ‘the contrition of a sinner’ (Kleczynski) or ‘a masterly expression of a great powerful grief, for instance at a grave misfortune occurring to one’s fatherland’ (Kullak), the work has a narrative intensity that rivals those of the Ballades. Its companion in F sharp minor Op 48 No 2 is a slighter but nevertheless beautiful work. Chopin told his pupil Gutmann that the middle section should be played like a recitative: ‘a tyrant commands’ (the first two chords), he said, ‘and the other asks for mercy’. Both were composed in 1841 and published the following year.

Of the two Nocturnes of Op 55, No 1 in F minor feels close to an improvisation and features another of Chopin’s heaven-sent melodies. No 2 in E flat major is a stream of pure lyricism unusual among its companions in having no contrasting middle section. It surely deserves to be at least equally well known as the ‘other’ E flat Nocturne. The delicate brush strokes of the coda are quite bewitching. Op 55 is dedicated to Chopin’s Scottish student (and later benefactor) Jane Stirling.

The final two Nocturnes, Op 62, composed and published in 1846, are in B major and E major, the first characterized by Huneker as having ‘a fruity charm’, the second something of a valediction. Its lingering coda makes it sound as though Chopin was unwilling to bid farewell to this last inspiration in the form.

Waltzes
The waltz reached Warsaw in the early years of the nineteenth century. As a teenager, Chopin would have known the piano waltzes of Polish composers like Maria Szymanowska, Kurpinski, Dobrzynski and Stefani. By the time he reached Vienna, the waltzes of Joseph Lanner and Johann Strauss the Elder were sweeping through Europe. Above all, as far as the piano was concerned, the most important reference point was Weber’s ground-breaking Invitation to the Dance.

Chopin’s earliest essays in the form were not written until 1829 by which time he had composed some thirteen mazurkas and polonaises. Of the twenty waltzes he would eventually compose, only eight were published in his lifetime. The two Waltzes Op 69, three Waltzes Op 70 and six of the seven early waltzes without opus numbers were all published posthumously. Outstanding among these are the poetic Op 69 No 2 in B minor and Op 70 No 3 in D flat major inspired by Konstancja Gladkowska (see the note on the Concertos) and composed, according to Chopin, ‘early this morning’ (3 October 1829). Of all the posthumous waltzes rescued for posterity, we must be most grateful for the dazzling Waltz in E minor (1830). Like the Fantaisie-Impromptu, it is a mystery how Chopin could have overlooked it, for with its bravura introduction and coda and its spirited motifs this Waltz has all the hallmarks of a mature work.

The first waltz that Chopin authorized to be published, in E flat major Op 18, was written in Vienna in 1830 and entitled Grande valse brillante. It differs from all the others in that it can actually be danced to (its inclusion in Les Sylphides reflects that); his later waltzes are more like ‘dance poems’, far removed from the waltzes of Lanner and Strauss which Op 18 emulates.

In welcoming the three Waltzes Op 34 in 1838 Schumann wrote: ‘[They] will delight above all things, so different are they from the ordinary ones, and of such a kind as only Chopin dare venture on or even invent, while gazing inspired among the dancers … Such a wave of life flows through them that they seem to have been improvised in the ballroom.’ No 1 in A flat revisits many of the rhythmic and motific ideas of Op 18; No 2 in A minor opens with a haunting melancholic cello-like melody and was Chopin’s own favourite; No 3 in F major is memorable for the moto perpetuo passagework and cross-rhythms of its outer sections and the sequence of acciaccaturas in the middle.

Lenz reports that, according to Chopin himself, the Waltz in A flat major Op 42, ‘springing from the eight-bar trill, should evoke a musical clock. In his own performances it embodied his rubato style to the fullest; he would play it as a continued stretto pianissimo with the bass maintaining a steady beat. A garland of flowers winding amidst the dancing couples!’

The final group of three Waltzes, Op 64, published in 1847, opens with the Waltz in D flat otherwise known as the ‘Minute Waltz’, one of the best-known works in the entire literature of the piano. Its hackneyed status should not detract from the miracle of its economy and invention. (Despite its nickname, it is impossible to play the waltz in a minute, at least not musically.) No 2 of the set in C sharp minor alternates between a lovesick opening theme, a rapid quaver passage with echoes of Op 42 and a tender nocturne-like theme in D flat. These two contrasted miniature masterpieces are followed by a further Waltz in A flat, less well-known but with a graceful, insinuating theme of wistful regret.

