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Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

Piano Concertos

Ingrid Fliter (piano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Jun Märkl (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Recording details: June 2013
Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland
Produced by John Fraser
Engineered by Philip Hobbs & Robert Cammidge
Release date: February 2014
Total duration: 73 minutes 8 seconds

Cover artwork: Photo of Ingrid Fliter by Anton Dressler

Since winning the silver medal at the 2000 Frederic Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Ingrid has built a reputation as a first-rate Chopin interpreter. Fliter has previously recorded two all-Chopin discs; her interpretation of the complete Chopin Waltzes received several five star reviews and was named as The Daily Telegraph's ‘CD of the Week' and Classic FM Magazine's ‘Editors Choice'.

Chopin's Piano Concerto No 1 is a thoughtfully scored composition that allows the piano to shine. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra's beautifully delicate playing perfectly highlights Fliter's authoritative, yet expressive performance.

Fliter carefully and skilfully showcases the range of tones in Chopin's second piano concerto, from the dramatic introductory chords at the opening of the first movement to the sweetly lyrical second movement where the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's woodwinds vie for centre stage. Fliter is a breathtaking performer whose performance of Chopin's commanding chords and lightening speed runs are effortless.

2014 is the Scottish Chamber Orchestra's fortieth anniversary year, and this new album is its twenty-first recording with Linn.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'The point is, if an artist cannot engage your emotions in the oft-recorded, oft-heard music then they might as well go away and breed chickens. Fliter, by whatever magical means, touches the heart' (Gramophone)

'Fliter’s beautifully considered accounts of the two Chopin concertos … reveal a sensibility of rare emotional refinement and high Romantic instincts' (The Sunday Times)» More

'[Jun Märkl] is a potent partner for Ingrid Fliter, who can make a line sing with the best of them, but who also has a certain inner steeliness, with playing entirely devoid of sentimentality. And her phrasing! That is a thing of immense subtlety and beauty, as is the liquid ease of the more virtuoso passages … overall this is a superb collaborative effort, warmly recorded, that makes this a disc not only for lovers of these pieces but also for anyone who has yet to be convinced of their quality' (Sinfini.com)» More

'Ingrid Fliters brillant-nobles Spiel ist so exquisit farbenreich und agogisch fantasievoll, dass beide Werke von jeglicher Routine befreit wieder als sensible Meisterwerke der Romantik erfahrbar werden' (Fono Forum, Germany)» More

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Composed for piano and orchestra, the Variations had been only the second piece by the teenage prodigy to be published in 1827 (the first, the precocious Rondo in C minor, composed two years earlier when he was just fifteen, a markedly less ambitious piece for solo piano). It was also Chopin’s first work for a pairing that was to become both touchstone and trial for composers eager to make their mark in the middle of the nineteenth century but one that was soon to lose its allure for Chopin himself. Over the course of the next four years he would write three other concertante pieces for the coupling and two piano concertos before abandoning the form altogether. (A mooted third concerto for two pianos never got further than the completion of a first movement which was published in 1841, as the Allegro de Concert for solo piano.)

Indeed, the direction that Chopin was to take in the years of his fast-approaching maturity – a journey into the interior of the heart through the increasingly atomized landscape of the solo piano – could not have been guessed at by the success of the work that had prompted Schumann’s adulation and brought him wider fame. Yet the Variations serve to point to the centrality of two early influences on Chopin – Mozart and opera – that would continue to inform his approach to and ambition for music that became increasingly confined to, and concentrated on, the keyboard.

With the earliest known performance in Warsaw dating back to 1628, opera was already long and well established by the time of Chopin’s youth when it occupied the centre of creative gravity in the city. Its attractions would be felt in other ways too, not least under the guidance of the Silesian-born composer Józef Elsner, Chopin’s piano teacher from 1823 – 29. A respected composer of thirty-eight operas, Elsner was also Music Director of the newly reopened National Theatre from 1799 – 1824 when the repertory was dominated by Polish, French and Italian opera. His pioneering incorporation of traditional Polish folk themes into his own music would also exert a telling influence on his impressionable and nationalistically inclined young pupil.

It’s a matter of idle conjecture, of course, to speculate about what an opera composed by Chopin might have sounded like. Despite his love of the genre he never wrote for the theatre and conspicuously turned his back on the large-scale orchestral form almost as soon as he had begun to entertain and explore it. Yet, one of the most tantalising responses to the piano concertos offers a possible answer to an improbable question: What might an opera without singers sound like? Chopin’s piano concertos, surely, hint at one solution.

