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RICHARD DOWLING PLAYS CHOPIN, VOLUME II

 

Piano Productions Recordings 0906

 

Liner Notes

 

Shortly after Frˇdˇric Chopin (1810‑1849) left his native Poland and arrived in Vienna in 1831 he finished composing his sixth and final work for piano and orchestra, the Grande Polonaise Brillante. It was the first to be published of his many polonaises, and thanks to the "brilliant" and extroverted virtuoso writing, has remained one of his best known. For its premiere in Paris in 1835 Chopin added the extraordinarily beautiful Andante spianato as a solo piano introduction (the orchestra is tacit). The performance was a great success and helped Chopin establish himself in Parisian musical life. The Andante spianato is a tranquil nocturne with luminous harplike effects surrounding a gentle mazurka (a Polish dance). Although the two works are in different keys (G and E‑flat Major), they are ingeniously connected by a horn call on a single tone common to both keys (G) that leads to a brief modulation. Following Chopin's tradition, the two conjoined works have always been performed together despite their highly contrasting styles. Chopin's orchestral writing has always been criticized for its subordinate role and thin texture. Arguably, Chopin could have purposefully restricted his orchestral parts in order to give prominence to the piano. However, the orchestral writing of the Grande Polonaise Brillante is so slight that there is not much lost in playing the work alone, as pianists have done regularly now for more than a hundred years. The few existing tutti orchestral interludes have been rewritten for and incorporated into the piano part in order to make the work playable as a solo.

 

Among Chopin's most original compositions are his mazurkas--Polish dances in triple meter with strongly accented second or third beats (as opposed to the waltz's strong initial beat). Chopin's mazurkas are refined artistic renderings of this folk idiom and thus not intended for dancing. Mazurkas were Chopin's nostalgic expressions of nationalistic pride for his homeland and he composed over fifty throughout his lifetime. They are wide‑ranging in their styles and contain many of Chopin's most unusual expressive pianistic devices and extremes of chromaticism. Some are vivacious and fully employ the distinctive dance rhythm, while others are intensely personal and introverted and only hint at being dance‑related. The three mazurkas on this recording are all very different. The Mazurka in C‑sharp Minor is energetic yet unsettled, and ends with a remarkable chromatic descent of parallel seventh chords that would have been considered quite surprising in its time. The Mazurka in A Minor is one of Chopin's most intimate and plaintive. It is a work with no theoretical end. The final unresolved submediant chord leads harmonically back to the beginning in an effort to create the impression of a seamless sonic frame around the body of the piece. A contrasting middle section emphasizes the folk aspect of the dance by employing a "drone" bass with the distinctive "off‑beat" mazurka rhythm. At first the Mazurka in B Minor seems to resemble more of a slow waltz than a mazurka. However, brief unexpected parenthetical shifts of harmony and inversions of melody and accompaniment constantly interrupt its flow. Its tempo marking, Mesto ("sad"), is unusual in that it is a description of the nature of the piece rather than a precise indication for its speed of performance.

 

Chopin composed the Variations Brillantes in B‑flat Major in Paris during the summer of 1833, a period when he tried to make a name as a concert performer before the public. These are variations on a song (Je vends des scapulaires) from the opera Ludovic composed by Hˇrold and finished by Halˇvy after Hˇrold's death. The tune was so popular that several composers wrote variations on it. Chopin's set is a charming and elegant work suited to the demands of the 1830s Parisian musical world. Its social and financial function helped solidify Chopin's stature in his newly‑adopted home. Variations and fantasies on operatic tunes such as these were extremely popular in their day, and many composers (especially Liszt) happily complied with endless sets of musical diversions. However, even with a commercial piece such as this, Chopin brings a level of sophistication that would have set his variations apart from others. The long opening introduction is rhapsodic and lyrical, followed by a simple presentation of the theme and four highly contrasting variations. The third variation is a nocturne so far removed from the theme as to be almost unrecognizable. The set closes with a scherzo delivering the expected bravura passagework that would have guaranteed applause (and sheet music sales).

 

During Chopin's lifetime, his most beloved 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. 27 were composed in 1835 and those of Op. 62 in 1846. Both are incredibly beautiful works with memorable melodies, but what a difference in their respective harmonic languages and pianistic inventiveness. The Nocturne in D‑flat Major begins with a traditional undulating accompaniment over which Chopin spins out a lyrical bel canto melody. By contrast, the Nocturne in B Major begins with a simple declamatory cadential introduction followed by a long pause. Its melody is chordally harmonized rather than accompanied. Later we encounter a melancholy, but harmonically adventurous cadenza that seems to suspend time before returning to the main melody, this time clothed in an extended chain of trills in which Chopin imitates singing.

 

The Fantaisie in F Minor is generally regarded as the greatest and most inspired of Chopin's large single‑movement works. It was composed during a creatively busy summer in 1841 at George Sand's ch‰teau in Nohant, France. This is also one of Chopin's longest works and contains a wealth of contrasting ideas:  a funeral march, a grand operatic march, recitatives, an aria‑like main theme, and a central chorale, all tightly woven together within a quasi‑sonata framework. The narrative quality of the Fantaisie is similar to that found in his Ballades, but is of an even grander scale through the masterful combination of contradictory elements of improvisation and architecture.

 

When a composer with melodic gifts as supreme as Chopin's chooses one particular melody as his most beautiful, one can be sure that it will be something memorable. The Etude in E Major from his Opus 10 was Chopin's choice. He thought its nocturne‑like melody was the best he had ever composed. The chief technical difficulty of this etude ("study") lies in the extended chains of double notes for both hands in the virtuoso middle section.

 

Two short waltzes in A and E Minor serve as encores for this Chopin collection. Both are good examples of the brilliant mid‑nineteeth‑century salon style, but were not published until well after Chopin's death. They are charming minor works that reveal the stamp of a melodic genius.

 

---  Richard Dowling