As the Arthur Rubinstein Competition is now in progress in Tel Aviv, I feel it is a fine opportunity to listen to how winners of this prestigious competition develop in their careers. In 2017 the pianist on this recording, Szymon Nehring, won First Prize in the competition, the first Polish pianist to do so. I predict that the uncommon young Polish pianist Aleksandra Swigut, who is taking part as I write and whose talent I have championed for many years, will hopefully distinguish herself in a similar manner!
On Chopin's birthday this year I felt grateful to the National Fyderyk Chopin Institute to be able to attend live concerts once again. I also respect greatly the courage shown by these young musicians to perform in public, even in such a large hall as the Filharmonia. Such a bizarre experience to sit masked in the Filharmonia Hall, distant from others without the slightest concession to social interaction or interval discussion over coffee or a glass of claret. But there was music present at last !
This recording of the Chopin chamber music contains the same works performed at the live concert I attended on Chopin's Birthday 1 March 2021, with the splendid addition of the Grand Duo Concertant in E major on themes from Meyerbeer's Robert le diable for piano and cello (1832-1833)
It is well not to forget outstanding performances in the plethora of online concerts we are privileged to hear worldwide during this cruel pandemic. The recorded sound quality of the Chopin Institute CDs is always superior. Photo Wojciech Grzędziński
The hunting lodge, a pavillon de chasse in the romantic classical style, was bulit in 1822-1824 for Prince Antoni Radziwiłł by Karol Frideric Schinkel. The four-storey wooden building was erected on the plan of a Greek Cross. However, it was not actually completed until 1926.
Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major for piano and cello Op. 3 (1829)
In November 1829, Chopin wrote to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski ‘I received your last letter, in which you tell me to give myself a kiss at Radziwill's place in Antonin. I was there for a week, and you’ll not believe how well I felt there. I returned by the last mail-coach and barely excused myself from extending my stay. As for my own person and passing amusement, I would have stayed there until I was chased away, but my affairs, and my Concerto in particular [the first, in F minor Op.21], not yet completed, and impatiently awaiting the completion of its finale, compelled me to leave that Paradise.’
Prince Antoni Radziwiłł was a fine cellist and composer. At Antonin, Chopin hunted in the morning, gave lessons to his 'two Eves' - Princess Wanda and Princess Eliza, even posing for the popular pastime of drawing in the afternoon. He could sketch cartoon figures skillfully and she sketched him on a previous occasion!
Chopin sketched by Princess Eliza Radziwill at Antonin en route to Duszniki Zdroj 1826.
They then might listen to excerpts from the surprisingly complex music that his host, Prince Antoni Radziwiłł, had composed to Faust (Mephisotopheles and Gretchen - music of the sacred and profane). In the evening Chopin showed off his skills as a pianist and duetted with the cellist prince. But above all, he composed. He was working on the Trio in G minor Op.8, which would be dedicated to Antoni Radziwiłł, and also the Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major, Op. 3. Chopin knew and loved the cello repertoire, especially the superb playing of the renowned cellist Jozef Merk in Warsaw.
And more to Tytus: ‘While I was staying with him, I wrote there an alla polacca with a cello part. Nothing but baubles to dazzle, for the salon, for the ladies. I wished you see, that Princess Wanda learn to play it. I was supposed to have been giving her lessons during that time. A young thing, 17 years old, pretty, and, by my word, it was nice to help her place her little fingers on the keys. But all joking aside, she has a lot of genuine musical feeling, such that you don't have to tell her to make a crescendo here, a piano there, and 'faster here, and slower there', and so forth.' (At the time she was actually 21 and Chopin was only 19 himself!)
"There is dazzle, and plenty of it. After all, brillante means sparkling. But there is also bravura, verve and a Slavic, typically polonaise vigour, as well as an undeniable feel for the spirit of the dance. That is just how it was danced at grand balls in Poland. But this is obviously a work to listen to, not for dancing. It has the form of a rondo. The principal theme, that is, the refrain, is distinctive to a fault. It falls lightly on the ear – almost too lightly. Each of its returns (and it returns twice) brings a strong anchorage. On each occasion, it appears twice: first it is presented with dash and with spirit (con spirito) by the cello, and immediately afterwards it issues forth from the piano in a different guise, in a style that Chopin defined as elegantemente. The piano’s pearly playing is accompanied by the cello’s pizzicato."(Tomaszewski).
