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Hyperion Records

CDA67849 - Chopin: The Complete Waltzes
Black and White (1960/1) by Ellsworth Kelly (b1923)
The Art Institute of Chicago, restricted gift of Mr and Mrs Arnold H Maremount / Photograph by Grant Hiroshima
Recording details: October 2010
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: August 2011
Total duration: 59 minutes 29 seconds


'Launching his latest album with the earliest of waltzes to which Chopin gave an opus number, Stephen Hough sets a sparkling tone for what follows on this altogether brilliant disc … Hough is a pianist with all the elegance, wit and virtuosity required for these pieces, yet he also finds the deep vein of melancholy that runs through many of them' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Hough's decision to record the eight published waltzes in chronological order allows us to gain a feel for Chopin's glorious development in this genre … essential listening' (The Observer)

'Chopin’s waltzes are salon pieces, but always more than salon pieces, and Hough brings an astonishing range of touch to them. All those sophisticated inner parts and harmonic shifts are brought out with the greatest insouciance and style' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Hough's playing has such authority and panache, its balance between virtuosity and vividly communicated expression so finely judged, that every perfectly scaled moment is as intensely realised as every other. Few other pianists around today play Chopin with as much understanding and poised mastery as this' (The Guardian)

'Every [Waltz] conveys the feeling of bodies in motion, skirts twirling, and hearts intertwined … you don’t just hear Hough’s fingers; you hear his soul … the Minute Waltz contains one of the best melting moments of all; I could feel my knees giving way … I knew I’d never get my shins kicked, or an ache in the heel: I was dancing with Chopin and one of the world’s top pianists' (The Times)

'The leading British virtuoso has championed the byways of the piano literature since his award-winning Hummel concertos disc for Chandos. That he is also the most compelling interpreter of the mainstream classics is demonstrated by this winning collection of the 17 canonical masterpieces—and a handful of "encores" … his delicious lilt and rubato always seem perfectly judged, and he sweeps us off our feet with the twinkle-fingered brilliance of his dashing F major waltz … after the whirlwind merry-go-round of Chopin's imaginary ballroom, he sends us off to bed with a reposeful nocturne (Op 9 No 2)—a delightfully thoughtful touch to crown a mesmerising collection' (The Sunday Times)

The Complete Waltzes
Published Waltzes
Unpublished Waltzes
Doubtful attributions

Stephen Hough has a unique affinity for the music of Chopin, whose music has always been a central part of his repertoire. His earlier Chopin recordings for Hyperion garnered huge critical acclaim. Hough’s name has become synonymous with pianistic elegance, flawless technique and immense musicianship and he has become globally renowned for his engaging and refined Chopin interpretations.

In his published Waltzes Chopin brought a new level of sophistication to this popular dance form. His unpublished Waltzes are generally less complex but display considerable wit and charm, qualities ideally suited to Hough’s pianism. The disc is rounded off with the famous E flat major Nocturne, which gives a more lyrical expression to the metre of the waltz.

These illuminating and compelling performances are not to be missed.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Growing up in the Warsaw of the 1810s and 1820s, the young Chopin could scarcely avoid absorbing the sounds and rhythms of urban dance. Salons and dance halls resonated with pianos playing the popular steps of the day, especially mazurkas, polonaises, and—the most favoured dance of all—waltzes. Mazurkas and polonaises laced musical venues with a dash of local colour, their composers having filtered their simple works through the rhythms and accents of local peasant and aristocratic practices. (No proto-Bartók, Chopin probably knew the urban permutations of mazurkas better than he did any folk versions.) But in embracing the waltz, Varsovians gladly participated in an international vogue. For the young and youthful of Chopin’s day, waltzing meant fun, not least for the close embrace and penetrating eye contact it permitted the whirling, dancing couple.

The teenage Chopin, though, seemed to have initially regarded the waltz as something of a trifle. At least this is what we might infer from the astonishment he registered to his teacher Elsner back in Warsaw upon discovering in Vienna (where Chopin resided for some months in 1831) that ‘waltzes are regarded as works here!’. Chopin distinguished between functional sound—music to accompany dance, music for the moment—and the work—music of compositional and perceptual substance, music intended, in principle at least, for greater reflection. That one might want to grant such status to a waltz, to publish it as an opus, and to linger over it at the keyboard, seemed decidedly novel to Chopin at this stage of his life. And although no one would want to claim that Chopin’s own waltzes represent anything less than the highest examples of art, the conflict implicit in his remark to Elsner—that is, the conflict between a lasting opus and a transitory diversion—defined his relationship to the waltz as it did to no other genre.

