Chopin Birthday Recital by Aleksandra Świgut on the 211th Anniversary at his birthplace of Żelazowa Wola, 50 kms from Warsaw


The hopefully not irreversible blight that torments us at present was forgotten yesterday as we were immersed in the consoling nature of the music of Fryderyk Chopin. I had attended the birthday concert at this hamlet for many years but this was the first time I have been so cruelly denied by a merciless and indiscriminate pandemic. 

In an access of nostalgia brought on by this denial, I would like to quote my first impressions of this deeply poetic place in 1992 from my book about Poland entitled A Country in the Moon.

In late spring, in a despondent frame of mind, I decided to raise my spirits with a visit to Chopin’s birthplace at Żelazowa Wola, a hamlet about fifty kilometres from Warsaw. The flat Mazovian landscape was relieved by stands of trembling birch and pine; forlorn willows with gnarled boles lined the deserted roads. I had long anticipated this visit to what musically, for me, was an almost sacred place. I wandered through the still and muffled park. A subtle atmosphere of reverence is created here among the groves of trees, the serpentine paths winding between hedges and over the little bridge above the Utrata river. Long-leaved aquatic plants flowed like Ophelia’s hair in the current. It was almost dusk as I made my way to the softly lit entrance of the dwórek. I leaned against one of the columns of the porch and looked into the depths of the park over the still pond with the dim carp.

I stooped to pick up a weathered chestnut and idly polished it on my coat. An old piano tuner I knew in Warsaw gave chestnuts from this park to piano students at the conservatorium, telling them to hold them close to their hearts as they contained ‘the spirit of Chopin’. He claimed he had also seen the disembodied hand of the composer appear on a banister in the dwórek late one night after tuning the piano for a concert.

I pushed aside the heavy brocade and leather curtain at the front door. Only about twenty-five people could be accommodated in the tiny room. A brass candelabra with the crowned Polish eagle resting between the branches stood on the small grand piano. Warm yellow light flickered on the portrait of the composer and fitfully illuminated the painted beams of the dwórek. The young pianist, a French girl, had ambitiously chosen to play both sets of Chopin études. Her little dog lay under the instrument fast asleep. Snow fell gently and silently against the windows and built up on the ledges.

A cloud hovers over the birth date of Fryderyk in a rather characteristic Polish way. The year 1810 is not seriously in dispute but the Chopin family insisted on March 1 while the baptismal certificate records a birth date of February 22. Celebrations in Warsaw occur throughout the week, which covers all possibilities.

At this time (1810) Warsaw was an extraordinary melange of cultures. Magnificent magnate palaces shared muddy unpaved streets with dilapidated townhouses, szlachta farms, filthy hovels and teeming markets. By 1812 the Napoleonic campaigns had financially crippled the Duchy of Warsaw.

The French Ambassador commented:

'Nothing could exceed the misery of all classes . . . I even saw princesses quit Warsaw from the most extreme distress’.

Chopin spent his formative years in Warsaw during this turbulent political period and the family often escaped the capital to the refuge of the Mazovian countryside at Żelazowa Wola. Here the fields are alive with birdsong, butterflies and wildflowers. On summer nights the piano was placed in the garden and Chopin would improvise eloquent melodies that floated through the orchards and across the river to the listening villagers gathered beyond. To this day, the atmosphere is recaptured in summer when the windows of the dwórek are thrown open for recitals and the audience wanders in the elegant gardens or leans on the railing of the small wooden bridge and gazes into the dreamy waters of the Utrata.

The sensitive and poetic young pianist Aleksandra Świgut performed a demanding programme at a deserted Żelazowa Wola. For this recital she played an Erard from 1838 from the NIFC collection. She was awarded a distinguished 2nd prize ex aequo at the 1st International Chopin Competition on Period Instruments in Warsaw 2–14 September 2018.

