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According to Schumann at least two of the Ballades (Nos 2 and 3) were inspired by the nationalist poetry of Chopin’s compatriot Adam Mickiewicz. But Schumann’s assumption that the Ballades are programmatic is misleading. Chopin was patriotic but he was hardly a conscious propagandist, and whatever relation the Third Ballade, for example, has to Mickiewicz’s ‘Undine’ is general rather than exact. Chopin’s genius could be prompted but hardly contained by such a specific source.
The limitation of such literary parallels is immediately apparent at the start of the First Ballade. Remarkable when first written, the opening musical arch seems scarcely less original today. The rapid loss of confidence after such a resplendent introduction and the transformation of the subdued first and second subjects into outbursts of passionate declamation and song could never be reduced to a satisfying verbal equivalent, however subtle or distinguished. The cadences which conclude each phrase of the first subject are left unresolved and it takes a lengthy and agitated elaboration to resolve such unease in the assuaging second subject in E flat major. However, the music remains pensive and wistful, and only a further and triumphant shift into A major fully erases all doubts and questions. Blazing octaves lead to a capricious waltz-like variation, mischievously spiced and syncopated before a sudden descent returns us to both the principal subjects. These culminate in a coda introduced Il più forte possibile and marked Presto con fuoco. Ricocheting figuration leads to boiling scales and dramatic, recitative-like interjections before a plunge reinforced with grace notes and a mixture of contrary motion and unison octaves.
from notes by Bryce Morrison © 2004
Other albums featuring this work
Eileen Joyce – The complete Parlophone & Columbia solo recordings
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