Mazurkas
It has been said that the mazurkas are the soul of Chopin, revealing facets of his personality and emotions more directly than any other of his compositions. The mazurka did not acquire its status as a national dance and stylized dance form until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century (long after the polonaise had done so). It takes its name from the area of Mazovia around Warsaw but is really a generic title for many regional dances that share similar characteristics, most notably the mazur, oberek and kujawiak. The features common to all these dances are triple time, the strongly accented second or third beat (accompanied by a tap of the heel), and a dotted rhythm. Some of these regional variations are fast and wild (like the obereks), others are tinged with melancholy.

Chopin preserved the various quintessential elements of the dance—the sudden changes of emotion, or the drone bass of the bagpipes—and, as with the waltz, polonaise and nocturne, elevated an established form into the realm of high art. But in the mazurkas he went even further by investing in these miniature poems (few last longer than four minutes) a greater harmonic daring than in almost any of his other works. In some, his writing verges on the experimental.

Especially noticeable in some of the later mazurkas are examples of subtle counterpoint—a nod to Chopin’s beloved Bach—in which separate lines combine and influence one another. Meyerbeer called on Chopin while he played one of these (Op 63 No 3) giving rise to an anecdote that gives an insight into the way Chopin played his mazurkas. His rubato was so free that some took it to be erratic timing. On this occasion, Meyerbeer commented that Chopin was playing the mazurka in 4/4—that is what he heard as the composer prolonged the first beat of the bar. No, Chopin insisted, he was playing in triple time. No, countered Meyerbeer beating time, it’s in four. Chopin is said to have screamed in rage at the suggestion he was playing in anything other than strict time. On another occasion Karl Halle (better known subsequently as Sir Charles Hallé) made the same observation as Meyerbeer. He obviously caught Chopin in a better mood for while Chopin initially denied that he was playing in 4/4, in the end had to admit that Halle was right, laughing that it was ‘a nationalistic trait’.

More than any other form he wrote in throughout his career, Chopin turned most frequently to the mazurka, the earliest being the two in B flat major and G major composed and published in Warsaw in 1826; his very last work was the Mazurka in G minor Op 67 No 2, published in 1855. In all, he composed some 62 mazurkas (more if one includes doubtful and spurious works) of which 41 were published during his lifetime in groups of three, four or five. The chronology of their composition is sometimes unclear. In some cases, ideas he had improvised waited some time before being committed to paper. Further revisions and second thoughts meant delays before publication. Briefly, the nine mazurkas of Opp 6 and 7 were composed in Vienna in 1830 shortly after his departure from Warsaw and where he heard of the unsuccessful uprising of the Poles against the Russians. The thirty-two mazurkas contained in Opp 17 to 63 were composed and published at fairly regular intervals between 1833 and 1847. The eight mazurkas of Opp 67 and 68, ordered by the composer to be destroyed but published posthumously by Julian Fontana, were written at various times between 1827 (Op 68 No 2) and 1849 (Op 67 No 2); a further thirteen have no opus numbers, mainly early works either published separately while Chopin was still alive or after his death—the one in A flat major, for example, was composed in 1834 but did not appear in print until 1930.

Piano Concertos
Between 1827 and 1830 Chopin wrote four of his five works for piano and orchestra. After the Grande Polonaise of 1835 he composed nothing further in this form. While these works have clung to the fringes of the concert hall repertoire (the Grande Polonaise Op 22, more frequently heard in its solo guise), the two piano concertos have remained very much centre stage. There have been few major pianists who have not had one or both in their portfolios and audiences never tire of hearing them, largely due to the strength of the melodic material and Chopin’s idiomatic keyboard expression.

Famously, Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto was written before the First. No 1 in E minor Op 11 is so designated simply because it was the first of the two to be published (1833). It is easy to think of these works as standing in isolation, without contemporary equivalents. However, thanks to the availability of recordings, the listening public can now more easily appreciate that the concertos of Hummel, Field, Weber and Moscheles in particular—and to a lesser extent Kalkbrenner, Herz and Ries—provided models for Chopin’s. Indeed, some of the thematic materials of Hummel’s A minor Concerto are strikingly similar to those of the E minor Concerto.