This conflict manifested itself most clearly in the way Chopin’s waltzes circulated during his lifetime. He withheld from publication more than half the waltzes he composed; for no other genre did he deny public access to so many finished works. But this does not mean that he squirrelled away the unpublished waltzes. Manuscripts of waltzes counted as one of Chopin’s favourite gifts, souvenirs that he bestowed on close companions (like Maria Wodzinska, to whom he was briefly engaged) and on high-born acquaintances (like Charlotte de Rothschild, of the famous banking family). The gift of a waltz manuscript did not confer private ownership of the work: Chopin thought nothing of penning manuscripts of the same piece to give to different fortunate associates. The Waltz in F minor that we know as Op 70 No 2 (as it was numbered in its posthumous publication) apparently counted as Chopin’s favourite gift: five autograph manuscripts of it survive. And manuscripts of other waltzes proliferate as well: we know of three manuscripts of the Waltz in A flat major, Op 69 No 1. This practice could persist even when Chopin published a waltz: he presented manuscripts of the Waltz in D flat major, Op 64 No 1, to three colleagues even though he knew that the piece would also be widely available in a printed edition.

Chopin’s social generosity has an important musical consequence: his waltzes exist in an unusually high number of variant versions. The idiosyncrasies of his creative character explain this fact. When he would return to a work to prepare a new manuscript of it, he would almost never reproduce it literally from an earlier version, but would instead modify it in various ways. Some of the changes affect details (with significant alterations in areas like articulation and dynamics); others add or delete entire phrases or sections. That Chopin willingly let acquaintances see and play these versions suggests a basic level of authorial approval of the various alternate readings of a piece. Thus pianists enjoy plentiful options when choosing to play a Chopin waltz.

Just as the variety of their versions reflects something of the social origins of Chopin’s waltzes, so too do certain of their compositional characteristics. The very idea of popularity seems composed into assorted aspects of the waltzes. This is especially true of the waltzes that Chopin published during his lifetime, which draw out contrasts between effervescent emotions and sentimentality that we know to have contributed so much to the fashionableness of the ballroom waltz. This emerges clearly in the first of the published waltzes, the E flat major, Op 18. The main themes of the waltz brim with the bustle of the dance floor: the stirring call to the dance of the introduction, and the rising and falling motion of the opening melodies, which (as the musicologist Eric McKee has persuasively argued) Chopin meant to reflect the spinning motions of dancing couples. The contrasting themes (with melodies in thirds and in the new key of D flat major), on the other hand, have a more reflective lilt (Chopin instructs the pianist to play one of them con anima, and the soulfulness of the melody emerges palpably). The later published waltzes in A flat major and F major (Op 34 Nos 1 and 3) remind us of the E flat major Waltz by similarly embedding moments of sentimental repose within an overall atmosphere of lively sociability. Sometimes, especially in the published waltzes cast in a minor mode (the A minor, Op 34 No 2, and the C sharp minor, Op 64 No 2), Chopin reverses the polarity in order to let melancholy sentiments reign. But in all these instances Chopin manages to ennoble the idea of contrast: the sentimental deepens the experience of the vivacious; the lively takes the edge off the emotional. Or to say it another way: out of Chopin’s contrasts emerge waltzes that are musical works.

If we hear Chopin’s waltzes as lending auditory form to the practices of a particular social milieu, then we will not be surprised at some of the other concepts that emerge as premises in this genre. One of the most engaging of them is the idea of play, not only the vivacious sense of amusement that generally suffuses the waltzes, but also play as an intellectual pursuit (reminding us of the lively exchange of ideas that Chopin enjoyed in his social circles). The published waltzes revel in such brainy amusements. At the most basic level, the simple accompaniments can seem witty, the absolute necessity that their rhythmic propulsion lends to the genre belying their apparent banality. More intricate is the function of harmonic and melodic instability, as in the momentary wobbles caused by chromatic inflections in themes throughout the waltzes, the pervasive whirr of the chromatic background of the main theme in the Waltz in A flat major, Op 42, or the way the principal theme of the Waltz in A flat major, Op 64 No 3, cycles obsessively through as many keys as possible. And perhaps the best example of intellectual play is in the realm of metre. It is striking how, in a genre that is the very epitome of triple time, Chopin writes so many themes that, for periods at least, sound duple. Passages in the E flat major, Op 18, the F major, Op 34 No 3, and the D flat major, Op 64 No 1, tease duple out of triple, and of course the whole principal section of the A flat major Waltz, Op 42, sets a duple melody over a relentlessly triple accompaniment. To perceive the wit in such passages of course requires that we grasp the droll way in which Chopin deploys the simple-minded accompaniment. Chopin’s waltzes render socially engaged humour into a musical concept.

