Eric Guo - Winner of the 2nd International Chopin Piano Competition on Period instruments Warsaw, 2023 - Fryderyk Chopin 214th Birthday Concert at Żelazowa Wola 1st March 2024 Performed on an 1838 Erard

1st March 2024

Performed on an 1838 Erard

The Dworek at Żelazowa Wola, the birthplace of Fryderyk Chopin, 1st March 1810

Photographs by Wojciech Grzędziński

The Eric Guo recital at the Dworek at Żelazowa Wola, the birthplace of Fryderyk Chopin on 1st March 1810, is on YouTube

My review

Variations in B flat major on a theme from Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ (‘Là ci darem la mano’) Op. 2

Là ci darem la mano’ 

Walter Richard Sickert (1860–1942) 
(National Trust, Fenton House, London)

The youthful Variations in B-flat major on ‘La ci darem la mano’ from Don Giovanni was composed when Chopin was seventeen. This was originally a brilliant and extremely demanding style brillante virtuoso work for piano and orchestra also scored for a solo piano version. 

The influence of Hummel and Moscheles is clear (Chopin greatly admired his playing as did the rest of Europe! His joyful, untroubled music is still undeservedly neglected. Audiences were said to stand on their chairs to see how Hummel accomplished his trills. Now that does not happen today!) The piano was an evolving instrument and each new development created great excitement among composers of the day. Chopin as a youth haunted the Polish piano factory of Fryderyk Buchholtzof in the role of what we might term an ‘early adopter’.

Chopin composed the ‘Là ci darem’ Variations in 1827. As a student of the Main School of Music, he had received from Elsner another compositional task: to write a set of variations for piano with orchestral accompaniment. As his theme, he chose the famous duet between Zerlina and Don Giovanni from the first act of Mozart’s opera Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni. In this opera overwhelming power and faultless seduction meet maidenly naivety and barely controlled fascination. (Tomaszewski)

In his famous first review of Chopin’s variations on Mozart’s ‘Là ci darem la mano’, Schumann gives us a striking description:

“Eusebius quietly opened the door the other day. You know the ironic smile on his pale face, with which he invites attention. I was sitting at the piano with Florestan. As you know, he is one of those rare musical personalities who seem to anticipate everything that is new, extraordinary, and meant for the future. But today he was in for a surprise. Eusebius showed us a piece of music and exclaimed: ‘Hats off, gentlemen, a genius! Eusebius laid a piece of music on the piano rack. […] Chopin – I have never heard the name – who can he be? […] every measure betrays his genius!’”

Chopin’s ‘Là ci darem’ variations are classical in form with an introduction, theme, five variations and finale. 

It is well-known Chopin was obsessed with opera all his life, a fascination that began early. Clara Wieck loved this work and performed it often making it popular in Germany. Her notorious father, who had forbidden her marriage to Robert Schumann, wrote perceptively and rather ironically of this work: ‘In his Variations, Chopin brought out all the wildness and impertinence of the Don’s life and deeds, filled with danger and amorous adventures. And he did so in the most bold and brilliant way’. 

Guo began with a thoughtful introduction with a fine sense of improvisation. The first statement of  'Là ci darem la mano' was expressive of the mood of the opera but perhaps slightly lacking the undertone of beguiling seduction and the subdued erotic emotions that opera singers (and the youthful Chopin) instinctively conceive. 

Vladimir Horowitz once observed : "For me, the intellect is always the guide but not the goal of the performance. Three things have to be coordinated, and not one must stick out. Not too much intellect because it can become scholastic. Not too much heart because it can become schmaltz. Not too much technique because you become a mechanic." 

Guo brought an effortless style brillant introduction to this fiendishly difficult work (digitally and expressively). However, at times for me at least, his execution bordered on simple unalloyed virtuosity. I felt this pianist could have had a deeper expressive understanding of opera and singing, that eighteenth century Mozartian period of elegance and affectation. The seductive skills of the Don were seemingly irresistible as Zerlina was about to be married. She did not simply fall into his lap and erotically meet his lips in a mad gesture of availability but was lured into this indiscretion. 

Guo clearly showed his deep musicality and glittering style brillant execution on the 1838 Erard. However, I felt each variation could have been delineated slightly more clearly in mood, colour and timbre from the next. I felt, although he began so well, he gradually lost my emotional involvement  as the piece progressed. 

[You may be interested in this aside with some interesting extra information on Elner's similar assignment to a rather different composer who was also in Chopin's class. As my readers will know, it is my wont to impart knowledge being at heart a teacher!] 

