Fortnight With Freddy: Piano Glory in an Inglorious Age - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Fortnight With Freddy: Piano Glory in an Inglorious Age
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Monument to Frederic Chopin in the Lazienki park in Warsaw (Gusgus/Creative Commons)

This October saw the Covid-delayed staging of one of the world’s most prestigious piano competitions, the 18th Chopin Competition, originally to have been held in February and March of 2020. It honors anew Poland’s national composer, the nonpareil composer of classical music for piano, Frédéric François Chopin. Born March 1, 1810, in a small town outside of Warsaw, Zelazowa Wola, to a French father and Polish mother, his tragically short life ended October 17, 1849, curtailed by an incurable tuberculosis that made his adult years a constant battle against debilitating illness.

His father, Nicholas, emigrated to Poland to take a position teaching music to the royal family; mother Justyna raised her son. A musical prodigy, Frederic had exactly one music teacher, Joseph Elstner, who recognized the boy’s rare talent. Guiding a pupil of genius requires an instructor who must know when not to instruct, and let the student’s musical gifts flower.

The Competition has a near-century history. It was first held in 1927, the 100th anniversary year of the publication of his first adult musical work, Variations on “La Ci Darem Di Mano” in B-flat Major (17:00). Upon hearing it, composer Robert Schumann proclaimed that a genius had arrived. In his short life Chopin produced over 200 compositions, mostly piano solo, with those not solo always including the piano; no other major composer’s larger works always included piano. Chopin’s oeuvre spanned the broadest spectrum of compositions, from miniatures to concertos, from highly nationalist to highly abstract, from exquisite simplicity to dazzling technical virtuosity. His etudes remain the supreme example of melding technical exercise with musical brilliance. He infused existing solo piano forms — ballades, etudes, fantasies, impromptus, nocturnes, mazurkas, polonaises, preludes, scherzos, sonatas, and waltzes — with new emotional depth and expressive range. These have stood the test of time and are regularly played worldwide.

After the 1927, 1932, and 1937 contests, World War II intervened. Resumed in 1949, the centennial of Chopin’s death, beginning with 1955 the competition had been held every five years until 2020, when Covid-19 reared its ugly head. The 19th will be staged in 2025, restoring the timetable set in 1955. Russian (six) and Polish pianists (six) have racked up the most wins, but the Asian contingent bids fair to catch up, as Asian artists hold a major share of the market for Western classical piano music. Asia has produced three winners, one each from China, South Korea, and Vietnam; Italy, Argentina, and Canada have each taken one. Only one American, Garrick Ohlsson in 1970, has won the competition. In two years, 1990 and 1995, no first prize was awarded. In one amazing period, the winners of the 1960, 1965, 1970, and 1975 competitions all went on to major international stardom.

The 2021 competition saw the first-ever live-streaming of the event, giving outsiders not only access to every public round’s play, but also gorgeous views of Warsaw’s magnificent, staggeringly beautiful National Philharmonic concert hall (photo on Chopin Institute website linked above). Not only are winners catapulted into preferential access to concerts worldwide, with top orchestras in celebrated venues; second- and third-place finishers also get more prestigious bookings.

This year’s competition fielded 87 contestants, who went through a three-round solo-piano winnowing process that halved the number in each round; thus 44 played in the second round and 23 in the third round. The final round had 12 finalists, each playing one of Chopin’s two concertos with the orchestra. Pianists chose from a variety of concert grands supplied by the top piano manufacturers.

To this spectator’s ear, the first two rounds saw very conservative play, with nervous contestants placing emphasis on avoiding fatal mistakes. Other apparent signs of stress were contestants rushing the intervals between sections of a piece, or between sonata movements. The third round saw players open up more, as in the later stages mere avoidance of errors is not likely to separate one from other competitors. Complicating matters is that when playing with orchestra it is harder to show individuality.

Variances in performance are far greater among established pianists, who can ignore censorious critics, let alone a competition jury. The great Chilean virtuoso Claudio Arrau played Chopin’s Third Ballade many times: an early recording runs 6-3/4 minutes; another recording, years later, takes a minute longer. The first pianist to perform a Chopin cycle of 160 solo works was Alexander Brailowsky, in France in 1924; he used one of Chopin’s pianos for part of the series.