Op 11 has a lengthy orchestral exposition (twice as long as that of Op 21) marked Allegro maestoso. The touching second subject is archetypal Chopin and its first appearance a moment of exquisite beauty. The second movement, labelled Romanza, consists of a yearning nocturne-like theme in E major contrasted with a second subject in B major. He was still working on the Concerto when he wrote a letter dated 15 May 1830 in which he described his thoughts about this movement. It is one of the rare occasions that he made any allusion to the programme behind the music: ‘It is not meant to be loud, it’s more of a romance, quiet, melancholy; it should give the impression of gazing tenderly at a place which brings to mind a thousand dear memories. It is a sort of meditation in beautiful spring weather, but by moonlight. That is why I have muted the accompaniment.’ The final movement (Vivace) is a lively rondo with some resemblance to the krakowiak, a popular Polish folk dance. Despite the Concerto’s key signature, it is, like the Romanza, written in the key of E major. Chopin was the soloist in the first performance, heard privately on 22 September 1830, and again in the work’s public premiere in Warsaw Town Hall on 11 October. It was the last concert he gave before leaving Poland for good.

The premiere of his Second Concerto in F minor Op 21 took place some seven months earlier on 17 March 1830 in the National Theatre, Warsaw. The event was a sell-out (800 people, his largest audience to date) and was so successful that a second concert was arranged for 22 March. These concerts marked Chopin’s first commercial successes as a pianist. ‘The first Allegro is accessible only to a few’, he wrote to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski. ‘There were some bravos, but I think only because they were puzzled—What is this?—and had to pose as connoisseurs! The Adagio and Rondo had more effect; one heard some spontaneous shouts.’

The haunting second movement was inspired by Chopin’s infatuation with the soprano Konstancja Gladkowska. ‘Six months have elapsed and I have not yet exchanged a syllable with her of whom I dream every night’, he wrote in 1829, confessing that ‘while my thoughts were with her, I composed the Adagio of my concerto.’ Like the E minor’s Romanza, it is in the spirit of a nocturne, except that it is interrupted by a striking passage accompanied by tremolo strings, a device adopted at a similar point by Moscheles in his G minor Concerto of 1825. A vivacious Hummelesque rondo concludes the work with some imaginative touches, such as the second subject being underscored by the violins playing col legno (i.e. the strings are played with the back of the bow instead of the hair) and the coda introduced by a solo horn proclaiming the key of F major in which the work ends.

Works for piano and orchestra
Chopin composed his first work for piano and orchestra during the second half of 1827 and early 1828. It was published as his Op 2 in Vienna in 1830 under the grand title Variations in B flat major for piano and orchestra on ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The piano writing is much indebted to Hummel, the model for every young pianist at that time, and the orchestral contribution is minimal; but although not yet fully formed there is no mistaking Chopin’s individual voice—characterized by the Chopin scholar Jim Samson as ‘that elusive quality which we identify retrospectively as Chopinesque’. The theme for the five variations is the famous duet from Act 1 of Mozart’s opera, ‘Give me your hand’, sung by Giovanni to the peasant girl Zerlina. After a slow, brilliantly decorated introduction and the statement of the theme, Chopin follows a fairly standard pattern for variation sets from this period, leading off with one played in triplets followed by a moto perpetuo. Variation 3 requires an agile left hand, No 4 is a sequence of leaping figures for both hands, the fifth an Adagio in B flat minor and the finale Alla Polacca.

This is the work that the young Robert Schumann greeted with the famous words: ‘Hats off, gentlemen! A genius.’ When Chopin first played it in Vienna on 12 August 1829, he wrote to his parents: ‘Yesterday … I made my entry into the world! … As soon as I appeared on stage, the bravos began; after each variation the applause was so loud that I couldn’t hear the orchestra’s tutti. When I finished, they clapped so much that I had to come out and bow a second time.’

His second concertante work followed swiftly, this time using a selection of national folk tunes for his material. He himself referred to the Fantasy on Polish Airs in A major Op 13 as ‘the Potpourri on Polish Themes’. He was clearly fond of the work and kept it in his repertoire for many years despite the incidental contribution of the orchestra and the somewhat clumsy welding together of the different sections. All eyes are on the soloist. A slow introduction gives way to a plaintive Andantino (a folk song titled ‘Juz miesiac zaszedl’—‘Already the moon has set’) and two brilliant variations, followed by a theme from an opera by Karol Kurpinski, leading to a rousing conclusion with a kujawiak (a popular dance similar to the mazurka).