The outstanding keyboard command and tone of Nehring and especially the superb intonation of Zdunik's rich, singing cello, produced a fine and rather intense performance. Chopin's immense melodic gift was clearly in evidence. However, even though they played very expressively and well co-ordinated, I felt the careless and youthful zest, verve, sheer vitality, joy, grace and elegance of this early work, the styl brillant atmosphere which balances the Slavic masculine bravura of the Polonaise, was slightly overlooked. The social, rather light 'conversational' affectation of a concert featuring this brilliant piece at say a Bad Ischl afternoon concert, was a little lost. To quote the title of a piece from Schumann's Kinderszenen that I would apply to their interpretation - Fast zu Ernst (Almost too serious).
Sonata in G minor for piano and cello Op. 65 (1846)
And so we move ahead seventeen years to the cello sonata written for and dedicated to Chopin's close friend, the renowned cellist Auguste Franchomme. Following some initial optimism, after some work developing sonata with Franchomme, the usual disillusion with his compositions set in.
The work began to give him anguish, grief and arduous challenges as no other piece before - well, the first movement has two hundred pages of sketches and notes of intense creative work, failures and trials! This is hardly surprising as Chopin was exploring, even inventing a forward thinking 'late style', a novel harmonic world and idiom more akin to that of German models such as Schumann, Mendelssohn and even the later Brahms. The high emotionalism of Franck is also prefigured. And yet at times the extremely demanding piano writing hearkens back to the youth of his piano concertos. Also his relationship with George Sand was undergoing severe pressure owing to her increasing antagonism at Nohant towards her son, the painter Maurice. This could account partly for its overall intensely meditative and introspective psychic landscape. It was the last work to be published in his lifetime.
Fortunately for us Chopin was an obsessive letter writer and wrote enormously long, generous and newsy letters to his family in Warsaw (with a quill dipped in ink dried with fine grain sand remember!). They indicate the remarkable encyclopedic nature of his roving mind. 'I am in some strange world ... I am in an imaginary space.' Far more than a great composer this man, this genius.
On Sunday, 11 October 1846 from George Sand's domain Ch de Nohant, he sat at the little table next to the piano to write when 'they' had gone out for a drive. He wrote, in a type of internal stream of consciousness monologue, of the fine vendage or grape harvest especially in Burgundy, of countryside rambles on which he was not particularly keen, an eccentric dog named Marquis who refuses to eat or drink from gilded bowls and impulsively overturns them. He also described, among other scientific wonders, of his marveling at the discovery of a new planet (Neptune) by the French astronomer Urbain le Verrier merely by astronomical mathematical calculation. Musical reflections and gossip dominate concerning the fascinating history of Covent Garden Opera in London, the Paris Opera (and news of two ladies dueling over the young, handsome baritone Coletti). He also writes of the activities of the Royals and their lavish activities with 17 carriages. He profoundly laments the death of the giraffe in Warsaw zoo (Europe in the nineteenth century was fascinated by this extraordinary animal which inspired all sorts of poems, paintings and interior decoration, including pianos!). Chopin expresses a wish not to be reminded of death.
|French print of a giraffe from 1849|
More to our point, he speaks of the difficulties of writing the cello sonata as the letter closes:
I would like to fill my letter with the best news, but I know nothing other than the fact that I love you and love you. I play a little, write a little. Now I am satisfied with my Cello Sonata, the next time not. I throw it into the corner, then I gather it up again. I have three new Mazurkas...' After salutations and embraces for everyone [...] It is five, and already so dark that I practically can't see. I will end this letter. [...] I embrace you most heartily, and I kiss Mama's little hands and feet. Ch.
|A rare Viennese Giraffe Piano ca. 1825|
George Sand describes his behavior during the white heat crucible of his creations: 'He shut himself up in his room for whole days, weeping, walking about, breaking his quills, repeating or altering a bar a hundred times, writing it down and erasing it as often, and starting over the next day with a scrupulous and desperate perseverance. He would spend six weeks on one page, only to return to it and write it just as he had on the first draft.'