Ignacy F. Dobrzyński (1807-1867) was born on former Polish territory in Romanów, in former Volhynia in the Russian Empire, but now known as Romaniv, Zhytomyr Oblast in Ukraine.  He first studied music with his father Ignacy, a violinist, composer and music director. In 1825 he studied in Warsaw with Józef Elsner privately, then in 1826–28 at the Warsaw Conservatory, where he was a fellow pupil of Fryderyk Chopin. 

Elsner commented on the two : 'Chopin - a remarkable talent [szczegolna zdolnosc] genius etc....Dobrzynski - an uncommon talent...much talent [zdolnosc niepospolita...wiele zdolnosci].' A committed Polish patriot he composed the arrangement of the Dąbrowski mazurka which has since become the Polish national anthem. In 1835, he won second prize in a composition competition for his Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 15. This symphony was later called 'Symphony in the Characteristic Spirit of Polish Music' and movements were conducted by Mendelssohn. Dobrzyński toured Germany as a pianist, wrote piano pieces and also conducted opera. 

There is a canyon that yawns between great musical talent and genius. This is clear  comparing Dobrzyński and Chopin, although in recent time his star is rising during the Polish musical renaissance including his fine piano concerto and symphonies. This was confirmed by the Hommage à Mozart – Fantaisie sur des thèmes de l’opéra Don Giovanni de W.A. Mozart in A major Op. 59 (1850) also suggested by Józef Elsner. Both in structure and utilization I am of course reminded of the brilliant Chopin Variations in B flat major on ‘Là ci darem la mano’, Op. 2  that we have just heard - Chopin’s reaction to Mozart's Don Giovanni. Thanks to these Variations, Chopin’s fame spread across central Europe but not that of Dobrzyński which has only more recently begun to burgeon.]

Mazurkas Op. 56 (1843-1844)

The mazurka is the quintessential expression of the Polish national and ethnic identity. Any approach to them is bound to cause comment, sometimes dismissive, sometimes abrasive but never indifferent or detached. One should examine the nature of dancing in Warsaw during the time of Chopin. Almost half of his music is actually dance music of one sort or another and a large proportion of the rest of his compositions contain dances.

Dancing was a passion especially during carnival from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday. It was an opulent time, generating a great deal of commercial business, no less 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 also took part in 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, Szafania 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 teeming markets. 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 surprising his teacher Józef Elzner and his doctors advised a period of 'rehab' at Duszniki Zdrój to preserve his health which had 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 there. 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.

George Sand wrote in Les Maîtres Sonneurs (The Master Pipers) 'He gave us the finest dances in the attractive and easy to dance to that we seemed to fly through the air.'

No. 1 in B major

Guo was idiomatic but for me not sufficiently harmonically penetrating within its  musically adventurous and fragmented harmonic nature. The mazurka rhythm was clear although slightly rushed.

No. 2 in C major

Ferdynand Hoesick described this mazurka that has such a rustic dance feel as follows: ‘The basses bellow, the strings go hell for leather, the lads dance with the lasses and they all but wreck the inn’. I felt Guo was spontaneous, boisterous and rumbustious as described by the descriptions of Chopin's playing and dancing of some mazurkas above - all during his colourful life as a young man. 

No. 3 in C  minor

I have always felt this mazurka is not based in reality but inhabits the domain of nostalgic dream and memory. I felt Guo did not fully comprehend the wistfulness of this mazurka, a fragile nostalgic work, for me a refined piece which drifts over the Mazovian plain on a summer breeze, fading away to nothing as an autumn leaf falls into a stream and drifts ever so gently away...

Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat major Op. 61 (1846)

Polonaise-Fantasy, Op.61.

Facsimile Edition of the Manuscript Held in the National Library in Warsaw (Mus. 233 Cim.)

I make no apology for repeating my introduction to this masterpiece as such background facts do not change although the interpretative approach is always completely different.

This work contained 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 piece called by the scholar Jeffrey Kallberg in the ‘late style’ of the composer, was composed in 1846 during a period of great personal suffering and unhappiness.His relationship with Lélia (George Sand) was fracturing beyond reconciliation.'Where has my art gone?' he wrote tortuously in a letter to his friend Wojciech Grzmała in October 1848. He laboured over its composition which is testified by the voluminous sketches that have survived (at least as photographs). What emerged is one of his most complex of his works both pianistically and emotionally. 

Chopin wrestled with the title. He had written: ‘I’d like to finish something that I don’t yet know what to call’. This uncertainty indicates surely 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.  

The work was not well received, even by Liszt who spoiled serious consideration of it for quite some years. He was finally 'converted' a long time later to the magnificence of the work. The authority on Chopin, Frederick Niecks, misjudged the Polonaise-Fantasy:  [the work] stands, on account of its pathological contents, outside the sphere of art’. However, the cultivated society of Marcelina Czartoryska, Chopin's favourite pupil, associated the work with Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz.