Competitions typically require that contestants play from one or more designated editions. But this is exceptionally difficult with Chopin, who often sent slightly different editions around to publishers in different countries, to earn extra money. Fidelity to text has been the modern classical music rule, the era of baroque and classical improvisation having been the rule from Scarlatti through Liszt. Ascertaining which edition is a definitive urtext is a necessary predicate for assessing text fidelity. Anyone who has read through footnotes in editions learns that assessing origin oft entails the exercise of subjective judgment, comparing myriad conflicting sources.

So, mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the greatest Chopinist of them all? We cannot know, thanks to those who died before the 20th century, as they left no recordings. All we have is florid verbal descriptions of those from a bygone era. And no one who heard Franz Liszt in his prime — clearly regarded by his contemporaries as the greatest pianist of his day — lived long enough to hear any of the great 20th century pianists in their playing prime. Indeed, Liszt actually invented the modern piano recital, becoming the first great artist to perform the works of other composers; prior to his ascendancy, pianists played only their own works in public.

One myth about Chopin is easily exploded by listening to his works, or watching them performed: that he was only a composer of sweet, romantic melodies. A few examples should suffice to dispel this canard.

Chopin’s four ballades are the quintessential expression of his musical genius. His First Ballade (G minor, 9:24), composed when he was a lad of 26, is much like a tone poem, with myriad themes and elaborations, culminating in a bravura coda. The Second Ballade (A minor, 7:00) juxtaposes a gentle romantic melody with a turbulent counter-theme. The Third Ballade (linked above) opens with an extended chorale featuring voice-leading, a device used almost promiscuously throughout the piece; it is almost midway through the composition that the main melody appears; development sections follow, ascending to a trademark grand coda. This ballade is quintessentially romantic. His Fourth Ballade (F minor, 10:41) evokes intimations of Chopin’s impending early mortality, alternating between major and minor keys, and culminating in a dazzling, dramatic coda, followed by a cadenza, all with an intensity unmatched to this day.

Book 10 of the etudes includes the tender opening theme of Etude no. 3 (E Major, 3:43), nicknamed Tristesse — such names were rarely given by composers). The polar opposite mood is the demonic fury of Etude no. 12 (C minor, 2:42 — the link is to an amazing rocket-speed recording by Vladimir Horowitz). The famed “Revolutionary” was composed to give vent to Chopin’s rage at Russia’s 1831 conquest of Warsaw — the piece’s original title was Étude on the Bombardment of Warsaw. The Fantasie-Impromptu (C-sharp minor, 4:49) contrasts a turbulent opening with a gentle slow-theme. Compare Chopin’s expressivo dolce first theme in his Nocturne No. 2 (E-flat Major, 4 min.) with his majestic, soaring theme in Nocturne no. 7 in C-sharp minor (5:40). The Mazurkas are deeply embedded in Polish folk music; no. 27 (E minor, 2:26) in all of two pages alternates between a tragic minor main theme and a hopeful major-key counter-theme. The mournful Polonaise No. 4 (C minor, 8:40) is world’s apart from his exuberant Polonaise No. 3 (A Major, 4 min.), the famed Marche Militaire which calls up visions of a national-day parade in front of royalty.

Chopin’s 24 preludes — one for each major and minor key — run the gamut from the gentle No. 7 (A Major, 0:51) to the explosive No. 1 (G-flat Major, 1 min.), also dubbed “Revolutionary.” Of his four scherzos, the First (B minor, 8 min.) and Third (C-sharp minor, 7 min.) scherzos are thunderous cascades of sound sweeping the expanse of the keyboard, in stark contrast to the dramatic but uplifting Second (B-flat minor, 9:49) and the poetic Fourth (E Major, 12:21). Chopin’s Third Sonata (B minor, 28:46) is traditional in form, the first and third movements stately, with one of his most haunting melodies sandwiched in between. His utterly unconventional four-movement Second Sonata (B-flat minor, 23:11), the third movement of which is the Marche Funèbre, sports three tempestuous movements that collectively amount to thematic variations on gloom and doom. The final movement offers single notes played presto, one octave apart; nothing like it had been heard before. Unusually, this tempestuous section is also marked sotto voce. This sonata also contains harmonies virtually unknown in American piano music until after World War I, three-quarters of a century later. Waltzes no. 1 (E-flat Major, 4:37 — performed by Rachmaninoff, as great a pianist as he was a composer), and no. 2 (A-flat Major, 5 min.) evoke formal dances at the royal palace, while no. 14 (E minor, 3 min.) is bravura from start to finish, played well beyond traditional waltz tempo.

