Together with the Barcarolle, the Polonaise-Fantaisie, and the second and third sonatas, the Fourth Ballade represents the summit of Chopin’s art. The tentative start is haunting and suggestive and was once beautifully described by the critic Joan Chissell as bringing the same sense of wonder that a blind person, if granted the gift of sight, might feel on discovering the world’s beauty for the first time. The principal, highly Slavonic theme is closely related to the first of Chopin’s Trois Nouvelles Études (1839), the second of the opus 25 Études and surely provided an inspiration for Liszt’s La Leggierezza (1848; all four works are in the key of F minor). It returns twice bejewelled, and the second subject’s appearance in B flat and the return of the opening in A flat never disrupt the music’s self-generating momentum. An aerial cadenza and a canonic treatment of the first subject bear eloquent witness to Chopin’s increasing veneration for Bach, and the build-up and the pianissimo chords announcing a coda of the most fiery intricacy are as remarkable as anything in Chopin. They remind us simultaneously of his capacity for large-scale heroics and for the most intimate and hauntingly distinctive confidences.
from notes by Bryce Morrison © 2004