Dimitry Ablogin - Warsaw recorded CD of the Late Works of Chopin Op.45-64 played on Chopin's last Pleyel of 1848 (Chopin Museum) - 'A thing of beauty is a joy for ever'
|The last Pleyel 14810 piano of 1848 played by Fryderyk Chopin in the Fryderyk Chopin Museum Warsaw
John Keats (1795-1821)
A Poetic Romance
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
One may wonder why in Warsaw I open an important music review of a recording of the music of Chopin played on his last Pleyel piano with a quotation from the immortal English poet John Keats. In the domain of music, the poem arouses a singularly appropriate emotional feeling in my heart. This is one of the most significant recordings one can imagine in these benighted times of human barbarity.
I have always found Keats similar in tender yet passionate poetic temperament to Fryderyk Chopin. The last instrument used by the composer, resting now in the Chopin Museum in Warsaw, was recorded by the deep and uniquely sensitive 'angel of the piano', the pianist Dimitry Ablogin.
This 1848 Pleyel instrument is, without doubt or hindrance of mind, 'a thing of beauty'. Lodged now in the suspended paralysis of time, here it is once again raised to miraculous life. Ablogin is a joy in his carefully assembled discriminating programme of Chopin that reveals the subtle range of colour, grace, tone, timbre, and touch possible on this sensitive instrument.
The widely experienced restorer and builder of historical instruments, Paul McNulty, said in December 2021 that this instrument was the best preserved Pleyel he had ever seen. He was thrilled to be working on this historic instrument, one of the high points of his career, the 'most exciting thing I have ever done'. Much of the original instrument had been miraculously preserved and sensitively restored whilst in the possession of Chopin's family and during a later historical restoration. The old mechanism required little work, simply restringing, tuning and regulation.
Listening to this recording by Ablogin, one must remember the Pleyel is a conservative instrument in comparison to say the Erard, eminently suitable for the intimate, nuanced and subtle recitals that suited Chopin's introverted temperament. Chopin referred to the Pleyel as the ne plus ultra of pianos. With its single escapement mechanism, he needed to 'work' to produce the tone and perfect touch, the intimate, poetic sound he envisaged for many of his compositions. Ablogin also understands this aspect of Chopin's 'work' to bring its voice into glorious sound.
Another rare aspect concerning Ablogin is his essential modesty as a performer. He does not cultivate the piano as a means of flooding us with egotism and 'striking interpretative ideas'. He avoids using great classical piano compositions as a platform to project his own personality. Becoming a conduit for the nuanced, untrammeled conception of the composer, as he does, is one of the greatest arts of any instrumental performer.
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 45 (1841)
The fragile poetic delicacy of the instrument was clear from the opening of this masterpiece and will take you unresisting, close to the aesthetically ravishing sound world of Chopin. Ablogin communicates so well that the work was conceived in the spirit of improvisation. It was composed at Nohant during the summer of 1841 and published in the autumn as the separate Op. 45. Chopin was so pleased with this work he wrote uncharacteristically when he sent the manuscript to Fontana for copying : ‘well modulated!’.
The charming, cultivated sonority is revealed in the cadenza as it 'swells towards emotional ecstasy' (Tomaszewski). The conclusion fades into the oblivion of a delicate pianissimo trace of sound only possible on such a period instrument. The sublime work was dedicated to Princess Elisabeth Czernicheff, one of Chopin’s pupils.
Nocturne in E major, Op. 62 No. 2 (1845-46)
In this work one can always sense, beneath the calm exterior of the melody that winds into existence in a gentle lento sostenuto arabesque, the pressing need to erupt in agitation. This is the sudden expression of previously contained high emotional tension imprisoned in the central section. Such is often the case in Chopin nocturnes and such fluctuation of emotional colour and intensity is able to be perfectly expressed by Ablogin on this Pleyel.
And then towards the conclusion the return of the gentle melody. As James Huneker might have observed of it, the behaviour of Chopin is that of 'a genius but a gentleman'. Chopin the dreamer armed with a sword. I felt in this sensitive performance the suggested image of a painted veil.
Waltz in A flat major, Op. 64 No. 3 (1840-47)
This is a work for connoisseurs alert to the changing ambience of pianistic colours and their key associations. Ablogin presented us with an ambiguity of sensibility. As James Huneker put it, ‘It is for superior souls who dance with intellectual joy’. For Hedley, this Waltz ‘possesses a discreet, suave elegance’.
Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op. 50 No. 3 (1841-42)
Dancing was a passion in Europe, especially during carnival from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday. It was an opulent time, generating a great deal of commercial business, no less in Warsaw than in Vienna or Paris. Dancing - waltzes, polonaises, mazurkas - were a vital part of Warsaw social life, closely woven into the fabric of the city. There was veritable 'Mazurka Fever' in Europe and Russia at this time. The dancers were not restricted to noble families - the intelligentsia and bourgeoisie embraced the passion.
Chopin's experience of dance, as a refined gentleman of exquisite
manners, would have been predominantly urban ballroom dancing with some
experience of peasant hijinks during his summer holidays in Żelazowa Wola,
Szarfania and elsewhere. Poland was mainly an agricultural society in the early
nineteenth century. At this time Warsaw was an extraordinary melange of
cultures. Magnificent magnate palaces shared muddy unpaved streets with
dilapidated townhouses, szlachta farms, filthy hovels and
|Chopin at a Pleyel piano. Pencil drawing by Jacob Götzenberger Paris October 1838, just after Chopin's first visit to England in 1837
By 1812 the Napoleonic campaigns had financially crippled the Duchy of Warsaw. Chopin spent his formative years 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.
Of course he was a perfect mimic, actor, practical joker and enthusiastic dancer as a young man, tremendously high-spirited. He once wrote a verse describing how he spent a wild night, half of which was dancing and the other half playing pranks and dances on the piano for his friends. They had great fun! One of his friends took to the floor pretending to be a sheep! On one occasion he even sprained his ankle he was dancing so vigorously! He would play with gusto and 'start thundering out mazurkas, waltzes and polkas'.
When tired and wanting to dance, he would pass the piano over to 'a humbler replacement'. Is it not at all surprising his teacher Józef Elzner and his doctors advised a period of 'rehab' at Duszniki Zdrój to preserve his health. Had it already begun to show the first signs of failing? This advice may not have been the best for him or his sister Emilia and Ludwika Skarbek as reinfection was always a strong possibility. Both were dead not long after their return from the so-called 'cure'.
Many of his mazurkas would have come to life on the dance floor as improvisations. Perhaps only later were they committed to the more permanent art form on paper under the influence and advice of the Polish folklorist and composer Oskar Kolberg. Chopin floated between popular and art music quite effortlessly.
This third Mazurka of the Op.50 set in C sharp minor is truly a masterpiece. At the turn of the 1840s, Chopin’s interest in polyphony and texture was aroused by a book published in Paris in 1837: a handbook on counterpoint by Cherubini. Chopin introduced polyphony into his mazurkas from then on. The dances of the oberek and kujawiak are both presented here, laid among the most remarkably adventurous harmonic transitions. Georg Sand wrote to Eugene Delacroix: ‘Chopin has composed two adorable mazurkas that are worth more than forty novels and express more than all the literature of the century’.
Ablogin on the Pleyel opens with a phrase whose colour and timbre come from the luminous azure above and seem to gently descend to earth. A memory evolves into reality. The emotional contrasts evoked in the sensibility by the varied textures and timbre, only possible on such a period instrument, are endlessly fascinating. The colour differences obtainable from the different registers of a the Pleyel put us in far closer touch with the descriptions of the unearthly, spiritual and transcendent sound worlds Chopin was reputed to produce at the keyboard.
Impromptu in G flat major, Op. 51 (1842)
The effect of this Impromptu and indeed Chopin's music as a whole, was accurately and suggestively described by Andre Gide in his Notes on Chopin:
‘What is most exquisite and most individual in Chopin’s art, wherein it differs most wonderfully from all others, I see in just that non-interruption of the phrase; the insensible, the imperceptible gliding from one melodic proposition to another, which leaves or gives to a number of his compositions the fluid appearance of streams.’
Ablogin created such a lyrical sound and imagery as this describes. One felt as if one was gazing into the sky at a gliding migratory Alpine swift on a summer day, effortlessly riding the invisible updrafts, sketching a blissful arabesque high above the Polish Mazovian plain.