Sometimes Chopin extended this sense of sophisticated play over an entire work. The epitome of this may be the ‘Minute’ Waltz, Op 64 No 1. The nickname is not Chopin’s—he loathed descriptive titles—but the moniker nonetheless conveys something important: the waltz unfolds as if it lasted only a minute. What the clock measures does not matter; we sense the birth and death of a musical world in a seeming instant. In this metaphorical minute, time bends: bars and beats stretch (Chopin’s famous rubato), the outer sections bustle by, the middle section sings. Chopin condenses the whole idea of the dance into a few brief moments.

The waltzes that Chopin left unpublished tend to be less complex than the published waltzes. The forms themselves are often simpler (fewer themes, basic da capo designs). Still, their charms are considerable, and many of the notions he explored in the published waltzes find their ways into the waltzes he presented as gifts or otherwise kept out of the public eye. Thus the principal theme of the D flat major Waltz, Op 70 No 3, probably composed while Chopin still lived in Warsaw, foreshadows the sinuous background chromaticism of the Waltz in A flat major, Op 42. His first surviving waltz, in B minor, Op 69 No 2, plays on the destabilizing qualities of dissonant chromatic notes, heard mostly towards the beginnings of phrases. That the first copy of the piece bears the heading dolente (‘sorrowful’) suggests Chopin’s early affinity to the melancholic side of minor-mode waltzes. And it also draws attention to the larger presence of the minor-mode waltzes among the securely attributed unpublished waltzes (hence, in addition to the B minor Waltz, we also have the E minor, KKIVa/15, the F minor, Op 70 No 2, and the late A minor, KKIVb/11), telling us something, perhaps, about the sentimental tastes of Chopin’s rarefied gift-recipients (though the dramatic flair of the E minor Waltz mitigates against any simple equation between mode and affect).

Two of the waltzes offer unusual, personal testimony of Chopin’s amorous sentiments toward women. In a letter to a friend, Chopin highlighted a climactic expressive passage in the Waltz in D flat major, Op 70 No 3 (unfortunately the manuscript in question does not survive, so we do not know precisely which passage), and attributed its inspiration to the young singer Konstancja Gladkowska. And, as noted above, Chopin appears to have conceived the first version of the Waltz in A flat major, Op 69 No 1, as a gift to Maria Wodzinska. But the unpublished waltzes also capture the joyfulness and glitter of the dance hall and salon, as we can hear in the waltzes in E major, KKIVa/12, A flat major, KKIVa/13 (Chopin’s only waltz notated in three-eight metre), and, especially, in G flat major, Op 70 No 1.

The three remaining works, often ascribed with ‘doubtful attribution’, offer different degrees of hesitation. About the authorship of the Sostenuto in E flat major, KKIVb/10, we can be certain: the sole source for the piece is a manuscript that Chopin entered into the autograph album of Émile Gaillard on 20 July 1840. The uncertainty here concerns the genre, which Chopin did not identify—but this charming album piece certainly fits well in the company of the authentic waltzes. The early twentieth-century Polish biographer Ferdynand Hoesick identified a manuscript of the Waltz in E flat major, KKIVa/14, in the now-lost autograph album of Emilia Elsner; lacking access to this manuscript and therefore the ability to confirm its provenance, some later scholars have questioned the authenticity of the piece on stylistic grounds. And Chopin almost surely did not write the Valse mélancolique in F sharp minor, KKIb/7—but listeners can judge for themselves how well the forger imitated Chopin’s style.

And set amid Chopin’s ruminations in waltz-form on the idea of musical popularity, the Nocturne in E flat major, Op 9 No 2, represents the perfect companion. In this most admired of his nocturnes, we can hear distant echoes of the accompanimental patterns of the waltz, here rendered with greater subtlety, and in the service of lyrical expression.

Jeffrey Kallberg © 2011

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