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Frederic Chopin: Ballades

Thursday, May 20th, 2010 by Martin Hester

Chopin

Frederic Chopin: 4 Ballades
Krystian Zimerman, piano. Deutsche Grammophon 423090-2

200 years since Chopin’s birth
Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was born on 1 March 1810, in the village of Zelazowa Wola in Poland, to a French father and Polish mother. Frederic’s musical talent was apparent very early, and by age 7 he had written two Polonaises. He had a piano tutor from age 6 to 12 (who then said there was no more he could teach him). In the autumn of 1826, he began studying the theory of music and composition at the Warsaw High School of Music (but didn’t take the piano classes!). At the end of his third year, the principal Elsner wrote in a report “Chopin, Fryderyk, third year student, amazing talent, musical genius”. Then he was already writing extended piano works, such as the Variations on a theme of Mozart Op.2, and works for piano and instruments.

He began to travel abroad with friends, and in 1829 gave a concert in Vienna, with great success – and the Variations were published there in 1830.

On another trip abroad in 1830, he was cut off from his homeland by the revolution in Warsaw against Russian dominance, but he eventually went to Paris where, after the Revolution was put down, he joined a large group of expatriate Poles. In Paris, his reputation as an artist grew rapidly. By 1832, his main income came from giving piano lessons to the Polish and French aristocracy, and Parisian salons were his favourite place for performances. In a friendly, intimate group of listeners he disclosed the full scale of his pianistic talents.(Ah me, no portable recorders or video cameras at that time!)

In 1835, he became engaged to a Polish girl, but her family broke it off out of concerns about Chopin’s health. In the summer of 1838, he entered into a close liaison with Aurore Lucille Dupin, a well-known writer under the name George Sand. She was older by six years, a divorcee with two children, and offered the lonely artist what he missed most from the time when he left Warsaw – tenderness, warmth and maternal care. They spent the winter of 1838/1839 on the Spanish island of Majorca, where Chopin became gravely ill, showing symptoms of tuberculosis.

In the summer of 1839, they went to Aurore’s house in Nohant in France, where his health recovered. When they returned to Paris in the winter, they shared a house at 16 rue Pigalle, and from Nov 1842 they lived in adjacent buildings at 80 rue Taitbout, spending summers in Nohant together until 1846. This relationship is shown in a recent Polish film Chopin: Desire for love, which is apparently historically quite accurate; It shows the pressure on the relationship from Chopin’s artistic temperament, the jealousy of the son about his mother’s regard, and the daughter’s being in love with Chopin herself! But through this period Chopin wrote most of his major works, today regarded as pinnacles of writing for the piano. After the relationship broke up 1847, so did Chopin’s health and his artistic output, and he died in 1849.

From his brief life of 39 years, Chopin left us 4 Ballades, 27 Études, 67 Mazurkas, 25 Nocturnes, 26 Preludes, 16 Polonaises, 4 Scherzos, 3 Sonatas, 20 Waltzes, 31 other works for the piano, 19 songs, 4 Chamber works, and 6 works for piano and orchestra, including the two Concertos. (This listing includes works published posthumously).

The step change
As a writer for the piano, Chopin followed Mozart and Beethoven, while Schubert was 13 years younger. However, Liszt, Schumann and Mendelssohn were almost exact contemporaries and they knew each other well, while Brahms was a generation later. Importantly too, the technology of piano building was advancing fast, with Pleyel and Erard in Paris making pianos of greater sonority, perfecting the hammer mechanism and the sustaining pedal. Now we are so familiar with Chopin’s music, and the way the piano can be used, it is difficult to recognize the tremendous leap forward made by his compositions. But there is no doubt of the wonder and admiration they caused at the time. Chopin’s themes were interesting, sometimes of a touching delicate beauty; his sense of harmony and of making changes in harmony was very advanced – he moves between the harmonic keys like walking in a flowery meadow, going from one to the other without shock or harshness. His embellishments, sometimes putting eleven notes in the right against six in the left hand – or 17 or 24 – or running all the way up the piano and coming back – don’t lose sight of the theme. But sometimes the music develops into runs, where the right starts a rapid pattern up and down, while the left hits the bass notes and then strong chords, or joins the right in runs up and down the whole range of the piano. Then crashing chords, octaves in both hands….. And somehow these impressive gymnastics have an emotion which speaks directly to us, and are constrained within a formal structure which is easy to follow. His strong passages seem to be heroic and heartfelt, rather than hurting, and his soft quiet melodies noble rather than saccharine.

His music is, generally, very difficult to play, although there are simpler and very fine pieces there; but his major works are a major challenge, requiring the very highest level of mastery of the piano. But the pieces are there, a challenge to greatness, and through the years outstanding exponents of Chopin have become world famous through their interpretations – I myself have a particular regard for Rubinstein, Horowitz, and Ashkenazy – but today there seem to be many pianists who can master the technical difficulties, leaving us open to appreciate or not their artistic merit.

Chopin switched between styles as the inspiration took him, and he wrote 4 pieces he called Ballades – free in form and in imagination, all in 6 to the bar, which is a very flexible time signature (it can be 2 times groups of three, or three times groups of two, and the character changes a lot from one to the other).

Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op. 23, 1833
This was written when Chopin was already established in Paris. After a wandering introduction begins the first theme in 6/4 time, with a sparse accompaniament of chords; in the repeat this is more grandiose, before quietening down to introduce the lovely second theme, which dissolves back to the first. But this quickly goes to the second again, strong, majestic, and this time it dissolves into delicate filigree work at the top of the piano. Back it comes to earth with the second theme, played strongly, and then returns to the first, quietly…. but then explodes into a final coda , cascading up and down, to a final shout of defiance.

Ballade No.2 in F major, Op.38, 1839
This comes from Chopin’s mature years with George Sand, living in Paris and Nohant, and was dedicated to Schumann. The theme starts simply, in 6/8….. and explodes into fortíssimo chords up and down the piano,until a lull brings back the first theme, which doesn’t settle, because changed harmonies and little hesitations give a hint of menace…. And then back comes the storm again, thundering in the lower reaches of the piano, and then the strong chords in the left, accompanied by cascades of chords in the right roll and roll on, until it suddenly stops, and a little recall of the first theme brings us to a quiet close.

The CD
Pianist Krystian Zimerman is Polish, one of the most highly regarded modern interpreters. On the CD cited above can be found all four Ballades, as well as the Barcarola Op. 60 and the Fantasia Op.49.  He plays with delicacy or power, restraint or abandon, not smearing the sound with excessive pedal, perfectly within what one imagines the traditional view of Chopin asks for. Wonderful stuff.

So, giving thanks once again for  this extraordinary talent who was born 200 years ago….. Good Listening!