Ballade in F minor, Op. 52 (1842)
For everyone in Chopin's day, the ballad was an epic literary work. That which what had been rejected in severe Classical high poetry now came to the fore: a world of extraordinary, inexplicable, mysterious, fantastical and irrational events inspired by a more popular imagination. In Romantic poetry, the ballad became a ‘programmatic’ genre. It was here that the real met the surreal. Mickiewicz gave his own definition: ‘The ballad is a tale spun from the incidents of everyday (that is, real) life or from chivalrous stories, animated by the strangeness of the Romantic world, sung in a melancholy tone, in a serious style, simple and natural in its expressions’.
Penetrating the expressive core of the Chopin Ballades requires an understanding of the influence of a generalized view of the literary, musical and operatic balladic genres of the time. Not a simple task of time travel. In the musical structure there are parallels with sonata form but Chopin basically invented entirely new musical material. I have always felt it helpful to consider the Chopin Ballades as miniature operas being played out in absolute music, forever exercising one's musical imagination.
Chopin possesses an unrivalled position as Poland’s national composer and its musical wieszcz (poet, balladeer and prophet). This is particularly obvious in the musically narrative Ballades. His music is the beating heart of the nation. The great Polish poet Cyprian Norwid (1821–83) described Chopin as ‘a Varsovian by birth, a Pole by heart, and a citizen of the world by talent’.
Virtuoso brilliance, a supreme gift for melody and an air of sentimentality explain his immense appeal on a popular level. But more deeply the universality of Chopin lies in the sense of loss and nostalgia for his homeland. Contained within his intense music is patriotic resistance to domination, a feeling of sacrifice and melancholy in the face of ‘the bitter finales of life’ – all universal human emotions. ‘Chopin’s music was a kind of cultural battle-ground in the nineteenth century, prey to appropriation.’
I received with Ablogin the impression of a wanderer strolling through the countryside reflecting on the mystery of his entire life examining and judging its intense joys and sorrows. And so this magnificent opera of life passed through the various phases of age, innocence and experience, painted in polyphonic sound with the rich painterly palette provided by the Pleyel. The pure, simple melodic innocence of the opening prepares the spirit in such a poignant manner for the polyphonic, emotional turbulence that follows carried aloft by his persuasive rubato. This rare experience was in augmentation to the deep philosophical penetration of the piece by Ablogin. It was as if one chapter after another of a profound spiritual travel journey had opened before us.
Mazurka in A flat major, Op. 50 No. 2 (1841-42)
A piece in which Ablogin captured the literacy and continuity of musical speech. The tone and rhythm of a kujawiak emerges with a melody that sways in a duple rhythm. It is a calm rather slow dance, to which Chopin gives an almost gently flirtatious character.
Ablogin often interpolated his own subtle, imaginative variations in perfectly period gestures of invention, no slave to the Urtext if such a permanently determined score exists in Chopin. There are almost preoccupied repeats of a simple mazurka motif in the central section before 'the return of the melody of the opening motif, after the bars of that rhythmic and textural monotony, to sound like deliverance.' (Tomaszewski)
Monument to Chopin in the Luxembourg Gardens, 1909 Henri Rousseau (Le Douanier)
|Location: The State Hermitage Museum St. Petersburg Russia
Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64 No. 2 (1840-47)
This waltz of rare intimacy and poetry was dedicated to a queen of the Paris salons, Baroness Charlotte de Rothschild, wife of the famous banker and art patron Nathaniel de Rothschild. The immense popularity of the work does nothing to diminish its poetry and lyrical tenderness. The memorable opening theme is imbued with a perfect harmoniousness, tenderness and melancholy. James Huneker deemed the first theme ‘a fascinating, lyrical sorrow’. Again Ablogin often interpolated his own subtle, imaginative variations in perfectly period gestures of invention
The waltz takes the form of a dance with a trio. Ablogin creates a rare cantabile of yearning sensibility in this trio which truly sings like a Bellini aria in the most affecting emotional manner. Many writers have endeavoured, mainly unsuccessfully, to convey in words the elusive aura of this waltz.
Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57 (1844)
I felt that Ablogin began to drift, as the recording progressed, even further into the enchanted world that this instrument provided. The refinement and delicacy of his playing in the depiction of childish innocence in this lullaby is deeply poignant and affecting.
The work was composed in the summer of 1843 at Nohant for Louise, the baby daughter of Pauline Viardot. His interpretation contains a deeply moving tenderness, refinement and poetry that is most moving in its intense refinement of sound on this instrument. It is well known Chopin loved children and they loved him.