Unapologetically romantic in intent, boldly dramatic in execution and shot through with a vividly intense sense of poetry – one that went far beyond the conventional strictures and contemporary expectations of the concerto form at the time of their writing – above all else, Chopin’s piano concertos seem to be driven by a compelling sense of the theatrical, the urge to communicate directly rather than vicariously, and a mercurial desire to imbue the solo instrument with all the technical agility and emotional articulacy of the voice. If the piano was to later adopt a sotto voce tone in Chopin’s exquisitely delicate and intimate nocturnes, in the robustly poetic piano concertos it can be heard singing out with operatic gusto.

Both concertos were composed shortly before Chopin left his native Poland, never to set foot on Polish soil again. Although its later publication earned it the designation of the Piano Concerto No 2, the F minor work was the first to be completed in 1830. Within a year he had finished the E minor Concerto, its early appearance in print seeing it numbered as Piano Concerto No 1.

Both concertos speak of Chopin’s deep, spiritual connection with his Polish roots and a life he was soon to leave behind. The ‘Larghetto’ of the Second Concerto is haunted by memories of unrequited love for a fellow pupil at the Warsaw Conservatory whilst the rhapsodic orchestral introduction of the First, together with the dreamy melancholy of the second movement’s ‘Romanze’, are ripe with twilit nostalgia for ‘a beloved landscape that calls up in one’s soul a thousand happy memories’. The finales of both are solidly built on a foundation of national dance rhythms with a krakowiak in the E minor and a mazurka in the F minor.

By the time of their first performances in Warsaw in 1830 – the Second on 17 March; the First on 11 October – with Chopin himself as soloist on both occasions, he was already a celebrated veteran of the concert hall having first played to a public audience at the age of seven. The concertos had a double purpose beyond any musicological or programmatic considerations Chopin might have entertained. They were intended as both a leave-taking of Poland and a launch pad for his ambitions (albeit soon to be abandoned) as a concert soloist on the wider European stage.

He was nineteen when he began writing the F minor Concerto in the autumn of 1829 (completing it early the following year) and had only recently turned twenty when he began composing the E minor Concerto in April 1830, completing it in August the same year. Both works hint at his fervently held, ‘perhaps overbold but at least not ignoble desire to create a new world for myself’, most strikingly – if controversially – in the relationship between the solo instrument and the orchestra.

As with all youthful creations, Chopin’s concertos easily betray their influences. Undoubtedly, the concertos of Johann Nepomuk Hummel, caught on the cusp between the Classical and Romantic eras, were key in shaping how Chopin conceived his own concertos. But other voices can also be heard, not least those of the Austrian pianist, composer, teacher and piano manufacturer Friedrich Kalkbrenner (to whom Chopin dedicated his First Concerto) and the Irish-born John Field, whose trailblazing nocturnes for solo piano were to prove far more important in Chopin’s later development.

But no less significant, if better disguised, is the influence of Mozart – a veritable god (along with Bach) in Chopin’s private pantheon. (Asked once how he would like to be remembered, he replied: ‘Play Mozart in memory of me’.) Although the ringing immediacy of the bold stile brillante and liquid loquacity of the bel canto style that characterises Hummel’s concertos (and those of Carl Maria von Weber) is recognisably there on the virtuosic surface of Chopin’s concertos, the bedrock of what lies beneath is surely Mozartian. Not least in their adroitly locked-in facility for balancing contrast and continuity and, in what Chopin scholar Jim Samson recognises as ‘Mozart’s delicate equilibrium (and at times creative tension) between the ritornello principle and symphonic thought, and between an almost operatic drama of moods and personae and a concern for structural strength’.

Mozart’s influence had been noted earlier by Schumann – a devoted follower of what Liszt would later describe as ‘not so much the school of Chopin as the church of Chopin’ – when he observed: ‘We may be sure that a genius like Mozart, were he born today, would write concertos like Chopin and not like Mozart’.

After the successful experiment of the Don Giovanni Variations, contained within the relative safety of Mozart’s tried-and-tested original, the concertos found Chopin striking out for something more substantial in scale and ambition. That they were composed so close together suggests that Chopin was willing (albeit within his own conservatively-accented strictures) to extend his interrogation of and experimentation with the piano-and-orchestra form, and this time without the safety net provided by the underpinning of the Variations.

The E minor First Concerto was scored for woodwind in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, tenor trombone, timpani and strings with the piano squarely at its centre. Drenched in nationalistic sentiment – its composition and performance were set against a backdrop of a swelling desire for Polish independence from its Russian masters – it owes a debt to the structural first-movement conceits of Mozart and to the cadenza-free double exposition favoured by Beethoven and Hummel.

By any standards, the opening ‘Allegro maestoso’ movement is a heroic clarion call to action of operatic proportions; the orchestra’s rhapsodic introduction laced with romantic fervour and violins foregrounding a statement of elegantly defiant dignity. The arrival of the piano underlines the nobility of intent, although what is to follow is deliberately at odds with the notion (brought to eloquent perfection by Beethoven) of the piano concerto as a contested dialogue between the solo instrument and orchestra. Whatever the opening statement might imply, the subsequent role of Chopin’s orchestra is to be subservient to the primacy of the piano.

