Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2, Maestoso

Contrary to its title, the Piano Concerto No. 2 (1830) was the first of two piano concertos written by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), and contrary to the spelling of his professional name, the great Romantic pianist was Polish, not French.

Raised in an academic family on the grounds of the Warsaw Lyceum (a university), Chopin’s musical gifts were cultivated from an early age. His training was grounded in the traditions of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, which formed the basis for these first attempts at large scale works for piano and orchestra.

However these concertos reveal a shift in the balance between soloist and orchestra. Unlike his predecessors, Chopin used the form to showcase extravagant solo piano technique rather than develop a series of musical ideas through a deliberate give-and-take with the ensemble. It clearly pointed toward the variety of smaller musical forms to which he would later apply most of his creative genius and astonishing skills.

Hundreds of standalone piano works were produced during Chopin’s short life, in the form of études, nocturnes, and interpretations of Polish dances. The fluid and ornate detail of his keyboard textures conceals a sophisticated and disciplined attention to rhythm, articulation and dynamics down to the level of individual notes. With such a delicate style (once described as “embroidery”), he avoided public performances in large concert halls, preferring the intimacy of parlors and salons.

The lighter keyboard actions of nineteenth century pianos made Chopin’s intricate passages easier to execute than on a modern instrument, and the metal frame introduced on the Pleyel piano (Chopin’s favorite) provided more natural sustain than we hear today. This could explain why pedaling is rarely indicated in his scores, yet he prized a legato technique and impressed on his students the importance of “joining two notes together.”

Spending almost all of his adult life in Paris, Chopin became acquainted with the leading artistic figures of the time, notably the piano composers Robert Schumann and Franz Liszt, with whom he shared a mostly friendly rivalry. Though in some ways opposite in style, Chopin and Liszt can be credited with increasing the idiomatic and expressive possibilities of the piano to a degree that had never been heard before, or perhaps since.

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