Berceuse Op.57 in D-flat major[1843]


How appropriate for Aleksandra Świgut to so thoughtfully open her birthday recital with this masterpiece depicting innocent infancy. The Chopin Berceuse is possibly the most beautiful lullaby in absolute music ever written. The manuscript of this cradle-song masterpiece belonged to Chopin's close friend Pauline Viardot, the French mezzo-soprano and composer. Perhaps this innocent, delicate and tender music was inspired by his concern with her infant daughter Louisette. Perhaps the baby caused Chopin to become nostalgic for his own family or even reflect on a child of his own that could only ever remain an occupant of his imagination. The Berceuse, composed at Nohant, appears to constitute a distant echo of a song that Chopin’s mother sang to him: the romance of Laura and Philo, ‘Już miesiąc zeszedł, psy się uśpily’ [The moon now has risen, the dogs are asleep]. (Tomaszewski). This was a gentle and tender performance of moving nuance and restrained refinement.

Mazurkas, Op.30 [1835-1837]


In this set of mazurkas or 'illuminated engravings', I felt she captured the Polish idiom or as Chopin referred to it, the 'Polish element' which he observed was often absent despite an otherwise  good performance. It was an interpretation which sensitively maintained that rare, intimate and confiding atmosphere contained within these remarkable small masterpieces. The poet Kornel Ujejski, who wrote what he called ‘translations’ of Chopin, gifted No.2, the B minor mazurka, with  this sentimental anecdote: The cuckoo tells a girl when she will wed: ‘Ile więc razy kukułeczka kuknie, /To za wiosen tyle wezmę ślubną suknię’ [So however many times the little cuckoo sings, /You’ll don your wedding dress in that many springs].

No.1 in C minor

No.2 in B minor

No.3 in D-flat major

No.4 in C-sharp minor

Sonata Op.35 in B-flat minor [1839]


The great Polish musicologist Tomaszewski describes the general mood of this sonata characteristically and perceptively: ‘The Sonata was written in the atmosphere of a passion newly manifest, but frozen by the threat of death.’ A deep existential dilemma then for Chopin speaks from these pages written in Nohant in 1839. This rather experimental sonata received fierce criticism and lack of understanding at the time. Yet his teacher Jozef Elsner wrote of this rare form of the Romantic sonata, 'Leave him in peace. His is an extraordinary path, for he has an extraordinary gift. He does not follow the old rules, because he seeks those of his own.' The pianist, like all of us, must go one dimension deeper to plumb the terrifying abyss this sonata opens at our feet. Świgut certainly described this gloomy cavern in a deeply haunting Grave opening full of tragedy, menace, and existential questions to be answered.

The Doppio movimento ('twice as fast' as 'Grave' is quite a challenge to determine as the tempo for this opening movement). The musical narrative reminds one of a Ballade, the narrator carried irresistibly forward through his emotional history on a galloping horse. I have always felt one entered the imagist mind of Chopin here, watching the play of his dreaming imagination projected as if onto a cinema screen. The demonic Scherzo, a type of transformed mazurka, was sufficiently unhinged and unsettling with Świgut at the helm. The Trio had an otherworldly lyricism and beautiful cantabile in profound contrast. 

She played the central focus of this sonata, the Marche funèbre, in a suitably sombre mood, dark colours washing over us containing the inimitable rich timbre of the Erard. Placing this movement mysteriously after the Scherzo may have been influenced by the sonata plan adopted by Beethoven in Op.26, Chopin's favorite among his sonatas. The movement was actually composed before the sonata. At the spiritual centre of the work, we have a type of rising of the spirit, a remembrance of past lyrical happiness in a ultimately fruitless attempt to change the doom-laden mood. A seemingly  inevitable reversion to overall depression and despair returns. Her cantabile was beautifully wrought at just the right tempo to move one emotionally, so musical and very sensitive. 

The Presto was exciting but not so fast as to obscure the fascinating internal counterpoint and implied polyphony. Was it depicting waves of the hysterical grief-stricken mind remembering an optimistic past of hopeful continuance, or wind fluttering over the graves or perhaps, more prosaically, as Chopin commented, a realistic and impressionistic 'chattering' of friends and acquaintances of the deceased after the interment.

