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CLASSICAL  June 2008

CLASSICAL June 2008

Subject:

Immersed in Chopin

From:

Janos Gereben <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 16 Jun 2008 16:53:20 -0700

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http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d6324182-38da-11dd-8aed-0000779fd2ac.html

   The Financial Times
   Reasons we need Chopin
   By Harry Eyres [[log in to unmask]]
   Published: June 14 2008 01:31
   
   The other weekend BBC Radio 3 held a Chopin jamboree -- two
   days entirely devoted to Poland's great poet of the piano.
   There was no particular reason, as far as I could see: no
   major anniversary, no topical peg; it just seemed a good
   idea.  And so it was; in our household we listened entranced,
   to a succession of wonderful performances and illuminating
   live comments by musicians of the calibre of Vladimir
   Ashkenazy and Tamas Vasary.  As Sunday evening approached,
   the normal end-of-holiday blues were intensified: we wished
   Chopin Weekend would carry on for days.
   
   Listening to a lot of Chopin felt different from being
   immersed in Bach or Beethoven or Bruckner.  There was nothing
   over-reverent about this experience; Chopin strikes me as
   one of the least religious musicians, in the conventional
   sense, who has ever lived.  There was much sheer delight
   and exuberance: the hyper-sensitive, consumptive composer,
   so unhappy in love, also wrote some of the most purely
   delicious music ever confected -- the two early piano
   concertos, the more extravert waltzes, the Berceuse and the
   impromptus.
   
   But talk of confectionery doesn't quite explain the appeal
   of Chopin.  When asked what it was that drew him to the
   music of his fellow Pole, the great Chopin pianist Arthur
   Rubinstein replied: "I don't know, Chopin just spoke to
   me."
   
   Presumably Chopin speaks to very many of us: his voice seems
   like an essence of humanity.  For that reason his pieces
   continue to be the most played and programmed in the piano
   repertoire, all over the world, from Taiwan to Tennessee.
   
   One objection to Chopin Weekend could have been simply that
   Chopin is too well-known, one composer in no danger whatsoever
   of being neglected.  But what was revealed, I felt, was
   just how little we really know about Chopin -- how ultimately
   unknowable he, like all great artists, remains.
   
   How well, for instance, do we know the Funeral March sonata
   (apart from the da-da-di-dum tune which opens the slow
   movement)? This was where Chopin Weekend began, with a
   fascinating comparison, in that cynosure of classical music
   programmes Building a Library, of all the available recordings
   of Chopin's opus 35 in B flat minor.
   
   Here is an uncompromising, revolutionary piece if ever there
   was one.  From the strange, violent, truncated introduction
   to the whispering, desolate, tuneless finale, this supposedly
   familiar work plunges us into the most uncomfortable extremes
   of emotion: a travel agent advertising this kind of emotional
   journey, from agony, though death, to desolation, would go
   out of business in a matter of hours.
   
   Another revelation was that no one has yet been able to
   play the piece entirely satisfactorily.
   
   Some of the greatest pianists who have ever lived (Rachmaninov,
   Cortot, Rubinstein, Horowitz) failed to deliver technically
   flawless accounts, especially of the fiendish Scherzo, while
   the experience of listening to a "VorsprungdurchTechnik"
   Wunderkind such as Evgeny Kissin was described by Harriet
   Smith as "no more enjoyable than facing a firing squad".
   Play safe with this music and you may hit all the notes but
   you will miss the essence; much better to take risks, like
   Rachmaninov and Rubinstein.
   
   The final movement still sounds modern and eerie and
   challenging, closer to late Beckett than Lord Byron: a chill
   blast from some region we would rather not visit, certainly
   not often.  In fact I was left wondering when I would have
   the courage to face this music again.
   
   Now we are getting closer to what makes Chopin great: a
   combination of that human vulnerability and those challenging
   extremes. He draws us in, by speaking in the most human of
   tones, then challenges us to extend the range of the human,
   or our range.
   
   For many musicians, Chopin's greatest work is the 24 Preludes
   opus 28. Here you find the coming-together of extreme
   concision with grand scope. Some of the preludes last less
   than a minute; even the longest, the so-called Raindrop
   Prelude, lasts no longer than five.  Each is a miniature
   world, and their juxtaposition creates a kaleidoscope that
   sets out a new philosophy of human emotion: we are not
   sensible smiling 18th-century rationalists, but unstable
   successions of the most violently conflicting moods, from
   the playful delight of the 23rd Prelude to the epic despair
   of the 24th. We contradict ourselves, as Whitman would later
   confirm; sometimes we may be incomprehensible to ourselves.
   
   One of the shortest and apparently simplest of all the
   Preludes is number 7 in A major. A young pianist who has
   reached Grade 5 can master this one -- master the notes,
   that is. But I have found it takes half a lifetime (I started
   playing this piece 37 years ago) to begin to understand
   what lies behind the notes. Wordsworth's comment about
   "emotion recollected in tranquillity" provides a key. There
   is a certain distance between the emotion and the expression;
   if you like, a love idyll in the past, recalled not with
   bitterness, but with heart-breaking tenderness. Getting the
   shading of tone right here challenges not just your technique
   but every fibre of your imagination and humanity. This is
   why we need Chopin: to cleanse our emotional and existential
   filters of all the gunge that keeps clogging up our lives.

Janos Gereben
www.sfcv.org
[log in to unmask]

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