Chopin’s works run from easy pieces to virtually impossible technical challenges accessible only to the very best pianists. As this article goes to press, an American piano technician is restoring the last piano Chopin played, an 1848-vintage piano that was rebuilt with 20th century strings, ruining its sound. The new restoration will use the light 19th century strings, in an effort to restore the sound of the original. Chopin’s piano manufacturer of choice was Austrian Ignace Pleyel; France’s Sebastien Erard was preferred by Liszt.

Pianist-teacher Seymour Bernstein sheds additional light (22:12) on his immortal predecessor — in fact, his hand is a near replica of Chopin’s. But Chopin’s hand was narrower, and effeminate; the composer had a Pleyel keyboard customized for him. It had narrower keys — our seventh was an octave on Chopin’s piano. Thus his span could reach most of his extreme compositional stretches. These — notably found in the famous Etude (C Major, 1:15 — a vertiginous performance by Maurizio Pollini) that opens Book 10, are thus far more difficult to play today. And the touch of the pianos in Chopin’s day was lighter. Bernstein’s tutorial — of great interest to readers who play, but also worth a listen for lay readers — invokes the Archimedes Law of the Lever: “Magnitudes are in equilibrium at distances equally proportional to the reciprocal of their weights.” Put another way: the longer the lever — in the case, the pianist’s arm — the more leverage the pianist can bring to bear on the keyboard.

In 1945 Hollywood gave us a Chopin biopic, A Song to Remember — pairing a wooden Cornel Wilde with the divine Merle Oberon, a visual upgrade to the real-life, androgynous George Sand that followed a hallowed Tinseltown tradition of preference for visual allure over historical accuracy. Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn’s first choice was Artur Rubinstein; born in 1887, Rubinstein exuded a socially formal presence in first meetings. He was greeted by the decidedly informal Cohn, whom he had never met, with Hiya, Ruby.” So ended that. Cohn’s second choice to play the music was Horowitz, but the legendary pianist refused to play excerpts only. It fell to Jose Iturbi, who at the time played himself as a pianist in several film musicals, to play the piano. Here is the recording (5 min.) of the A-flat Polonaise that Iturbi made for the 1945 film.

Rubinstein was to play his beloved Chopin two years later, in the landmark 1947 film, Carnegie Hall; therein Artur got the respect Cohn denied him — a full nine minutes to play two of his most beloved (by him and his audiences) pieces (linked above): Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise in A-flat Major, and Manual de Falla’s flamenco showpiece, the “Ritual Fire Dance.” Another 1947 gem — the best great-composer biopic I’ve seen: the biopic about Schumann, and the unrequited love of Brahms for Schumann’s widow, Clara Wieck (who gave 40 years of piano concerts after her husband’s death, under her maiden name); the uncredited pianist was Rubinstein.

My collection of Chopin books takes up a shelf, and a highly regarded 2019 800-page biography by celebrated music biographer Alan Walker awaits.

As a final vignette, herewith my personal interaction with one of the great 20th century Chopinists. About a decade ago, I had the good fortune of being seated at a post-concert supper, next to the evening’s performer, Garrick Ohlsson, who as noted earlier is the only American ever to win the Chopin Piano Competition. Our talk turned to Rubinstein. I told Garrick that I had attended a 1972 Carnegie Hall all-Chopin recital by the great pianist, who had just turned 85; my piano teacher, attending with me that evening, told me that in 35 years of hearing Rubinstein play, he had never heard him play better. Ohlsson replied that he too had attended the concert, and it was indeed a truly great recital.

Bottom Line. In an age featuring a veritable avalanche of artistic sewage that threatens to swamp the preferences of those with traditional taste for the classics, Chopin’s brilliance to date endures. So long as classical pianists are around, Chopin will be with us too. In this cultural struggle for the art music future, Asia of necessity must take center stage. Asia’s centrality to the future of Western classical music was dramatically stated by the late, legendary conductor Lorin Maazel, in response to a question from cultural commentator Jay Nordlinger, raising the issue: “Thank God for China.” So, if somehow Chopin’s music disappears from the world’s concert stages, it will signal a Millennium End of Days for classical piano art music.

But leave us end on a happy note in this season celebrating joy, charity, and transcendence: Rubinstein’s electrifying live 1964 performance (7:23) of the Master’s celestial A-flat Polonaise.

John Wohlstetter is an amateur concert pianist, whose prime classical piano music interest is performing the compositions of Chopin.

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