For me the work speaks of a haunted yearning for his own child, a lullaby performed in his sublimely imaginative mind, isolated and alone. No, not a common feeling about the work and possibly over-interpreted on my part, but what of that ....
Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48 No. 1 (1841)
The fine Polish musicologist Tadeusz Andrzej Zieliński (1931-2012) felt that the melody of this Nocturne ‘sounds like a lofty, inspired song filled with the gravity of its message, genuine pathos and a tragic majesty’.
Marcel Antoni Szulc (1818-1898) worked as a teacher of classic languages and French in the St. Marie Magdalene high school and sporadically engaging himself as a sometime music critic. He conceived of this nocturne as ‘this magnificent hymn is proclaimed not by a feeble piano, but by a mighty organ – midst the sound of trombones and kettle drums’.
Ablogin achieves all these aesthetic descriptions.
Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat major, Op. 61 (1846)
This is one of the truly great interpretations of this magnificent work, the finest and most profound Chopin on this recording. No other Chopin work combines so expressively those characteristic Polish heroic gestures with romantic introspective melancholy. The Fantasy inhabits the domain of dreams, a nocturne of delicate melancholy. Delicacy is in contrast with the reality of the Polonaise, that statement of the granite security of defiance. In this remarkable composition we travel the entire spectrum of feeling and emotion with Ablogin.
The music of Chopin uniquely touches and transports us into realms within the heart and spirit, an utterly inaccessible musical geography unapproached by any other composer.
The Polonaise-Fantaisie contains all the troubled emotion and desire for strength in the face of the multiple adversities that beset the composer at this late stage in his life. This work, the first in the so-called ‘late style’ of the composer, was written during a period of great suffering and unhappiness. He laboured over its composition. What emerged is one of his most complex of his works both pianistically and emotionally.
Chopin produced many sketches for the Polonaise-Fantaisie and wrestled with the title. He wrote: ‘I’d like to finish something that I don’t yet know what to call’. This uncertainty surely indicates he was embarking on a journey of compositional exploration along untrodden paths. Even Bartok one hundred years later was shocked at its revolutionary nature. The work is an extraordinary mélange of genres and styles in a type of inspired improvisation that yet maintains a magical absolute musical coherence and logic. He completed it in August 1846.
Feliks Jabłczyński, author of an essay on Chopin’s polonaises wrote: ‘Neither the 'Eroica' nor the 'Appassionata' of Beethoven has a single section of such raging passion – not so much a strength of mechanical striking and bravura, since those can be found in both Liszt and Berlioz, but a strength of inner passion – all the stronger in that with Chopin it is simple, natural, the concentration of all man’s faculties: senses, thought, willpower, physical strength and strength of feeling. At times, this fervour is almost pious… battles have been won with such fervour…’
Chopin leads us through a succession of extraordinary scenes and events. They pass in successive train through the imagination of any listener who can selflessly give himself in a meditative trance to this hypnotic music, a composition flickering on the screen of the mind. One has an imaginative experience bordering on the cinematic.
Ablogin assists this heightened life experience on the Pleyel with ultimate pianissimos, deeply touching rubato phrasing and powerful, yet not gargantuan, unbalanced fortes. He extracts such colours, tone, timbre, refined touch and variety within the dynamic spectrum that is simply not attainable or appears exaggerated on a modern concert grand.
The opening tempo is marked maestoso (a rare indication as with his two concerti) which indicates ‘with dignity and pride’. I was impressed with the ambiguity of Ablogin's opening of almost dreamlike, searching, poetic fantasy. There were phrases of deeply considered expressive emotion contrasted with the passionate expression which immediately set the atmosphere of mercurial, emotional fluctuation.
I felt the expressiveness of this extraordinary piece was constantly being searched for by Ablogin, perhaps at times even prayed for, then discovered as a type of improvisation. As the piece progresses, we move on once more, yet again, into dream far from any security of reality that may have been previously achieved. The invention fluctuates as if it is an irregular circulation of the blood, an profoundly expressive arrhythmia of the heart.
Lord Byron's Dream (1827)
Charles Lock Eastlake PRA (1793 – 1865)
The work reminds me incontrovertibly of lines from Byron's poem of 1816
A change came o’er the spirit of my dream
The Wanderer was alone as heretofore,
The beings which surrounded him were gone,
Or were at war with him; he was a mark
For blight and desolation, compass’d round
With Hatred and Contention; Pain was mix’d
In all which was served up to him, until,
Like to the Pontic monarch of old days,
He fed on poisons, and they had no power,
But were a kind of nutriment; he lived
And made him friends of mountains: with the stars
And the quick Spirit of the Universe
Ablogin presents us with a superbly painted musical panorama laid out on a canvas of memories and associations. Episode after episode, nocturnal dreams alternate with the granite reality of the polonaise.
