Notes on the Program by Philip Carlsen
Our soloist, the renowned Chopin interpreter Zlata Chochieva, has prepared a recital with Chopin at its center, framing his music with pieces written in tribute to him by two great Russian pianist-composers of a later generation. It’s worth noting that those composers, Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff, had an even deeper connection than their admiration for Chopin. They were born within a year of one another and became friends while students at the Moscow Conservatory, preparing for their illustrious careers through piano study with the same teacher, Nikolai Zverev. I will discuss this concert’s music in chronological order: Etudes, Op. 10 (1833) and Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op. 61 (1846), Scriabin’s Five Preludes, Op. 15 (1896) and Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22 (1903).
Frederic Chopin was a remarkable prodigy. He hadn’t yet turned eight when he gave his first public performance, playing a virtuosic piano concerto before an elite audience in Warsaw’s Radziwill Palace. The public dubbed him the “Polish Mozart.” His formal lessons lasted only until he was 12. From then on, unfettered by the conservative, dogmatic rules that dominated piano instruction at the time, he pursued his own path of improvisation, discovery, and composition. As Alan Walker writes in his acclaimed 2018 biography Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times, “Chopin quietly lay siege to the instrument, creating a series of compositions that broke fresh ground, that are absolutely typical of the piano, and that have dominated the repertory ever since.” His innovations in fingering and pedaling enabled him to make the piano truly sing, to bring out a wide range of colors that prompted the German poet Heinrich Heine to call him the “Rafael of the piano.”
Chopin published two volumes of etudes in his twenties, Op. 10 (1833) and Op. 25 (1837), providing a compendium of many of his new techniques. They follow in the tradition of teaching pieces by such pedagogues as Czerny and Hanon, where each piece helped the player focus on the development of a particular skill. For the first time, however, we have a composer writing etudes that stand on their own as deeply expressive works of art, suitable for the concert hall as well as the practice room. The first etude is a C major fanfare, loud and bold, the two hands moving back and forth from one another in a balletic pas de deux, spanning nearly the entire keyboard right from the start. The left hand declaims a slow-moving bass melody, while the right hand glides effortlessly across the keyboard like a ballerina. Each hand in this etude has a single role to play, but Etude No. 2 requires a “splitting” of the right hand into two simultaneous functions: staccato chords played on each beat by thumb and index finger while the other three fingers play an unbroken stream of rippling chromatic scales. Etude No. 3 offers a similar multi-function challenge but does so at a slower pace and in the service of one of Chopin’s most serenely beautiful melodies. Three of the etudes have nicknames. No. 5 is known as “Black Keys” because that is where the right hand stays throughout. No. 11, “Arpeggio,” consists entirely of rolled chords, as if played by a harpist. No. 12 is the “Revolutionary” etude, whose overwhelming turbulence reflects the unsettled political and military situation in Poland and other parts of Europe at the time it was written.
One of Poland’s national dances, the stately polonaise, is forever associated with Chopin. His first published composition, appearing in print when he was only seven, was a polonaise. He continued to produce works in this genre throughout his career. The final one, his Polonaise-Fantaisie, was the longest and the most wide-ranging in expression. As he worked on it, Chopin was at first not sure what to call it, as if the piece were growing organically, through his improvisations, into something he did not quite recognize. The piece begins in an exploratory mood. Two chords are struck, like bells, the second sustained with the pedal as its notes are slowly sounded one by one through all the octaves. Our ears luxuriate in the fading reverberations. The gesture repeats, but lower. We have no sense yet of what key we are in. There are brief hints of a tune. The bells sound again, higher, more distant. The music turns more anxious. What will happen next? Finally, about two minutes in, the polonaise rhythm suddenly bursts forth, as if by trumpets heralding the start of the dance, and we are temporarily back on familiar ground.
This is the music of a man conscious that it would not be long before his shadow companion of many years, tuberculosis, would take him away for good. His long relationship with George Sand was in the process of breaking up. These personal troubles surely color the tone of the music. Some of Chopin’s contemporaries were not sure what to make of the Polonaise-Fantaisie. Franz Liszt wrote that it “brings the mind to a pitch of irritability bordering on delirium.” How, then, should we listen? Perhaps best is to view it as an extended improvisation by a profoundly wise musician, and simply give ourselves over to its volatile beauties.
The spirit of Bach hovers above this concert. The preludes and fugues of his Well-Tempered Clavier were constant touchstones for Chopin, leading him to write his own set of 24 preludes in all the major and minor keys. Chopin’s example in turn inspired Scriabin, whose 24 Preludes, Op. 11 (using Chopin’s same order of keys), were followed by many more, the later ones grouped in smaller sets, such as the five preludes of Op. 15. These tender miniatures remind us of how naturally Chopin’s mantle had settled on Scriabin’s shoulders—the elastic cross-rhythms in No. 1; the quicksilver right-hand line over the steadier pacing of the left hand in No. 2; the rolled chords in No. 3 that imitate Chopin’s “Arpeggio” etude.
A Bach connection is even more apparent in Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin. After he’s presented the powerful chords of Chopin’s original composition, the famous funeral-march Prelude No. 20 in C minor, Rachmaninoff strips the texture down to a single melodic line for his first variation, suggesting a solo cellist playing a movement from one of the Bach suites. In Variation 2, the line becomes accompaniment to Chopin’s tune, then is joined with a version of itself in a duet (violin with cello?) for Variation 3. Of course, this being piano music, Rachmaninoff makes the most of the colors and percussive resources under his fingers. Already in Variation 4 we find rich chords and arpeggios, and, as the variations unfold, a wider span of notes, moving into the upper reaches of the keyboard, with extremely fast passages, athletic leaps from low to high, brilliant staccato, and greater use of dissonance, finally relaxing into the quiet, murmuring ending of Variation 11, the first chance for player and listener to catch a breath. At this point, halfway through the 22 variations (that make up Op. 22!), Rachmaninoff dramatically shifts mood, turning once again back to Bach for Variation 12 by introducing a fugue on Chopin’s theme. This is the longest variation so far. In fact, the remaining variations tend to be longer, a natural outgrowth of the piece’s development. The culmination, Variation 22, is practically a stand-alone piece. It is triumphant and majestic, changing Chopin’s original key from C minor to C major and transforming what was a march into a brilliant polonaise, its triple-meter dance rhythms perhaps bringing to mind other iconic works of Chopin such as his A-flat major “Heroic” Polonaise.