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Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

Piano Sonatas

Artur Pizarro (piano)
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Recording details: June 2004
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: February 2006
Total duration: 77 minutes 10 seconds

Artur Pizarro's second Chopin album, following on from his hugely successful 'Reminiscences' album, about which The Herald commented: 'some of the finest Chopin playing on record'.


'Winner of the 1990 Leeds piano competition, the versatile Portuguese-American pianist Artur Pizarro made some fine Beethoven recordings for Linn before turning to Chopin with a collection of favourite solo works entitled 'Reminiscences'. Now he brings his energy, passion and refinement to the harmonically complex Barcarolle, and true virtuoso panache to the Variations brillantes. Romantic music comes naturally to Pizarro; his delicate touch and sense of lyrical line in the second and third sonatas are as elegant and assured as these wonderful works demand' (The Observer)

'Yet it is hard not to be swept along by his torrential but sensitively voiced Chopin interpretations. It is like Chopin played by Liszt. There is a wide variety of colour and touch (as well as a huge energy)—the Second Sonata's funeral march exceptionally austere, its opening movement clangorous and impulsive. The B minor sonata (Op 58)—Chopin at the peak of his genius—is done with a driving force that yet allows its melodic inspirations rich scope' (The Sunday Times)

'When Artur Pizarro released his first Chopin CD (Reminiscences) on Linn Records, the clarity of his playing came as a revelation. It shouldn't have, because that particular characteristic of this distinguished pianist was already well-established. Something special, clearly, was going on. And it continues in his latest Chopin collection, which includes the second and third sonatas. Though Pizarro catches all the epic qualities and heroic elements in the second sonata, his playing is entirely free of bluster and rhetoric. It is so clear in its detail it is almost transparent. In the great funeral march there is nothing portentous, just sheer poetry, and the tender lyricism he finds in the middle section will break your heart. By comparison, the third sonata is a dramatic tour de force, with physical power and intellectual command the hallmarks of a very superior performance. A highly collectable disc from an outstanding pianist' (The Herald)

'Listen to Artur Pizarro play the same sonata [No 2]. Here the architectural structure is evident and the musicality never in question. His brilliant rendition of the early Variations brillantes and Barcarolle on his new disc is on par with the greatest Chopin interpreters. The majestic Sonata No 3 can hardly be bettered and with the fine natural recorded sound this could very well be the Chopin release of the year' (Pianist)

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The Romantic period in music is often commonly understood as a relatively continuous evolution in style stretching from Beethoven’s last years until the beginning of the 20th century. In typical time delay, however, the beginning of exploration of the romantic sensitivity and aesthetic goals applied to music virtually coincided with the end of that stylistic current in the literature, where the music had found its inspiration in the early 19th century. As this was the era of the foundation of many music conservatories in Europe, where, for educational purposes, the practice of the previous—classical—era was codified, there was a need to define the current meaning of the term 'sonata', its principal form, both as a four-movement form and in its more restricted reference to the first movements of sonatas, symphonies and chamber music forms such as the string quartet. Music theorists began to refer to the sonata as an ideal in music and subsequently the word 'sonata' was used regarding the musical form as well as particular works. This led to the 19th-century theory notion of the 'sonata principle' according to which a symphony was understood as a 'sonata for orchestra'.

The 'sonata principle' was described in gender-biased terms as one of opposition between two groups of themes, where the characteristic of the first theme was 'masculine', that is energetic and rhythmic and the second theme was based more on vocal melody, and therefore considered 'feminine'. For many influential theoreticians, such as Wagner, the implied contrast represented the core of the tension necessary to develop musical material in a coherent form. Particularly the first movement of the form, known as 'Sonata-Allegro', had been the subject of theoretical works and was seen as the most important aspect of compositional technique. In consequence, 19th-century composers were taught to favour this form over others.

The formal plan for writing sonatas largely did away with the monothematic exposition, more common at the time than nowadays recognized, and the two theme groups were expected to contrast in character. It is only understandable that Romantic composers frequently found themselves torn between the freedom of poetical expression and the rigour of formal design, although later Romantic theory even proposed that the 'sonata principle' should be applied to all the movements of a 'sonata-form' work. The theoretical explanation of differences between the three and the four movement layouts was that the 'concerto' (considered 'Italianate') was laid out in three movements, and the 'symphony' (considered 'German') in four, the latter being the superior layout. Chopin’s three piano sonatas, for example, follow the 'symphonic layout', and because the 'sonata' concept now referred to the layout of the whole work, theoreticians would often feel the need to rationalize the use of the word, as was the case of J W Davison, in his The Works of Fredrick Chopin (1843): 'Such are the impressions to which we are subject under the influence of this wonderful work—a very triumph of musical picturing—a conquest over what would seem it be unconquerable—viz.—the mingling of the physical and metaphysical in music—the sonata representing a dual picture … the battle of the actual elements and the conflict of human passions—the first for the multitude, the last for the initiated.'