The opening tempo is marked maestoso, used by Chopin sparingly in the opening movements of both concerti and some polonaises which indicates ‘with dignity and pride’. I was impressed with the gravitas and nobility in Guo's musical searching phrasing of the opening. There is a dreamlike, existentially insecure poetic fantasy of the opening phrases of considered expressive emotion contrasted with passionate expression which follows and immediately sets the atmosphere.

The narrative of Polish history that now begins to unfold should be in direct dramatic contrast, another landscape of musical invention begins to bloom over the meandering improvised dream of the opening. Guo managed this. The significance of the tragic historical narrative would have been clear to sensitive listeners of the time. The invention fluctuates through different genres as if with the irregular circulation of the mind, heart and blood. As Kallberg indicates we move from tonal stability to instability (harmonic resolution and irresolution), between blocks of contrasting music, a long introduction and a slow lyrical central section.

Guo in a sensitive performance accomplished a great deal musically and expressively with this labyrinthine adventurous structure, very close to the unique narrative dream-aesthetic of the fantasy created and cultivated by the composer. There is relevant historical significance in a remark by Friedrich Nietzsche in his Ecce Homo (written 1888) 'Since the conquest of Warsaw, whenever I dance a polonaise I half expect a Cossack to come bursting in and put an end to it - alas the poor Poles !'  One cannot help but reflect on the horrors of modern times.

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 tragic unavoidable fate.  The accumulation of musical excitement, heightened emotional passion leading to a terminal climax unsurpassed in Chopin, was well constructed and controlled by Guo. This is a complex cultural work for a young man to completely master other than musically. The edifice was constructed when Chopin was composing in exploratory ways and moving towards the cold embrace of death. Guo shows great promise in following this stony path, this Calvary. 

Waltz in A flat major Op. 42

This waltz is full of the joy of youth and Guo imparted the the characteristic grace and elegance of a dance poem. Excellent feeling for the lilting rhythm of the waltz. His mastery of the style brillant created a truly convincing waltz of delight that made no 'difficult demands' on the philosophical mind. This is the waltz about which Schumann wrote, in his own characteristic manner: ‘if it were played for dancers ... at least half of the ladies should be young countesses’

Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851

Venice across the Bacino from around San Biagio, towards Sunset, with Santa Maria della Salute and the Campanile of San Marco (St Mark’s) in the Distance (1840)

Such a dreamscape this painting and so suitable to depict the spirit of the Chopin Barcarolle

The idea of following the Polonaise-Fantasy with the Barcarolle was particularly illustrative of Chopin's formal behavior that extended older musical genres in a completely new way. The genre of the Barcarolle appears in other works by Chopin although not named as here. For me the work is a charming gondolier's folk song sung by the oarsman or possibly his passengers to the swish of oars, a wavelike rhythm, on an historic Venetian Lagoon or romantic canal.  The work is impressionistic yet contemplative concerning the mercurial travails of love from idyllic dream to the contrasting uncomfortable realities of passion. 

The love tryst, perhaps on a gondola, cannot begin with too heavy an opening octave as the lovers set off on their excursion from the quay (perhaps the Molo). Some commentators feel the opening is one heavy toll on a Venetian bell heard across the water  from the Campanile di San Marco. However, I feel Chopin intended merely to delicately set the tonal, harmonic landscape of the work, like a  watercolour wash, against which the drama unfolds. Debussy loved this work above all others of Chopin for such impressionistic reasons, although he may have denied it ! There is no opening accent on the autograph Stichvorlage in the Jagiellonian Library in Kraków.

Chopin autograph Stichvorlage of the Barcarolle lodged in the Jagiellonian Library in Kraków

It is the scale and relative dynamics that are also important here. Chopin's dynamics on an Erard should be considered at a lower level on a modern instrument than we moderns have become accustomed to. We should possibly graduate the dynamics indicated one step lower than might be indicated to the modern 'Steinway ear'. 

The composer himself played the work in a number of vastly differing ways if reports are to be believed, sometimes forte and on one occasion the whole work located between piano and pianissimo. Excessive, even painful, dynamic inflation of the variety we hear in modern recital on a behemoth Steinway is simply not possible on a period piano of his Chopin's day. The implied colours of a painting seem obvious here in a genre most familiar at the time. 

Taking a voyage across the Venetian Lagoon in a real gondola (although a frightful cost these days) is a very educational experience in how to approach this work. One can contemplate the shimmering colours, the splash of waves, the gusting of the wind on open water, the lyricism of the solo song or at times duet. With his intense love of opera, Chopin may have had the voice of the soprano sfogato (pouring forth) in his inner ear. 