After opera and national airs, Chopin turned to folk dance for his third work for piano and orchestra, composed in the same year (1828) as the ‘Polish potpourri’. The Rondo à la krakowiak in F major Op 14 is the only work of Chopin explicitly in this Polish dance form (although as we have seen the finale of the E minor Concerto resembles it). The krakowiak is a lively dance in 2/4 time, indigenous to the region around Kraków (Cracow). Like its predecessors, it is a sparkling display piece though here the orchestral role is more telling. Though he played it frequently after its composition, Chopin seems never to have returned to it after leaving Poland.

It was dance that again inspired what proved to be Chopin’s last work in this form. The polonaise section of the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise in E flat major Op 22 was composed in Vienna in 1830 shortly before his arrival in Paris. Perhaps tiring of the glittering stile brillante, he set it aside until he had the inspired idea of prefacing it with a work of an altogether different character that he composed in 1834. He called this Andante spianato (in G major), ‘spianato’ meaning ‘smooth’ or ‘level’. It may be, in the words of one commentator, ‘a fairly arbitrary coupling’ but it is nevertheless the only one of these independent piano and orchestra works to have retained a regular place in the repertoire, albeit in its version for solo piano.

Chamber music
While there is no composition that does not involve the piano, the cello is the only other instrument for which Chopin wrote any significant music. His first effort was a polonaise written in 1829 when he was visiting the home of Prince Radziwill, governor of the Principality of Poznan and himself a composer and cellist of sorts. Writing to his friend Tytus in November, he is rather dismissive of his ‘alla polacca’ describing it as ‘nothing more than a brilliant drawing-room piece suitable for the ladies’. He hoped that the Prince’s daughter, Wanda, would practise the piano part (he was supposed to be giving her lessons) in which case she must have been an accomplished pianist, though her father would not have found the cello part over-taxing. The following year he added an introduction, inspired by his friendship in Vienna with the cellist Joseph Merk. The Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major for piano and cello Op 3 was dedicated to Merk. Czerny produced a piano solo version of the work and in the 1980s an arrangement by Chopin himself was unearthed.

The Piano Trio in G minor Op 8 was composed a year earlier, in 1828, for private performance at ‘Antonin’, the home of Prince Radziwill. This is Chopin’s only example of writing for the violin, and it shows a surprising lack of flair (in the first movement, for instance, the violinist rarely moves out of first position). It is a genial work in four movements (Allegro con fuoco, Scherzo, Adagio sostenuto and an Allegretto finale) but there is little of the interplay between the three instruments of the kind that makes the trios of Beethoven, Schubert and Hummel such a delight. Chopin seems hampered by the confines of classical procedures, working ideas through dutifully rather than with individuality and imagination, though various commentators have praised the Trio as ‘one of the most perfect and, unfortunately, most neglected of Chopin’s works’ (Charles Willeby) and wondered why ‘so graceful and winning a piece is not more of a staple in the concert hall’ (Emanuel Ax).

In the chronology of works for cello and piano, the Grand Duo in E major on themes from Meyerbeer’s Robert Le Diable comes next. Composed in 1831, it is one of only four Chopin works published in his lifetime without an opus number and the only one to be composed in collaboration, in this case with his friend the cellist Auguste Franchomme. Meyerbeer’s opera had a sensational premiere in Paris on 21 November 1831 and its themes attracted the likes of Thalberg, Kalkbrenner, Herz and Liszt. Chopin was commissioned by his publisher Schlesinger to write this potpourri, a brilliantly executed display piece of the kind that was so popular in the salons of Paris at the time.

‘I write a little and cross out a lot’, Chopin wrote to his sister during the composition of his final major work, the Cello Sonata in G minor, Op 65. ‘Sometimes I am pleased with it, sometimes not. I throw it into a corner and then pick it up again.’ No work of his gave him more trouble, as manifested by the extensive extant sketches. It was written when his health was failing and was the last one to be published during his lifetime. The four movements (Allegro moderato, Scherzo, Largo and Allegro) show how far Chopin had developed in his ability to form a closely integrated sonata structure, with ideas developing from a variety of short but related motifs.