From the off, the First Piano Concerto pays more than mere lip service to Hummel’s famous tutorial of 1828, Ausführliche theoretisch-praktische Anweisung zum Pianofortespiel (‘Detailed theoretical and practical instruction for piano playing’) which promulgated the notion of gesang stellen (‘singing places’) for the solo instrument. If anything, it takes the notion enthusiastically to heart, imbuing the piano with all the weight and worth of a principal voice in opera as a prime interlocutor between the composer and his audience. Evidence of such is surely to be found in the piano’s foray into what David Ewen has described as its treatment of the opening theme to ‘intriguing arabesques and arpeggios’ and its subsequent and brilliant elaborations of the same.

If there were any doubts about the focus of this concerto, they are dispelled by the middle movement, in which muted strings lend diaphanous, jewel-accented support to a sumptuously lyrical melody (whose tone and temperament points to the later nocturnes) voiced by the piano. Chopin’s description of it as a romance – one described in a letter dated 15 May 1830 to his friend Titus Woyciechowski as ‘a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening’ – echoes, possibly unknowingly, Mozart’s titling of the middle movement of his Piano Concerto No 20 in D minor. It’s here, too, that we hear Chopin quietly exalting in the kind of keyboard coloratura effects more commonly associated with flights of soprano ecstasy in opera.

The finale takes the form of an energetic rondo. The spirited opening theme is introduced by strings and answered by soft woodwinds before the piano assumes the guise of the krakowiak dance form drawn from the peasant music of Poland’s ancient Kraków region. It is almost immediately taken up by the orchestra much like an opera chorus might enlarge upon a vocal aria.

But if the orchestra is subordinated to the fresh vitality of the piano in this movement, it acquits itself nonetheless with selfless regard for the agile acrobatics of the solo instrument, ebbing where it flows, flowing when it ebbs. The result is a satisfying coherent shifting and pulling of focus that moves seamlessly through a sequence of vigorous but effortlessly supple scale passages towards a commandingly dramatic denouement.

The piano and orchestra in the F minor Second Concerto is arguably less integrated than in the First Concerto, which more explicitly embraced the stile brillante championed by Hummel and Weber. Here, the piano is even more unabashedly the point and purpose of proceedings with everything designed to place it firmly centre stage in a manner that calls to mind an opera orchestra’s spotlighting of a leading tenor or soprano.

Certainly the piano carries itself with all the élan of the bel canto style found in the operas of Chopin’s contemporaries Rossini and Bellini (another of his idols). The result is a solo part that is allowed to sing with loquacious eloquence in passages of high-flying rhapsody and long, loose-limbed lyricism.

The first movement opens with the sort of double exposition shared by piano and orchestra – the initial theme heralded by strings, a second introduced by solo oboe and echoed by first violins – typical of Hummel. (More characteristic of Chopin himself is the dotted rhythm figure that introduces the Concerto, a device that was to become a signature element in much of his later work.) But it’s those twin themes in the orchestral passage that the piano lights upon with an almost gleefully inventive rhetorical relish. What follows is a dazzling display of pianistic coloratura noticeably richer and more resonant than the comparably understated middle movement of the E minor Concerto.

As with that work, the middle movement of the Second Concerto is a ‘larghetto’. Immediately obvious is the influence of Italian opera in an extended nocturne in which the highly wrought arioso-like writing for the piano encourages it to sing with a lachrymose intensity worthy of its lovelorn and seemingly unobtainable inspiration, Chopin’s fellow Warsaw Conservatory student, the soprano Konstancja Gładkowska.

‘Six months have elapsed,’ he wrote tremulously to a friend in 1829, ‘and I have not yet exchanged a syllable with her of whom I dream about every night. While my thoughts were with her, I composed the Adagio for my concerto.’

The intensity of that unrealised love is underlined by the greater role given to the orchestra (most strikingly in the intimate counterpointed commentary of the bassoons towards the end) and by the opulent lyricism of the piano writing throughout, distinguished by supple melodies, sensual ornamentations, radiant sonorities and a central section that carries itself with all the ardent passion of an operatic recitative.

In effect an extended rondo, the infectious finale returns us to a more solid and rewarding love, that of Chopin’s for his native Poland, the energy and brilliance of its mazurka-like theme in the opening piano passage echoed by a second subject that also has dance-like vivacity. The late flourish of col legno strings and subsequent dramatic shift from minor to major key heralded by solo horn notwithstanding, the piano dictates here, returning with due theatrical appropriateness to assume centre stage again as it races towards and through a virtuosic coda. A dramatic orchestral flourish brings the curtain down on a work that seems to rousingly answer the earlier query: this is what an opera without singers might sound like.

Michael Quinn © 2014

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