No, taking such a gondola trip, regardless of expense, is not a fanciful idea at all. I once attended a performance of Liszt’s symphonic poem Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo at a concert in Budapest. The organizers had actually brought a real singing gondolier from Venice in full costume to at first sing the original theme on which Liszt based his work before the symphonic poem itself was played. Liszt used the theme of the song of the gondolier "La Biondina in Gondoletta" (loosely: the blonde in the gondola) by Giovanni Battista Peruchini in his piano work Venice and Naples from the Deuxième Année de pélerinage: Italie and later in this symphonic transformation. A fascinating and imaginative idea by the concert organizers in Budapest.

Nostalgic songs hover over the lapping waves on a sunny day (or moonlit night) like a glittering dragonfly or night moth on the wing.  Guo gave us the beginning in a gentle, conventional rhythm, lulling us into the world of dreams that one might instinctively associate with the genre Barcarolle, simply by the associations of the name. Chopin may even have known the Venetian Gondola Songs in Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words. 

The Barcarolle was one of Chopin's last compositions and he never wrote another. With Guo the piece progressed with affecting rubato and phrasing, but only just avoiding at times the temptation of presenting the work as simply a pianistic virtuoso composition. There were fine gestures of romantic expression and emotional content but I felt they did not grow sufficiently organically or with the inevitability of passion and dream but were rather appliqué. I imagine everyone conceives of the work differently depending on their life experience. Everyone has their own Chopin !

It is a profound work that explores the 'moving toyshop of the heart' (Alexander Pope). In my conception of the work, I have a view that has less pronounced dynamic contrasts, rather more resembling lyrical romantic poetry or a song that becomes increasingly emotional. The rocking motion of the gondola or skiff painted by his left hand was sustained throughout, except when waves briefly cease and contemplation begins. The lyrical narrative of serene sentiment develops into a troubled love song, even a tumultuous argument erupts on this romantic outing galvanized by nostalgia

The brilliant music scholar and emeritus professor James Parakilas, in a perceptive essay on the Barcarolle, refers to the 'phantasmagoric nostalgia' that emerges as the work progresses. Chopin's genius for pedalling ('an art for life') is an integral factor in producing the required colour, timbre, tone, touch, articulation and dynamics. The notion of the dreaming heart so familiar in Chopin music as disturbed by reality, all in song, was palpable.  The floods of ardor fade into the mists that finally settle into the damp dusk as will-o’-the wisps come out to dance on the waters and the lovers fall asleep….

As always, once more I am taken over by literary associations that evoke visions listening to Chopin's Barcarolle. The immortal English poet Robert Browning (1812-1889) loved Venice and lived there for a time. From his bed-room window in the Palazzo Giustiniani Recanati, every morning in 1885, he watched the sunrise.

"My window commands a perfect view," he wrote, "the still, grey lagoon, the few seagulls flying, the islet of San Giorgio in deep shadow, and the clouds in a long purple rack, from behind which a sort of spirit of rose burns up, till presently all the rims are on fire with gold.... So my day begins."

His poem In a Gondola (1896) is a lyric dialogue between two Venetian lovers who have stolen away on a romantic tryst in a gondola in spite of the hovering love assassins known as  "the three" who oppose their love - 'Himself' (perhaps her husband), Paul and Gian, her brothers, whose vengeance discovers them at the end. This is not before their love and danger have sufficiently moved them to weave a series of lyrical fancies, and led them to a climax of emotion which makes life shipwrecked in each other's arms so deep a joy that Death is of no account.

Here is a small relevant quotation from In a Gondola. The poet's heroine, while reclining with her lover in their gondola, ponders his death: 

She replies, musing. 

Dip your arm o'er the boat-side, elbow-deep,
As I do: thus: were death so unlike sleep,
Caught this way? Death's to fear from flame or steel,
Or poison doubtless; but from water--feel!

E. W. Haslehust 

Erard Paris 1838

This instrument (serial no. 14214) was made in Paris in 1838. According to the Erard company records, it was first sold on 12 December 1838 to Messrs Forkel and Vigvier of Bordeaux. The case is mahogany veneered, and the ivory keyboard has a compass of 6 2/3 octaves (C1–g4). All the parts are original and in excellent condition, except the felt pads and the strings, which were replaced in the Erard factory in 1922. The action, especially its repetition part, is typical of the period in which the instrument was made. The piano, single-, double- and triple-strung, with a composite frame, a bar brace in the treble, una corda and damper pedals, has a beautiful, rich tone and works perfectly well.


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