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After the overwhelming success of her Linn debut Ingrid Fliter has proven herself an outstanding Chopin interpreter; her recording of the Chopin Piano Concertos was named ‘Disc of the Week' by BBC Radio 3 ‘CD Review', ‘Album of the Week' by Classic FM, a ‘Choice' recording by Gramophone and received many five star reviews.
Chopin's Preludes achieve something close to perfection of form within the framework of the miniature, and each has its own melodic, harmonic and rhythmic profile. Fellow pianist and composer Franz Liszt perhaps best summed up the appeal of Op 28: ‘They are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet, who cradles the soul in golden dreams …'
Completing the programme are two Nocturnes and five Mazurkas, both genres that Chopin defined.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
There is some evidence that Chopin may occasionally have used his own preludes as introductions to his larger compositions, but this was not his normal practice. Mainly he performed them as self-contained works, individually or in small groups, and for this reason we can reasonably claim that he re-defined the generic term. The Op 28 cycle consists of a succession of miniatures of great emotional power and unrivalled artistic quality. They retain an outward similarity to traditional collections of preludes, in their tonal sequence, epigrammatic dimensions, monothematicism and openness of form, but they actually initiate a quite separate tradition of concert preludes that would be further developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Unlike their predecessors, Chopin’s preludes demand to be treated as ‘works’ of weight and significance rather than as written-out improvisations, and they achieve something close to perfection of form within the framework of the miniature, the relationship of substance to scale expertly gauged. Contemporaries were confused by this departure from tradition, and not only contemporaries: ‘I must admit that I do not wholly understand the title that Chopin chose to give these short pieces’, was André Gide’s comment. ‘Preludes to what?’, he went on to ask.
As far as we can tell, most of the Op 28 preludes were composed in Paris during 1838, and the cycle was completed during the ill-fated winter of 1838–9 that Chopin spent on Majorca with the novelist George Sand. A piano had been sent to the island expressly for the purpose, and on 22 January 1839 Chopin was able to write to Camille Pleyel: ‘I am sending you my Préludes. I finished them on your little piano, which arrived in the best possible condition in spite of the sea, the bad weather and the Palma customs.’ It is no doubt significant that Chopin took the Well-Tempered Clavier with him to Majorca, for that great work provides the most helpful context for his own cycle. Much of the figuration in Chopin’s preludes has origins in JS Bach. There are moto perpetuo patterns, as in Nos 11 (a kind of three-part invention), 14 and 19; subtly constructed figurations that allow linear elements to emerge through the pattern, as in the ‘trill’ motives of Nos 1 and 5; characteristic contrapuntal figures made up of discrete though interactive particles, as in Nos 1 and 8; and bolder contrapuntal polarities, as in the dialogue of melody and ‘singing’ bass in No 9, or the dual function of the bass as harmonic support and melodic (polyphonic) line in No 6. All this is part of a larger debt to Bach the contrapuntalist. But formally, too, the preludes evoke Baroque practice: by crystallizing a single Affekt in a single pattern and unfolding either in a ternary design (Nos 15 and 17) or as a simple statement with conflated response (Nos 3 and 12).
Each prelude of Op 28 is itself a whole, with its own Affekt, its own melodic, harmonic and rhythmic profile, and even its own generic character: thus at various times Chopin invokes the nocturne (No 13), étude (No 16), mazurka (No 7), funeral march (No 2) and elegy (No 4). Yet at the same time, the individual preludes make up a single over-arching whole, a real cycle that is enriched by the complementary characters of its components and integrated by the special logic of their ordering. From a purely formal viewpoint, that ordering is determined above all by the tonal scheme. But arguments have been ventured for a deeper unity based on motivic links between the preludes, extensive enough to justify describing the work in its entirety as an extended, organically conceived cycle. Whatever the truth of that, Op 28 remains an utterly unique achievement, albeit one with a legacy. Later composers were happy to follow Chopin’s lead in broadening the generic meaning of the prelude, as in the sets by Scriabin, Fauré, Rachmaninov and Szymanowski. Of special significance are the two books of preludes by Debussy, the composer who, more than any other, translated Chopin’s achievement into the language of twentieth-century pianism, just as Chopin himself had translated Bach’s equal-voiced counterpoint into what Carl Schachter once aptly called a ‘free, idiomatically pianistic counterpoint’.