Some of Chopin’s contemporaries found it a difficult work to grasp. The first movement especially puzzled even his intimates—players today find it the most problematic in terms of balance—and he omitted the movement at the work’s premiere given by himself and Franchomme on 16 February 1848. This first movement clearly had some hidden significance for him. On his deathbed he asked Franchomme to play it but could not bear to hear more than the opening bars.

Songs
How ironic that someone who could make the piano sing like none before him should have attached so little importance to writing for the voice. For though he wrote some thirty song settings between 1826 and 1847, there is no evidence that Chopin ever intended any of them to be published, neither is there any record of him performing any of his songs in public. They were certainly not designed to be sung as an intégrale, reinforcing the view that they were intended only for private use. Were it not for Fontana’s initiative, those manuscripts that survived (and not all of them did) would have been destroyed at Chopin’s death along with all the other music published as Opp 66–74.

As it was, A Collection of Polish Songs by Frédéric Chopin appeared in 1859, sixteen titles given the opus number of 74. Russian censorship prevented publication of a further song that Fontana tracked down in Warsaw: ‘Hymn from the tomb’ was published separately as No 17 of the set. Another two, ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘Dumka’ (an earlier version of Op 74 No 13) also found their way into print but without opus numbers.

The songs fall into two categories: romantic and nationalistic. All are settings of Polish poems, most of them by contemporaries of his acquaintance. Ten were written to lyrics by Stefan Witwicki, from his collection Pionski sielskie (‘Idylls’) of 1830. Witwicki, a friend of the Chopin family, had a strong interest in folklore and Polish nationalism (Chopin dedicated to him his Mazurkas Op 41). Three texts are by the soldier-poet Bohdan Zaleski, whose folklore stylizations were based on Ukrainian songs and dances. According to Fontana, Chopin composed as many as ten or twelve settings of a collection of highly popular poems commemorating the November uprising of 1830 by Wincenty Pol. Only one has survived: Spiew grobowy (‘Hymn from the tomb’). Poland’s leading Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz, was a close friend of Chopin. The first of the two song settings he made of Mickiewicz’s work was also probably Chopin’s first song composition: Precz z moich oczu! (‘Out of my sight!’). His last song, Melodya (‘Elegy’) has words by another great polish Romantic, Zygmunt Krasinski.

Though Chopin’s songs remain little known, two of them—Zyczenie (‘The Maiden’s Wish’) and Moja pieszczotka (‘My joys’ or ‘My darling’) have long been popular with pianists through transcriptions by Liszt, who arranged six of the nineteen for solo piano.

Miscellanea
Though the bulk of Chopin’s output falls into easily defined categories, there are numerous works for solo piano that do not. Some were given opus numbers, some weren’t. Some are masterpieces central to the piano repertoire, others are inconsequential sketches preserved for posterity against the composer’s wishes. In chronological order of composition they begin with one of Chopin’s earliest works, the Introduction and Variations on a German Air composed in 1824. The air in question is ‘Der Schweizerbub’, which translates roughly as ‘The little Swiss boy’. It was a favourite of Katarzyna Sowinska, the German-born wife of General Sowinski, who was to achieve fame after the 1830 Polish uprising, and it was she who persuaded her young friend to write a set of variations. Chopin did so, albeit reluctantly, dashing off the piece, legend has it, in under an hour.

It was also in about 1824 that Chopin wrote another set of variations (assuming he really was the composer; some sources cite it as a spurious work): the Variations in E major on ‘Non più mesta’ from Rossini’s La Cenerentola for flute and piano. Chopin never wrote for the flute again (if he did at all), and perhaps we can see why.

Two years later came the three Ecossaises Op 72 No 3 (D major, G major, D flat major). Originally a quick Scottish dance tune in 2/4 time, Beethoven and Schubert wrote stylized examples. None of Chopin’s lasts longer than a minute. We could take the Funeral March in C minor Op 72 No 2 from 1827 as a sketch for the famous funeral march from the Sonata No 2 in B flat minor written a decade later. The Variations in A major (‘Souvenir de Paganini’) were inspired by the virtuoso violinist’s visit to Warsaw; Chopin’s treatment of the famous tune known as the Carnival of Venice is notable for its banal and unvarying tonic–dominant bass, although it is interesting for the way it foreshadows the Berceuse, one of the composer’s mature masterpieces.