I. Grave - Doppio movimento

II. Scherzo

III. Marche funèbre

IV. Finale. Presto

Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante Op.22 in E-flat major 

[1830-1836]

The difficulties concealed in this work are easy to underestimate. Chopin often performed the Andante spianato (smoothly without anxious tension) as a separate piece in his rare recitals. It has both the character of a nocturne and a lullaby and as such the tender expressiveness. She accomplished this with a similar grace to her opening Berceuse.

The Grande polonaise brillante with its opening 'Call to the Floor' as if on horns and its super glittering style brillante is such a dramatic gesture. Hardly anyone playing Chopin waltzes has an idea of ballroom dancing in the nineteenth century. Chopin in his youth was mad about dancing, a fine dancer and also an excellent dance pianist playing into the small hours, hence his need for 'rehab' at Bad Reinherz – now Dusznki Zdrój. Certainly Chopin waltzes are not meant to be danced but the sublimated idiom remains. Chopin waltzes nearly always open, except say the Valse triste, with an energetic and declamatory fanfare or 'call to the floor' for the dancers. A slight pause and then the scandalous Waltz begins.

First dance - Wikipedia

The essential nature of the style brilliant, of which the Grand Polonaise Brillante Op.22 is an essential and outstanding representative of Chopin’s early Varsovian style, seems rather a mystery to modern pianists who are not Polish. Young pianists should learn to dance the waltz, the polonaise and the mazurka to absorb the rhythm into their autonomic motor system. Jan Kleczyński writes of this work: ‘There is no composition stamped with greater elegance, freedom and freshness’, it is ‘a real firework of wondrous passages and bold phrases’. For Zdzislaw Jachimecki the work is ‘a wondrously shimmering play of lights and colours’, and for Tadeusz Zielinski ‘a wealth and magnificence of patterns in sound’.  

The principal theme of the polonaise combines an eagle's soaring flight with spirit and verve, bravura with elegance – all of those features that characterize a dance in the styl brillant. The opening (and principal) theme is at once developed by a complementary theme that is suffused with harmoniousness and given over to play. Played with the utmost fluency, subtlety and sensitivity to the beauty of the sound, it confirms all the descriptions.  (Tomaszewski)The polonaise is a traditional expression of distinct Polishness that contains within the original dance the martial qualities of nobility, grace, resistance, élanthe glitter of the sabre, the proud stroking of the Sarmartian moustache valiantly facing the enemy.

The style involves a bright, light touch and glistening tone, varied shimmering colours, supreme clarity of articulation, in fact much like what was referred to in French as the renowned jeu perlé. Quite apart from the extreme digital difficulty of the work, this effect is difficult to achieve on a period instrument that is not in fact new but restored. One tends to forget that pianos are mechanical devices and subject to ageing in a manner that say a Stradivarius violin is not. Although Sébastien Érard invented the double escapement mechanism, even when restored, it does not react as accurately and instantly as the new mechanism. 

She gave the work all the expressive elements it needed of charm, grace, taste, affectation and elegance. The work is a fascinating piece of theatre which perhaps is how this work should be considered in many respects. It is not deeply philosophical but an utterly enjoyable brilliant confection written by a high-spirited young Pole named Fryderyk Chopin, a lover of dancing and acting. One must not forget that Chopin astonished Vienna by his pianism but perhaps even more by the elegance of his princely appearance.

Encore: Chopin song:  'Życzenie' ("The Maiden's Wish") Op.74.No.1 [1829?]

A fine choice of encore, the earliest of his songs, composed when preoccupied with his idealized love of the soprano Konstancja Gładkowska. A sensitive performance romantically concluded this uplifting birthday recital at Chopin's poetic birthplace.

A MAIDEN’S WISH

Stefan Witwicki (1801–1847)

If I were the sun in the sky,

I wouldn’t shine, except for you —

Not over waters or woods,

But for all time

Beneath your dear window and only for you,

If I could change myself into the sun.

 

If I were a little bird from that grove,

I wouldn’t sing in any alien land —

Not over waters or woods,

But for all time

Beneath your dear window and only for you.

Oh, why can’t I change myself into a little bird?

                                                                                                                                         Photo Wojciech Grzędziński

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