RICHARD DOWLING PLAYS CHOPIN
LINER NOTES
Composer-pianist Robert Schumann was among the first to recognize
Chopin's talent. After having heard Chopin’s youthful
Variations on “Là ci
darem la mano,”
Schumann exclaimed, “Hats off gentlemen, a genius!” In
1827 at the age of seventeen, Chopin began composing this set of variations
for piano and orchestra based on the famous duet from Mozart’s opera
Don
Giovanni
. The work was planned for Chopin’s debut performance with
orchestra at a major hall in Vienna in 1829. The concert was an enormous
success and led to many invitations for solo engagements. Later, for his own
performance convenience Chopin reconfigured this work as a solo piece by
incorporating the orchestral interludes and accompaniments into the solo
piano texture, thus making this virtuoso display piece even more difficult. The
solo version is rarely performed by pianists today for this reason. In the long
introduction, we can already discern Chopin’s distinctive lyrical and unique
pianistic style of writing. In the following six variations, Chopin gave himself
ample opportunity for display of his formidable technique:  double-note
figurations, repeated notes, winding scales and arpeggios, staccato leaps, and
extended left-hand passagework. The slow variation is a dramatic and
beautiful nocturne. The last variation, marked
Alla polacca, transforms the
theme into a lively polonaise–a tribute to his native Poland that Chopin loved
so much.

During Chopin’s lifetime, his most popular compositions were his nocturnes
(“night pieces”). His inherent understanding of the expressive possibilities of
the piano resulted in these highly personal and vocally-inspired works. The
nocturnes of Op. 9 were composed in 1831. The first in B-flat Minor is
beautiful in its simplicity of texture. Its long-phrased melodies are underlined
by frequent adventurous harmonies. The E-flat Major nocturne is probably
the most popular of the twenty-one he composed. Its melody is instantly
recognizable. This nocturne is more typical of the French salon music of the
day, however Chopin infuses it with inventive chromatic modulations and a
dramatic cadenza that would have seemed surprising at the time.

The first
Grande Valse Brillante was also composed in 1831. Chopin’s waltzes
are concert pieces of pure art–they are not for dancing. The “brilliance” of this
particular waltz results from its fast tempo and virtuoso repeated-note
figurations. It is an effective work in the “grand” manner, full of memorable
melodies and graceful rhythms that immediately capture the attention of the
listener.

Chopin was also a superb improviser. Frequently at the end of concerts and at
private parties he would perform
ad libitum. The Impromptu in A-flat
(composed in 1837) is by its very nature improvisatory and reveals to us what
the more “informal” Chopin probably sounded like. Its three-part ABA form is
simple in design. The outer sections are almost etude-like and contain some
unusual dissonances and a innovative phrase of descending parallel major
triads. The middle section is a short nocturne whose melody was used as the
theme for the Hollywood movie based Chopin’s life,
Impromptu.

So thorough was his knowledge of the technical and expressive qualities of the
piano that Chopin composed little for other instruments. This concentration
of purpose and identification with his chosen instrument rewarded us with
some of the most profound and important works ever written for the piano.
Among these are the four
Ballades. Epic tone-poems for the piano, they are
artworks of sound that, although lacking specific programmatic content, take
us on journeys of the heart and soul. The
Ballade No. 3 in A-flat was
composed in 1840-41 and is one of his most popular pieces with pianists and
audiences. It is a technically and musically demanding work, concise in form,
and full of remarkable harmonies and modulations.

Chopin considered the
Barcarolle to be his finest composition. He completed
it in 1846 and premiered it in Paris in February 1847. The word barcarolle
comes from the Italian
barca (“boat”) and was originally the name of a kind of
song popularly identified with Venetian gondoliers. Mendelssohn wrote
several barcarolles for piano in his collection of
Songs without Words, but
probably the most famous is Offenbach’s from the opera,
Tales of Hoffmann.
However without a doubt, Chopin’s is a far more substantial, subtle, and
important work than any previously composed. Its lyricism is eloquent and
poetic, its harmonies complex and sophisticated. It combines the grandeur of
his ballades with the intimacy of his nocturnes in a precisely-measured form
that, with the underlying characteristic undulating rhythm, builds slowly to a
dramatic finish.

The waltzes presented here from Op. 64 are two of the best-known of the
nineteen Chopin composed. The
Waltz in C-sharp Minor is aristocratic in its
grace and elegance, tinged with a bit of melancholy. The
Waltz in D-flat Major
(better known as the “Minute Waltz”) is by far the most popular. It sparkles
with the short-lived energy of fireworks. In France it is said that this waltz was
inspired by a little dog chasing its tail! Both waltzes have contrasting middle
sections lyrically inspired by the
bel canto singing style that Chopin was so
fond of emulating.

Like other singular works in his oeuvre, such as the
Barcarolle, Boléro, and
Tarantelle, the Berceuse (French for “lullaby” or “cradle song”) is unique.
Perhaps Chopin felt that the strongly individualistic and programmatic
features of these forms limited his originality to one example. In any case, the
Berceuse is one of the loveliest ever composed. Originally conceived in 1843 as
a set of variations, the repetitive rhythm and harmonies of the left hand
support a simple right-hand melody that is spun out into increasingly complex
and extraordinary figurations.

Chopin missed two opportunities for collecting publishing royalties with the
famous
Fantaisie-Impromptu. It was originally composed in 1834 as a private
commission from the Baroness d’Este, whom pianist Arthur Rubinstein
believes kept the work for herself, not allowing it to be published
commercially. After Chopin’s death in 1849, his heirs found a manuscript copy
he had retained. They published the work as a posthumous Op. 66 and it
became instantly popular. Two slightly different versions of this work exist.
Mr. Dowling performs the original version in this recording. A hundred years
or so later, the memorable theme of the middle section of this work was
borrowed for the American pop song,
I’m Always Chasing Rainbows. Chopin
was cheated out of his rightful earnings once again!

The musical term
scherzo (Italian for “joke”) was coined by Beethoven as a
jovial and more upbeat replacement for the traditional minuet movement in
his symphonies and piano sonatas. Chopin’s four
Scherzi retain the traditional
triple meter, but are stylistically much more intense and dramatic than their
title would suggest. The
Scherzo No. 3 in C-sharp Minor from 1839 is actually
an extended sonata form, and is the most technically difficult of the four to
perform. Its principal theme is stated in fortissimo octaves in both hands. The
second theme in D-flat Major is a majestic chorale interrupted by brilliant
casades of arpeggios, perfectly composed to exploit the piano’s upper register.
The work concludes heroically in a virtuoso display of scales, arpeggios, and
octaves.

–––  RICHARD DOWLING
RICHARD DOWLING PLAYS CHOPIN
Piano Productions Recordings 0211
Copyright ©2016 Richard Dowling. All Rights Reserved.