The work was published in 1846 in Paris, London and Leipzig. The reception was one of confusion and even upset. As Jachimecki stated: ‘the piano speaks here in a language not previously known’. Frederick Niecks’s judgment was that the Polonaise-Fantasy ‘stands, on account of its pathological contents, outside the sphere of art’.
Such comments did much to dissuade the work from being seriously engaged by musicians for many years. However, the revolutionary and expressively adventurous nature of the work slowly grew clearer in legendary significance as the morning mist lifted. The poetic depth of this masterpiece of Western music was finally recognized and expressed by renowned pianists such as Neuhaus, Horowitz, Rubinstein and Małcużyński.
The extra-musical message that moves us so deeply was succinctly expressed by Arthur Hedley who wrote of the ‘spirit that breathes’ in Chopin’s polonaises: ‘pride in the past, lamentation for the present, hope for the future’.
I feel Ablogin is supremely moved by this work and understands it with extraordinary musical penetration. He touches many polyphonic and normally concealed expressive structures and was poignant yet robust as is required in this remarkable music. There is much rich counterpoint and polyphony to be explored here (of which Chopin was one of the greatest masters since Bach).
This work also conveys a strong sense of żal, a Polish word in this context meaning melancholic regret leading to a mixture of passionate resistance, resentment and anger in the face of an unavoidable fate. Yet, Ablogin does not exaggerate the dynamic of the closing chord, so characteristic of ‘late Chopin’, the dissolution of doubt through the triumph of will. This would be too easy a declamatory answer to the exhausting physical and spiritual travail he has spent navigating his passage over the high and rocky mountain pass.
Yes, a complex work written when Chopin was moving towards the cold embrace of death.
Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 9 No. 2 (1832)
this performance expressed a perfect understanding of what a musicologist might
term 'the Chopin aesthetic’. Chopin’s best pupil Princess Marcelina
Czartoryska advised the performer to intuitively immerse himself ‘au climat de Chopin’. The 'bible' of this information is surely the book Chopin
Pianist and Teacher as seen by his Pupils by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger
(Cambridge 1986). Ablogin achieves this with a similar refinement, sensitive rubato and aristocratic phrasing to such written accounts of the composer’s playing. The interpretation gives us a perfect period atmosphere with the many individual expressive variations, ornamental fiorituras and interpolations Ablogin introduces ad libitum - a procedure often described in the contemporary literature and almost irresistible as a musician.
In modern interpretations and pianism there seems to be a movement to eclipse or at least diminish the 'feminine' aspect of the soul from Chopin. This is absurd and impoverishing and comes from our current preoccupation with the physical and crudely 'powerful' in life, the clichéd view of 'masculinity', the 'macho' male. Chopin was one of those rare individuals who managed to balance his masculine and feminine natures - a quality ever present in his music and something Ablogin seems to be profoundly aware of.
Chopin had enjoyed a very close relationship with the Pleyel firm, the instruments of which possessed a specially beautiful and intimate tone colour, which clearly appealed to the composer: … The expression of my inner thoughts, of my feelings, is more direct, more personal [than on an Erard, which produces its bright limpid tone colour effortlessly]. My fingers feel in more immediate contact with the hammers, which then translate exactly and faithfully the feeling I want to produce, the effect I want to obtain.” (Company of Pianos Richard Burnett 2004 concerning instruments in the Finchcocks Collection, p. 139). After listening to this recording one cannot help but wholeheartedly agree with this statement.
Henry Raeburn (1756-1823). Painted in 1823, the year of his death. (Fyvie Castle)
At Calder House, near Edinburgh, Jane Stirling made her Pleyel Grand available to Chopin in her drawing room, while Broadwood provided a piano for the composer’s own rooms. He liked the English instrument a great deal even in his fragile condition of dwindling strength. Chopin’s last public concert performance took place in Edinburgh on 4 October 1848, at the end of a concert tour through England and Scotland. Shortly after that Chopin returned to Paris and died a year later.
If you wish to read in detail the only description of the restoration by Paul McNulty of this instrument the link is here: