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

 Eric Guo

Fryderyk Chopin 214th Birthday Concert, Warsaw 
1st March 2024

Photographs by Wojciech Grzędziński

Eric Guo chose to play the infrequently performed Chopin F minor concerto arranged for solo piano by ChopinRemember despite the opus number,  this was the first piano concerto Chopin wrote. It follows the Mozart model and was directly influenced by the style brillant of Hummel, Kalkbrenner, Moscheles and Ries. Schumann wrote of it: 'of the second concerto, which we can all together barely reach, we can only kiss the edge of his royal garment.'

This inspirational remark on its gestation is rightly famous:

‘As I already have, perhaps unfortunately, my ideal, whom I faithfully serve, without having spoken to her for half a year already, of whom I dream, in remembrance of whom was created the adagio of my concerto’ 

(Chopin to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski, 3 October 1829). 

It is hard to reproduce the required intimate yet fragile glittering tone on a Steinway but on the recent McNulty copy of an 1830 Pleyel, serial no 1619, Guo managed this admirably and authoritatively. In this early work, Chopin magically transforms the Classical into the Romantic style. 

The work itself was written 1829-30. As we all know by now, this concerto was inspired by Chopin’s infatuation, or was it youthful love, for the soprano Konstancja Gładkowska. Strangely, it was published a few years later with a dedication to Delfina Potocka. 

Guo has understanding the style brillant betraying an excitingly articulated technique. The opening Maestoso movement with its concealed Polish rhetorical gestures could have been rather more emotionally expressive. There were many dynamic contrasts and fiorituras that were eloquent but I did not always feel we were penetrating sufficiently deeply within the harmonic fabric of the music. The transcription was often overly pianistic in execution at times rather than solving the challenging task of emulating the sound of various orchestral instruments in contrast with the soloist.

However, the Larghetto love song was moving and full of considered poetry and lyricism. Zdzisław Jachimecki (1882-1953), Polish music historian, composer, professor at the Jagiellonian University, and member of the Polish Academy of Music, perfectly captured its significance, stating that 'it belongs to the most beautiful pages of erotic poetry of the 19th century'. At times, however, I desired a more sensitive touch, tone and rubato for this deeply seductive music. Arguably the most beautiful love song ever written for piano and orchestra. This unrequited love of Chopin for Konstancja Gładkowska that he 'enjoyed' at an inaccessible psychological and physical distance, produced yearning lyrical melodies of an intense order.  As can be the way in life, it is said she preferred the attentions of the handsome uniformed Russian officers to our poetic genius! 

The testing Allegro vivace which follows seemed to provide technical challenges for Guo yet he achieved the unbridled youthful exuberance the movement requires. 

It thrills us with the exuberance of a dance of the kujawiak provenance. It plays with two kinds of dance gesture. The first, defined by the composer as '
semplice ma graziosamente' characterizes the principal theme of the Rondo, namely the refrain. A different kind of dance character – swashbuckling and truculent – is presented by the episodes, which are scored in a particularly interesting way. The first episode is bursting with energy. The second, played scherzando and rubato, brings a rustic aura. It is a cliché of merry-making in a country inn, or perhaps in front of a manor house, at a harvest festival, when the young Chopin danced till he dropped with the whole of the village. The striking of the strings with the stick of the bow, the pizzicato and the open fifths of the basses appear to show that Chopin preserved the atmosphere of those days in his memory. (Tomaszewski) 

Guo's touch, colours and tone in his sparkling style brillant were charming and sensitive but there was not a great variety of nuance and expression. The repetitions of style brillant phrases of the kujawiak province (of which there are many) were played in similar ways in terms of dynamics with his superb articulation. Yet I feel they beg for creative and imaginative contrasts, or at the very least, shadows of the slightly distorted reflections of themselves each time they appear in a mirror. In the articulation, dynamics, and colour and rubato of the concerto, the many repeated phrases carry shifting underlying moods in what can appear on the surface as a simple cascade of spectacular notes. The movement could perhaps have been somewhat more expressive and less dynamically declamatory. 

Yet the kujawiak rhythms did sparkle with exuberance and youth.  A fine performance loved by the audience !

Fortepiano Pleyel  Serial No: 1619, 1830

Ignaz Pleyel (1757 - 1831) was born in Ruppersthal (lower Austria). He studied with Haydn and, according to the 1791 review in London’s Morning Herald, became even more popular than his teacher. He lived in Strasbourg from 1783 and came to Paris in 1795. In 1797 he founded his music publishing firm, which for years published more than 4000 compositions by composers such as Boccherini, Beethoven, Clementi, Hummel, Kalkbrenner and Chopin.

The lively McNulty instrument of 2023 was built after Pleyel op. 1619, 1830, from a private collection. Pleyel started piano making in 1805, aged 52. Chopin remarked: 'When I am not in my best form, I prefer Erard’s piano where I can easily find a ready-made piano tone. But when I am in a good mood and strong enough to find my own piano tone, I prefer one of Pleyel’s pianos.'

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

A recent interesting aside to the performance of this rarely played work, comes from the recently published and rediscovered letters (2022) of a previously unknown Chopin pupil, Friederike Müller-Streicher, edited and presented by Uta Goebl-Streicher. They both emerge from the famous Austrian Streicher piano manufacturing dynasty. The Streicher was the favourite instrument of Brahms, a gift of one he kept until his death.

Extracted from Friederike Müller: letters from Paris 1839–1845. Chopin's teaching and surroundings in the light of the correspondence of his favorite student

(Fryderyk Chopin Institute, Warsaw, 2022)

Please excuse the solecisms in translation as it involves French, German, Polish and English !

Dear Aunt Sophie, please pray that Chopin might remain healthy, kind and contented with me. I want to work with all my soul, head and heart, then everything will turn out well’ (from a letter to Sophie Müller of 30–31 August 1840)

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Friederike Müller was one of Chopin’s favourite and most talented pupils. In 231 letters written to her aunts in Vienna, gives detailed accounts of her life in Paris. She writes (sometimes in highly critical terms) about artists, concerts, pianos and musical novelties, sketching out, in a way that is filled with youthful wit and temperament, a remarkably vivid picture of Parisian musical and social life in the early 1840s.

Above all, however, she gives vivid and detailed descriptions of nearly every one of the 70 or so lessons she had with Chopin and quotes verbatim many of the conversations she had with him. Therein lies the extraordinary character of this material: this is not an account given a long time after, like the testimonies of other pupils, often based on recollections seen in a better light; it is one that conveys her immediate, fresh and unembellished experiences.

Above all, however, she gives vivid and detailed descriptions of nearly every one of the 70 or so lessons she had with Chopin and quotes verbatim many of the conversations she had with him. Therein lies the extraordinary character of this material: this is not an account given a long time after, like the testimonies of other pupils, often based on recollections seen in a better light; it is one that conveys her immediate, fresh and unembellished experiences. Her remarks concerning Chopin's lessons on the solo version of the F minor concerto have particular significance for any executant of this demanding work.

Fryderyk Chopin observed on his Concerto in F minor Op.21

'There are people with whom studying this is impossible for me'

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

'The concerto in F minor is wonderful [...]. The Adagio is sublime! And thanks to its kindness, I will be able to play it in full sound even without an orchestra. Lately, I said that choosing between his two Concertos is painful for me. One is worth the other - he said - and both are worthless. And I assure Aunt that he not only says so, but he really thinks so.'

Letter from Friederike Müller, dated Paris, Sunday, November 1, 1840.

We have the comfort that we can disagree with Chopin about the assessment of his piano concertos. Refusing them value, we would deprive ourselves of the most beautiful pages of music from the first half of the 19th century.

However, the dilemma of his students - also our privilege - can be resolved in favor of the Concerto in F minor op. 21, using a quote from Schumann: 'the second concerto, which we all together barely reach, we can only kiss its edge.'

He wrote these words in 1836, already after the publication of the work, accompanied by a dedication 'to Countess Delfina Potocka née de Komar'. It is symptomatic that six years after the completion of the Concerto there is no trace of the youthful fascination in it, of which Chopin confessed in letters to Tytus Woyciechowski. Later biographies are attached to this thread like a burr... The 'Ideal' (that is, the unfortunate Konstancja Gładkowska), which Fryderyk dreamed of for half a year, 'for which Adagio was erected' (Chopin always titled the Larghetto Adagio), passed with the wind from Warsaw and never returned. But the Concerto in F minor - the quintessence of romantic virtuosity and emotional lightness, the embodiment of beauty - remained.

Its premiere took place on March 17, 1830, at the National Theatre. An anonymous reviewer (probably Wojciech Grzymała) in Kurier Polski summed up the mastery of the work: 'In addition to originality, beautiful singing, great and bold passages applied to the nature of the instrument, decorated in vivid colors of feeling and fire, finally, the combination of all this into one whole, constitute the main feature of his composition.' The extraordinary work, practically without precedent, entered not only Polish but also European piano literature.

The Concerto in F minor op. 21 is the fruit of youthful compositional spontaneity. Written on the wave of Vienna success, it gives the impression of a matter of extraordinary consistency, shaped with dramatic logic and consistency, without unnecessary dilemmas. 

Chopin juxtaposed the classical, three-part form with contrasting and complementing elements: a sonata-like Allegro (Maestoso), captured in the form of a Larghetto song, and a dance-like rondo. If the theme of the first part was marked with seriousness, it is far from tragedy, although the main key would suggest such an affect. The third part (Allegro vivace), although not afraid of sentimentality, predominantly emanates joyful playfulness, fixed in the cheerful F major key.

The essence of the Concerto in F minor, however, is its central part - almost unearthly, poeticized - the culmination of emotions and feelings. Chopin offers the listener a certain programme - first leading him astray, 'lulling' him with idyllic, nocturnal moods, tempting him with cantilena fiorituras and rocking rhythms. Therefore, with incredible energy, a recitative melody explodes against the background of tremolando - in this culmination there is everything, including ecstacy. And then, as if nothing had happened, the music returns to the dreamy, initial aura. The Larghetto was enthusiastically received already during the first performance and to this day belongs to the most brilliant pages of European romanticism. Liszt saw in it 'ideal perfection'.

On Saturday and Sunday (October 31 - November 1, 1840), Friederike Müller wrote a letter to 'dear, good Aunt Lotte'. At Tuesday's lesson, she played the Concerto in F entirely by heart.

Chopin was pleasantly surprised by this. He commented: 'How is it, do you already play it by heart? [...] so let's start, but everything, even tutti. I played it. I'm sorry, but that's not what it's about - he said - you play it like a solo, and I want to hear the orchestra as best as possible; this is a completely different style - I will try to play it for you. Saying this, he played tutti for me, accentuating just like an orchestra'.

A week later, on November 7, 1840, 'dear, good Aunt Sopherl' reported on the course of the next, Thursday's lesson: "Oh, let's take my Adagio right away - he announced, so I started playing it. I accompanied the recitative according to the score with my left hand and fortunately Chopin liked it, but he changed a few places. Then I played those places one by one, imitating him. I have never taught this way and I don't want to show it to anyone. Only you will be able to play this Adagio in my way. [...] - You see - said Chopin - there are people with whom studying this is impossible for me. If you don't understand me completely, that's it. There are still those who simply play me the notes, and those who manage to grasp some sense. I listen to them, but I would like to finally show you all the subtleties of the style, so that you convey my thought as I conceived it, and that pleases me".

Friederike must have been extremely happy to hear such compliments from her beloved teacher. And we have evidence that the Concerto in F minor op. 21 functioned in Chopin's pedagogical practice and, importantly, was played in its entirety in the solo version.

The printed edition from 1836 was arranged so that the entire musical content of the work was placed on two staves (in the classical notation layout) - both all orchestral tutti (reduced) and the solo part, highlighted with a different font. The verbal markings tutti and solo introduced additional structural-formal divisions. In the most important places, the parts of wind instruments were also indicated. Friederike must have used such an edition. 

Chopin, in one of the copies of the Concerto in F minor, belonging to Jane Stirling, proposed his own version of the accompaniment in the middle section of the second part (mm. 45-72) for use in solo performances. It is interesting to what extent it differed from what Friederike suggested on Thursday, November 5, 1840, in Paris...  (English subtitles)

(A dramatization of  'Fryderyk and Friederike' produced by 

Chopin-Gesellschaft Hamburg & Sachsenwald e.V.)

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Préludes op. 28 played on an 1848 Pleyel

It would of course have been impossible for Chopin to have ever considered performing this complete radical cycle in his own musical and cultural environment (not least because of the brevity of many of the pieces). It is unlikely ever to have even occurred to him to do this, the way programmes were designed piecemeal at the time. In some of his programmes and others of the period, a few preludes are scattered randomly  through them like diamond dust. Each piece contains within it entire worlds and destinies of the human spirit and deserves individual attention rather than being a brick in a monumental edifice.

Schumann famously and memorably referred to them as 'sketches, beginnings of Etudes, or, so to speak, ruins, individual eagle pinions,all disorder and wild confusion.'

Improvisation or 'préluder' before embarking on an extensive work in the same key was well established among composer-pianists of the day but has been largely abandoned except by those few knowledgeable performers on the period piano. 

Chopin was a master of ambiguity and luring the listener into false expectations. He often performed the Preludes as separate pieces or in groups possibly arranged in pairs. One reads in his 1842 Parisian recital: 'Nocturnes, Préludes and Etudes'. In those days there was far less academic attention to Urtext numeric detail than today. "Movement by Mozart' might vaguely appear in a programme.

Some of the briefer Préludes do not finish with a full harmonic close which causes the listener to expect further elaboration or another work to follow on. Others such as No. 15 in D major 'The Raindrop' or the existentially blighted, fearsome No.28 in D minor (featured in the 1945 film adaption of Oscar Wilde starring Angela Lansbury and played by Lela Simone). These are clearly to be considered performance works in their entirety. 

Guo was particularly refined and delicately coloured in No. 14 in E flat minor. An excellent moving performance. The L.H. counterpoint in No.18 in F minor was most movingly expressive as was the transparent polyphony and colored texture of No.19 in E flat major. The cantabile in No.21 in B major was poignant in its 'singing'. I found the impressionistic characteristics of No.23 in F major visually arresting and even 'French' or 'Debussyian' in emotional feeling and timbre. As the cycle closed with No.24 in D minor I was yearning for a more desperate passion faced by Chopin in recognition of his inevitable death, the power of inflexible destiny to icily determine our path in life

The Préludes seem now well established by structuralists, pianists and Bach scholars as a complete and symmetrical work, a masterpiece of integrated yet unrelated ‘fragments’ (in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century sense of that aesthetic term). 

James Huneker approved of Arthur Friedheim playing them as a cycle in New York in 1900. James Methuen-Campbell attributes the popularization of all twenty-four to performances by Busoni and Cortot. One scholar has even demonstrated a perfect key design symmetry between the the 24 major and minor keys of Preludes and Fugues that make up Bach's Well Tempered Clavier and Chopin's Préludes. As is well known, Chopin adored Bach and practiced the WTC as preparation for recitals of his own work. He took an edition of the ‘48’ to Mallorca where he completed the Preludes.

To my mind, each Prélude can of course stand on its own as a perfect miniature landscape and world of emotional feeling and tonal climate. Although it is now well established  as a complete work, a masterpiece of integrated ‘fragments’ or 'ruins' (in the nineteenth century picturesque garden sense of that aesthetic term). 

‘Why PréludesPréludes to what?’ as Andre Gide asked rather gratuitously. I think it unnecessary and superfluous to actually answer this question. One possible explanation is the the practice of préluding. This was an improvisational activity of preparation set in the same key, immediately before a large keyboard work was to be performed. The activity was well established in Chopin’s day but has been abandoned in modern times. We must turn to Chopin’s love of Bach to at least partially understand them. 

The Préludes surely extend the prescient Chopin remark ‘I indicate, it’s up to the listener to complete the picture’.  

Their 'Prélude egos' should retain an intimacy of meaning and communication which waxes and wanes fleetingly and poetically until that final passionate utterance in D minor of No. 24, traditionally the 'key of death'. The last three notes (the lowest D on the piano) Guo played with his fist which for me visually gave expression to those lines by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in his poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, lines which could apply to the spirit of the cycle as a whole:

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Some renowned performers of the cycle (Sokolov, Argerich, the greatest historically to my mind by Alfred Cortot) give one the impression of an integrated 'philosophy' or spiritual narrative which I felt was rather lacking here. They were written in a period of great emotional upheaval for Chopin. I have always felt a Pleyel in the right hands is the perfect instrument for a poetic and mystical rather than virtuosic interpretation of the Préludes. After all he had a Pleyel pianino sent to Valldemossa. Performance on a Pleyel pianino is not a popular contemporary manner of rendering them in today's cavernous concert halls.... 

Chopin's Piano: A Journey thorough Romanticism by Paul Kildea (Allen Lane, 2018) is a fascinating historical study of his pianos on Majorca and the evolution of the Préludes.

Such comparisons with great musical artists are desperately unfair and invidious to level at any young pianist with such a precocious talent and glowing pianistic future ahead as does Eric Guo. However, profound Musical depth grows organically with maturity. This is inevitable as life stretches ahead and the tigers of experience begin their work ... as we all know...

Pleyel, Paris 1848

The instrument is typical of Chopin’s time

This instrument was built in Paris in 1848. Typical of Chopin’s time, it has a compass of 6⅔ octaves (C1–g4) and an English action with single repetition. Its original, historical substance is preserved virtually intact, with the original hammers and soundboard. It is decorated with frames of light-coloured wood and brass veins. The instrument is rosewood veneered, has a composite frame with four stress bars, is double- and triple-strung and has two pedals: una corda and damper. It was purchased by the Chopin Institute in 2005 from the collection of Chris Maene.


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