The sonata is a great masterpiece and our duo were far more at home with the introspective, passionate intensity of this mature work. The pattern of lyrical themes transformed into passionate utterances in the extensive opening Maestoso movement were accomplished with convincing, even compelling, energy and expressiveness. Soul searching and emotional resistance were present at once. Nehring was impressively accomplished in the virtuosic, formidable piano part as Chopin's melodic gift soared effortlessly above us on the cello. The typically Chopinesque Scherzo was painted in all its shifting moods and jagged dance rhythms so well on the piano. The 'trio' that lies at the centre is one of the most beautiful melodies Chopin ever wrote for cello. It wings above a gently oscillating piano accompaniment.
The beauty of the ardent Largo cantilena on the cello became a moving and consoling contemporary commentary on the tragic situation humanity finds itself beset with at present. But energetic life returns in the dotted rhythms of the Finale. Allegro which then modulate into melancholic reflections. The tempestuous coda, concluding in C minor, offers no great consolation to the tragedy that has unfolded. Nehring and Zdunik were successful on all levels at communicating the deep national and personal sadness that pervades this work. Chopin and Sand at the time were suffering the unraveling of their extraordinary love, the disintegration of their creative literary and musical world and its former fruitful symbiosis.
Chopin always brings to my mind the poetry of John Keats (1795-1821). The final stanza of his Ode on Melancholy (1820) seems so appropriate for this late work of Chopin - and not only this work.
She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
Trio in G minor Op. 8 (1829)
Photo Wojciech Grzędziński
And so the duo was now joined by the outstanding violist Ryszard Groblewski. We return to Antonin and the early but substantial Trio in G minor Op. 8, one of the greatest works of Polish chamber music. The Trio was dedicated to Prince Antoni Radziwiłł and given to him by Chopin at Antonin on the same visit detailed above. He wrote Chopin a gracious letter of acceptance. However, the piece was actually completed as an academic exercise in the curriculum of his studies with his teacher Jozef Elsner.
Chopin wrote to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski of its rather fractious and interrupted period of composition. After returning from Berlin he wrote: ‘As far as my new compositions are concerned, I have nothing except a still not entirely completed Trio in G minor which I had begun shortly after your departure.' For some unknown reason, he put the work aside and conceived the Rondo à la krakowiak.
|The interior of the hunting lodge at Antonin |
The first movement, Allegro con fuoco, is rather Beethovenian in inspiration and structure. It was clear from the outset that the three musicians were finely balanced instrumentally and musically. The rare use of the viola instead of the violin in this work, gave it an unaccustomed and alluring timbral richness. There was a particularly attractive energy and creative cooperation and exchange of motifs by these outstanding young virtuosi. The Scherzo, appearing as the second movement rather than the third, as in the conventional Classical sonata, was 'pioneered' by Beethoven. Chopin followed Beethoven in this 'revolution'. The trio communicated the brittle exuberance and charm of the oberek dance very well indeed.
The affecting poetry of the Adagio, although a pastoral and lyrical movement, does not move the heart in the same way as his later Romanza or Larghetto from the piano concerti - but then he had not yet fallen in illusioned love with the soprano and fellow music student Konstancja Gladkowska. The rich timbral conversation and interchange of cello and viola themes were played affectingly with Nehring's roving poetic harmonic modulations in support. In the mysterious close of the movement, the haunting existential shadows, so typical of the Chopin psyche, even make themselves felt at this early stage of his life experience.
The last movement, the Finale, is a typical Classical rondo. The refrain is a memorable and catchy krakowiak, presented first by Szymon Nehring in vivacious style and rhythm. The theme was then taken up by the youthful, brilliant cellist Martin Zdunik and later recalled by the deeply musical and poetic viola player Ryszard Groblewski. Tomaszewski writes: '...we have been served a number of episodes, the most characteristic of which resembles a Ukrainian Cossack dance.' Schumann wrote of the work: ‘Is it not as noble as one could possibly imagine? Dreamier than any poet has ever sung?’
A highly rewarding, deeply musical and uplifting concert to remind one of the true priorities in life!
[Letters translated from the Polish originals by David Frick in Chopin's Polish Letters, The Fryderyk Chopin Institute, Warsaw 2016]
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