Wait – don’t be put off by the photo!
I have been longing to share my love of this piano piece by Frederic Chopin (1810-49). So much of his music will be well known to you, since his waltzes, etudes, nocturnes and mazurkas are played widely; less so, what I am posting about today, so I hope it will be something new to many.
Although he did write some instrumental music, notably two concertos, he wrote nothing in his brief life which did not include the piano. And brief it was: he was never particularly healthy, even from a young age, causing Berlioz to observe that “he was dying all his life”. It was probably tuberculosis that killed him, in an apartment immediately opposite the hotel from where the late Diana, Princess of Wales, made her last fateful journey nearly 150 years later.
Chopin was refined, even delicate, impeccably dressed and mannered, somewhat at odds with the writer George Sand, a dumpier, trouser-wearing, cigar-smoking sexual predator with whom he had a troublesome love affair, which did not end well. Although the woman who was probably the most central figure in his life, she was not even at his deathbed. Chopin was a highly accomplished pianist who preferred the setting of the salons of Paris to the concert hall, and was quickly recognized for his talent – “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” was Schumann’s early assessment of a prodigy whom many viewed as the successor to Mozart. Apart from being born in Poland, there is nothing obviously nationalistic about his work, but it is filled with the broadest spectrum of emotions, always imbued with simple and delightful tunes, even if sometimes fiendishly difficult, as in today’s example.
Chopin wrote four ballades, a term he was the first to apply to a music composition, having been normally associated with poetry and song. The first of these is a piece full of drama, the impact of which grows on every hearing. It does not appear to have any particular reference or story behind it, but unquestionably you can detect a story of sorts unfolding, with elements of despair, yearning and hope all in the mix. It starts simply enough, with a joyful climactic moment a few minutes in, preceded by the sweetest of melodies; before launching into a blistering phase of speed and technical wizardry. The last eighty seconds, ending with an agonizing downward scale, will have you on the edge of your seat.
Unlike Vladimir Horowitz in this 1968 recording. Don’t despair in the first minute: the quality of the sound is not great at the start, and it is by no means note-perfect; but his impassive, and expressionless, approach, somehow conveys a far greater understanding and enjoyment of this work than any back-arching ceiling-gazer. You may wonder what all the fuss is about at the opening, but perseverance will be rewarded.
Tenderness, drama, colour and extraordinary clarity. I make no apologies for calling on Horowitz again: if ever there was a case of ‘less is more’, surely this is it.