Following the trend established by Beethoven and the parallels between Romantic poetry and music, the focus became more and more on the development section, and terms such as 'rhapsody' and 'tone poem' entered music. The sonatas of the Romantic period reflect the variety of personal and rising national styles, while generally falling into two categories: those by composers such as Schubert, Chopin, Schumann and Brahms expand the traditional form while still adhering to its principles; the other category includes works more experimental in nature and in form, such as both sonatas by Liszt. A widely held view maintains, however, that the sonata is a quintessential reflection of the Classical style only and that it hindered spontaneous musical development afterwards. Indeed, if one were to compare Mozart’s and Beethoven’s total sonata output (70 and 55 sonatas, respectively) with the next generation’s significantly—in numbers, at least—scarcer contribution (13 by Mendelssohn, 8 by Schumann and Brahms, 4 by Chopin and 2 by Liszt), the most obvious explanation would be that the composers were gradually abandoning the form since it stifled their freedom and natural development of the musical material. However, an alternative interpretation of these figures might find the reason for the decrease in the rising relative importance of a sonata in a composer’s opus: as indicated by Rosen, after Beethoven the sonata was the vehicle of the sublime and symbolised greatness just as the fugue did craftsmanship, raising therefore the level of responsibility of the composer. The task was being made more difficult by the contemporary critics’ contention that Romantic composers were inexperienced in handling complex structures and development procedures, and incapable of conceiving large organic wholes—in comparison to the Classical greats, that is. This situation culminated at one point in Schumann’s declaration of the death of the sonata. Amusingly enough, he backtracked a few years later, lamenting that now everyone was writing miniatures and that there was a need for larger forms, such as sonatas, symphonies and string quartets (needless to say, all of them employing the sonata principle). Because of the relative formal restrictions, however, most composers returned to the original formal layout rather than continuing the exploration and development of the form. Therefore, although the notion of sonata was for the most part of its existence intrinsically related to tonal harmony (where it could be defined in terms of key groups and conclusive tonal cadences), even the gradual weakening, and then loss, of tonal functionality in the 20th century did not lessen the importance of the tradition of the 'sonata idea' or do away with the use of the term 'sonata'.

After a juvenile (written for his teacher Elsner as a compositional problem), monothematic but procedurally encumbered attempt (Sonata Op 4 in C minor), Chopin’s Second and Third Sonata show clearly the complexity of the Romantic approach to sonata: although their formal plan and the application of thematic procedures related to Austro-German tradition can clearly be associated with the past model, Chopin’s musical language and expression add a very distinctive quality and individuality to these works. His language was formed by the influences of the concert and salon music of the early 19th century and enriched by genres such as the keyboard works by J S Bach and Italian opera arias (his melodic lines having been defined as ornamental in nature). The formal modifications Chopin made to the classical model result in Romantic sonatas with intensified contrasts and multiple changes of rhythm and tempi, often even within individual movements. The most notable formal difference is that a scherzo appears as the second movement and the third movement is slow (something Beethoven has also done after the Sonata Op 26), while the overall contrast between those movements is more pronounced than in classical sonatas. The French pianist Alfred Cortot saw the most important shift from Beethoven’s to Chopin’s sonatas as the shift from inspiration by the ideals of universality to the suffusion of the music by the composer’s personal feelings and emotions.The Sonata in B flat minor, Op 35, was written in 1839 and published the following year. Unusually, Chopin initially approved the 'Sonata funébre' title, but later took out the adjective in the 3rd French edition. He described the work in an August 1839 letter to Julian Fontana thus: 'Here I am writing a Sonata in B flat minor, containing the march that you know. There is an allegro, then a Scherzo in E flat minor, the march and short finale, perhaps 3 of my pages; the left hand in unison with the right, gossiping after the march.' As is apparent from this remark, the Funeral March was composed earlier, probably in 1837, as witnessed by an album leaf containing the first eight bars of the Trio and dated 'Paris, 28 September 1837'. This movement was orchestrated by Henri Reber to be played in the Madeleine’s Church in Paris at Chopin’s own funeral in October 1849. The other three movements were concluded in the summer of 1839, in George Sand’s manor house at Nohant, right after their return from Majorca. While quickly gaining popularity, the work was misunderstood by critics from the very beginning. Thus, while Anton Rubinstein called the piece 'Death poem', Robert Schumann was baffled by it, admitting it possessed beauty, but apparently misunderstanding its musical ideas and the structure, since he referred to it as 'four of Chopin’s maddest children under the same roof' and to the last movement, devoid of melody and clear key, as 'a jeer, but not music'. There was something of a tradition of belittling Chopin’s attempts at sonata form in general, and here it was centred in particular in the apparent lack of relationship between the two halves of the piece—a view that has since been rebuffed by 20th-century analysts. Chopin’s student Wilhelm von Lenz wrote: 'Nothing is easier than to reduce this trio to the tritest platitude, nothing more difficult than to raise its melodic spell to the level of the sorrow that hangs over the whole poem which this Funeral March is … This trio is a touchstone for recognizing whether the performer is a poet or merely a pianist; whether he can tell a story or merely play the piano.' It has been suggested that this sonata was modelled on Beethoven’s Sonata Op 26 in A flat major, also known as the 'Funeral march', which Chopin often played and taught.