In stark contrast comes the lively Bolero Op 19 (1833), though this has little to do with the Spanish national dance. Possibly inspired by the bolero in Auber’s opera La muette de Portici, Chopin’s is in the rhythm of a polonaise albeit marked to be played faster and lighter (Allegro vivace) than his genuine polonaises.

Among Chopin’s least known works is the Variations brillantes in B flat major on ‘Je vends des scapulaires’ from Hérold’s Ludovic Op 12, also from 1833. Many commentators pour scorn on it, but it is an effective and sparkling display piece well up to contemporary standards of tasteful superficiality. Most remarkable is that anyone could take such a dull theme and make it so entertaining.

Several unimportant miniatures, no more than sketches, add little to our understanding of the composer: the Contredanse in G flat major (1827, published 1943), Cantabile in B flat major (1834, published 1931), Largo in E flat major (1837), Fugue in A minor (1841), which sounds like a parody of Bach, and Albumblatt in E major (1843). There is one brief work, however, that does tell us something about Chopin: the Variation on the March from Bellini’s I Puritani. In 1837, the Princess Belgiojoso persuaded Liszt to assemble a set of variations on an operatic theme, one variation each to be written by his pianist friends. This was to be Hexaméron—the six pianists implied in the title being Liszt himself, Thalberg, Pixis, Herz, Czerny and Chopin. Five of them contrived to outdo each other in outlandish difficulty—but not Chopin. His Variation No 6—Liszt shrewdly placed it last in the running order before his own flashy finale—is a quiet, reflective nocturne in E major (all the other variations are in A flat major). Chopin’s is the most memorable contribution to the work: victory through understatement.

A further minor piece—a delightful one, nevertheless—is the Tarantelle in A flat major Op 43, composed during that happy and productive period at Nohant in 1841. It is a decidedly Polish take on the Italian dance form. Indeed when Chopin requested Fontana to make a fair copy of the piece he asked him to check if Rossini’s famous tarantella-song La Danza was written in 6/8 or 12/8! ‘I should prefer it’, he said, ‘to be like Rossini.’

From the same year comes the substantial Allegro de concert in A major, Op 46. This is the complete first movement of an abandoned third piano concerto which Chopin commenced in Vienna in 1830. When he tired of writing works for piano and orchestra, he set it aside, returning to it at Nohant and issuing it in a revised and extended form. Extremely demanding to play, it is unique in combining the piano style of the early concertos with that of the mature Chopin.

Also composed in Nohant in the productive year of 1841 was the Fantasy in F minor Op 49, a work that is not so far removed from the Ballades in form and certainly not in quality. This epic work, by some way the most important of all Chopin’s miscellaneous compositions, is one of the piano’s great masterpieces, original in structure, inspired in its generous melodic content. The triple time common to all the Ballades is here replaced by common time but the feeling of an underlying unstated narrative persists in the same way. Among its varied themes and moods, all tinged with melancholy, perhaps no part of the work quite surpasses the magical moment roughly halfway through (at 7'17) when the turbulent emotions give way to the serene beauty of a melody in B major. These twenty-four bars of reverie are broken with a dramatic sforzando and a repeat of former themes, rather like the end of the Lento section of the B minor Scherzo.

The final two works of this miscellany are among the finest of Chopin’s shorter mature works: the Berceuse in D flat major Op 57 and the Barcarolle in F sharp major Op 60. The Berceuse, probably inspired by the small daughter of the singer Pauline Viardot who was left at Nohant to be cared for by Chopin and George Sand while Viardot was on tour, is a lullaby whose simple rocking figure remains unaltered throughout its entire course. Every bar begins with the same low D flat and, except for two bars towards the end, gently alternates between tonic and dominant harmonies while the right hand traces delicate filigree figures above it. The traditional barcarolle, sung by Venetian gondoliers, was a tourist attraction as early as the eighteenth century and sung in a lilting 6/8 metre mirroring the rise and fall of the boat. Chopin notates his in 12/8. The piece ends with four fortissimo octaves as though Chopin was snapping us out of our dream world and back to reality.

Jeremy Nicholas © 2008

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