The redefinition of genre in Op 28 was not an isolated phenomenon in Chopin’s output. It was his achievement to give generic authority to an emergent, early nineteenth-century piano repertory, crystallizing the meanings of some existing titles, and transforming the meanings of others. This was even true of the mazurka, the genre that appears to run most continuously right through Chopin’s creative life. He himself signalled a break between the mazurkas composed in Warsaw and Op 6, the first set he composed after leaving Poland in 1830, and the first he allowed to be published. By presenting Op 6 as a set of four pieces, he consolidated the genre, and in a sense defined it for art music. He even spelt out that these pieces were ‘not for dancing’, which tells us something about how he viewed his earlier mazurkas. From Op 6 onwards, Chopin thought of the mazurka not as a functional genre, but as an occasion both for sophisticated dialogues between so-called ‘folk music’ (note the folk ornamentation in the trio of No 1) and contemporary art music, and for compositional innovation and subjective expression. It is not far-fetched to view Op 6 as the first canonic repertory of European nationalism.
From this set onwards, Chopin carved out for the mazurka a special corner within his output: it had a singular repertory of technical devices and a singular expressive content, one that linked (by implication) his inner emotional world to the spirit of the nation. His usual practice was to gather several mazurkas into a single opus, and the grouping is never arbitrary. If these are not fully integrated cycles, the pieces in an opus were at least conceived as mutually compatible. Op 17, written in Paris in 1833, is a case in point. Folk models are especially apparent in the second and third pieces (note the high-tessitura ‘piping’ in Op 17 No 2), while the outer pieces act as a stabilizing frame. The expressive and structural weight of the fourth and final piece gives the set a real sense of closure. This is a kujawiak (a slow regional dance), and its expressive character derives from its tonal ambiguities and also from the nocturne-like ornamental variation of the main theme; only in the trio does the folk model emerge into the foreground.
The three mazurkas of Op 50, a product of Chopin’s second summer at George Sand’s country manor in Nohant (1842), register a more general change of direction in his music in the early 1840s. Of course we can still identify the origins of these pieces in familiar regional dances, but Chopin’s growing interest in contrapuntal methods in his later years often forced such models well into the background. Indeed, there can even be an apparent incongruity in the appearance of strict imitative counterpoint, as at the opening of Op 50 No 3, in the context of a dance piece. The complex harmonies of these later mazurkas are also easily relatable to Chopin’s late style. Again Op 50 No 3 is a case in point, and especially in its impassioned development section, where the intensity is built up by means of a model and sequence-technique whose chromatic part-movement within an enharmonic continuum foreshadows Wagner.
Following the ambition of Op 50, and of the next two sets of mazurkas (Op 56 and Op 59), there is a marked change of direction in the evolution of Chopin’s mazurkas. The last complete set, the three of Op 63, was composed in 1846. Here he returned to the simpler outlines and more modest dimensions of his early mazurkas, as indeed he did again in the two mazurkas composed a year or two later and published posthumously as Op 67 Nos 2 and 4. Nor is this the only sign in Chopin’s final compositions of a reflective glance back to the Warsaw period: along with their simpler outlines, these later mazurkas bring the folk model back a little closer to centre stage, as in the ‘exotic’ modality of the middle section of Op 63 No 3. There is an attractive symbolism about this return to Polish roots, as also about the fact that Chopin’s last completed composition was almost certainly a mazurka, albeit not the one wrongly so described by a host of later commentators.
Chopin was certainly not the first to write piano nocturnes, but it is with his name that the genre title is most clearly associated. Indeed for some, it is in the nocturnes that we find the very essence of his style. The idea of vocal imitation, whether of the French romance or the Italian aria, is essential to the nocturne idiom, and the developing style was facilitated (indeed enabled) technically by the development of the sustaining pedal. This made possible that widespread accompaniment to a vocally inspired ornamental melody that we recognize today as the archetype of the style. At its best, it presents us with a kind of fusion of melody and ornamentation, a texture in which the melody is on the one hand entwined in ornaments but on the other seeking to free itself from them.
Although published in the early 1830s, the three nocturnes of Op 9 were probably composed just after Chopin left Poland in 1830, and they defined and formalized the genre for him, rather as Op 6 and Op 7 did for the mazurka. The alternation of an ornamental ‘aria’ and a sequentially developing ‘theme’, already present in Op 9 No 3, was to become one of the standard patterns, and we find it again in Op 27 No 2. In this great nocturne, composed in 1835, there are two alternating melodies, of which the first is aria-like, elaborated with an ever more expressive ornamentation but remaining essentially static (if music can ever be static). The energy and momentum is provided by the second, stanzaic melody, which is developmental in character. Here the ornamentation is not so much an expressive enhancement of the melody as a means of driving the music in a dynamic and evolutionary way towards its major tension points. Op 27, incidentally, marked an intriguing change in how Chopin presented this genre to the world. From this point onwards, he published his nocturnes in contrasted pairs rather than in groups of three, giving greater weight to the individual pieces within an opus but at the same time preserving a sense of their mutual compatibility.
Jim Samson © 2014