The creative process involved in writing a large-scale work must have been very taxing for Chopin, who, as witnessed by George Sand, was often going through true torment while arriving at a final solution for even the most minute detail: 'His creation was spontaneous, miraculous. He found it without searching for it, without foreseeing it. It came to his piano suddenly, complete, sublime, or it sang in his head during a walk, and he would hasten to hear it again by, tossing it off on his instrument. But then would begin the most heartbreaking labour I have ever witnessed. It was a series of efforts, indecision, and impatience to recapture certain details of the theme he had heard: what had come to him all of a piece, he now over-analyzed in his desire to write it down, and his regret at not finding it again ‘neat,’ as he said, would throw him into a kind of despair. He would shut himself up in his room for days at a time, weeping, pacing, breaking his pens, repeating and changing a single measure a hundred times, writing it and effacing it with equal frequency, and beginning again the next day with a meticulous and desperate perseverance. He would spend six weeks on one page, only to end up writing it just as he had traced it in his first outpouring.' On some occasions, Chopin revisions were so extensive, even after a work had been published, that he would ask his publisher to print the updated version of it. While taking into account his habit of issuing his pieces with slight text differences almost simultaneously in France, England, and one of the German-speaking states (thus increasing his income and reducing the chance of piracy), that must have certainly been the true reason why Troupenas published a total of four separate impressions of its French edition of this Sonata.

Written five years after the Second Sonata and published in 1845, the Sonata in B minor, Op 58, lies on the other side of the transition period that many see as pivotal in Chopin’s life. This work was completed a few months after the Berceuse, and was written in times of tranquillity and relatively good health. The largest of all of Chopin’s works for piano solo, it represents—together with the Fantasie and the 4th Ballade—the apotheosis of his creativity. Its first movement is characterised by the pervasive use of imitative passages in truly polyphonic musical thinking. Vincent d’Indy called its extensive development section 'a true exercise of a student who has firmly decided to write a development, because that is the habit, but all logic is carefully avoided'. The Scherzo is a veritable study of light-fingered dexterity but its fleeting arabesques make one oblivious of technical requirements. Bruce Hungerford recounted an anecdote told by Ernest Hutcheson who, on one occasion, had attended a recital in Carnegie Hall by Leopold Godowsky and was sitting in a box next to Josef Hofmann. The B minor Sonata was on the program and as Godowsky began the Scherzo, Hofmann leaned over and whispered to Hutcheson, 'Too fast!' 'Then,' continued Mr. Hutcheson, 'a week or so later I was at a recital by Josef Hofmann, also in Carnegie Hall, and also on the programme was the B minor Sonata. Sitting next to me was Godowsky. As Hofmann began the second movement Godowsky leaned towards me and muttered, ‘Too fast!’'

The introduction of Largo opens with majestic punctuated rhythm in unison, suggesting a march played by low brass, which is then balanced by chords suggesting full orchestration. A lyrical and yet declamatory theme is accompanied by the continuous punctuated pulsation in the bass that, in its next appearance, changes to suggest a barcarole. The suggestiveness of the theme’s operatic grandiloquence and of the conclusive calmness is unparalleled. The last movement follows the formal structure of the first one, and its natural flow and spontaneous lyricism are not restricted by the complexity of motivic development and the well-defined form. Its incessant, almost obsessive, momentum that increases with each presentation of the theme breaks out as an overwhelming force of nature in the coda, with an intensity that is hard to match in the piano literature. It is reported that Liszt used to play the last, exalted, invocation of the theme with the middle finger, supported by the thumb and index finger, to give it a vibrant and metallic sonority.

In May 1833 Chopin heard Louis Joseph Ferdinand Herold’s (1791–1833) opera Ludovic, finished by Hálevy. The Variations brillantes “Je vends des Scapulaires” Op 12, based on the homonymous aria from the opera, are Chopin’s final variation set and a virtual farewell to the virtuoso style cherished in Paris. Written after the early nocturnes and etudes and in the year he wrote his first ballade, it almost represents a regression or a final concession to the bravura stile brillante, so much clichéd—in particular in variation form—that it entered dictionaries as such: 'First there are simple quavers and triplets, then arpeggios, syncopations and octaves, without forgetting the adagio in the relative mode and the tempo di polacca' (Castil-Blaze, Dictionnaire de Musique Moderne, 1825). Although Arthur Loesser called it 'a masterpiece in its own way', already at the time Schumann called it 'writing à la mode' and thought that 'they belong altogether to the drawing-room or concert-hall, and … are far removed from any poetic sphere'. This piece, together with Bolero and Rondo, Op 16, represents Chopin’s last attempt at such conventional and fairly anonymous writing that perpetrated the tradition of contemporary concert-hall crowd pleasers. Nevertheless, Franz Liszt apparently referred to the set as Chopin’s favourite piece of his own, commenting after hearing Chopin play it for himself: 'Such a poetic temperament as Chopin’s never existed, nor have I ever heard such delicacy and refinement of playing. The tone, though small, was absolutely beyond criticism, and although his execution was not forcible, nor by any means fitted for the concert room, still it was perfect in the extreme.'

Called 'the most beautiful nocturne of all' by A Hedley, 'ravishing' by J Rink, 'messianic' by K Stromenger and 'stunning' by H Leichentritt, Chopin’s Barcarolle was also greatly admired by artists such as von Bülow and was found by M. Ravel to be 'the synthesis of the expressive and sumptuous art of this great Slav', and to express 'languor in excessive joy' by A Gide. The Barcarolle represents a case in point of Chopin’s ornamental genius. Ravel wrote: 'Chopin was not content merely to revolutionize piano technique. His figurations are inspired. Through his brilliant passages one perceives profound, enchanting harmonies. Always there is the hidden meaning which is translated into poetry of intense despair.'

Chopin may have begun his work on the Barcarolle because he suddenly found himself with time on his hands, an idea of a trip to Italy in the autumn of 1845 having been cancelled due to the opposition of George Sand’s son, Maurice. The work carried over into the next year, which is when the piece was finalized and published.

Originally the typical song of Venetian gondoliers, the barcarolle was often used in the Romantic period due to its exotic ambience and the 6/8 or 12/8 lilting rhythm. J Chantavoine suggested that Chopin’s Barcarolle may have been a result of George Sand’s stories about Venice. Chopin constructed it formally as one of his nocturnes, in three sections, where the middle one draws particularly on the boat-song 12/8 rhythm and imagery. Harmonically, it is one of his most advanced works and it also explores trills in a way that Beethoven has done in his late sonatas. In a 1933 article published in Warsaw, J Iwaszkiewicz even suggests that it represents a landscape, which Chopin depicted 'painting it impressionistically', adding 'its water and forest do not have clear contours'.

Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that the work received considerable attention from Debussy and Ravel. Debussy’s student, Madame Gérarde de Romilly, reported that the piece was Debussy’s favourite, indicating that 'the way in which he explained and analysed this piece was something special'. In addition, some similarities between this piece and Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse were identified by the Chopin scholar Jim Samson. Ravel’s comments on the piece, published in Le Courier Musical in 1910, give an extremely condensed and apt synopsis: 'In the Barcarolle glowing harmonies clothe the subject, fl exible and subtle in thirds. The melodic line is constant. In one moment, the ‘melopoeia’ disappears, it is suspended and then re-created delicately, softly, tempted by magical accords. The intensity increases. The new subject erupts, full of splendid lyricism, thoroughly Italian. Everything calms down. From the depth, a quick luminous trail rises and floats shimmering above the refined and tender chords. Some mysterious apotheosis comes to mind.'

Charles Hallé, a friend of the composer, was present at Chopin’s very last Paris recital, in 1848, and reported that the already frail author played the Barcarolle 'from the point when it demands the utmost energy, in the opposite way, pianissimo, but with such wonderful nuances that one remained in doubt if this new rendering were not preferable to the accustomed one'.

Robert Andres © 2005

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