Chopin 4 Scherzi

Release Date: 19 October 1998

Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Producer: Roger Wright

Recording place: The Colosseum, Watford

Total playing time: CD [41:56]

Copyright: ©1998 Deutsche Grammophon


19 October 1998

I went alone at midnight, walking slowly, to St Stephen’s cathedral. When I reached it, there was no one still about. Not out of devoutness, but in order to contemplate that huge nave at such a time of night, I stood still at the foot of a Gothic pillar in the darkest spot… The silence was intense Behind me, a tomb; underfoot, a tomb. The only thing lacking was one above my head. A doleful harmony arose within me… I felt my solitude more acutely than ever – I quenched my thirst rapturously of the spring of feelings that welled up for me from that imposing sight.

In this letter written from Vienna, Chopin recounts how he spent Christmas night of 1830 to his close relations, of whom he has no news; does it not foreshadow the frame of mind of Charles Baudelaire 15 years later?

And facing the mirror I have practised the savage art,
The need which at my birth a Demon imparted –
For Pain, to create true voluptuousness, to draw
Blood from one’s suffering and scratch the sore.

Parted from his family from the age of twenty, Chopin, however, has greater reason than the poet for suffering in the grip of desperate loneliness in a conservative Vienna, where the aristocracy knows nothing of him and shamelessly applauds Tsarist Russia’s brutal repression of his unfortunate, rebellious homeland, Poland. According to the biographer Tadeusz Zielinski, it is these sorrowful circumstances that kindled the spark of the Scherzo in B minor, as well as inspiring the two other minor-key scherzos.

The first scherzo opens with two held chords whose contrasting registers set up an acute tension, the prelude to a mad dash towards the abyss: impossible not to sense here the rebellious fury of the powerless exile imagining his family and his beloved Constance victims of the military terror. Then, in the second section, the composer takes comfort in recalling the feast of Christmas, when the the birth of the Nazarene exile in Bethlehem is celebrated: one can hear the evocation, in B major, of a Polish carol, the lullaby “Sleep little Jesus, sleep little one, sleep”.

In repeating this carol six times, against the background of a virtually motionless bass, Chopin indulges in nostalgic reverie and goes some way towards exorcising the spectres of madness which haunt the opening. This vivid contrast of emotions at the root of Chopin’s scherzos seems to be reflected in the schizoid universe of Paul Verlaine’s prologue to his Saturnine Poems:

Today, Action and the Dream have flouted
The primeval pact the ages wore out,
And some have, found it dire, this divorce
Of Harmony, huge and blue, and Force.
Force, which once the Poet reined
In, a white, winged steed that shone,
Force, now, Force is a wild beast
Bounding, crazed, ever ready to unleash
Any slaughter or destruction, to slit
Any throat, in the world’s wide limits!
Action, which once tuned lyres to their songs,
Now drunk and disorderly, playing along
With a violent age’s countless murky distractions,
Action nowadays – O mercy! – Action
Is the storm, the hurricane, the sea’s heave
In the starless night, that weaves and unweaves
Amid muffled noises the red and green
Terror of lightning on a sky barely seen!

Such a contrast confronts Chopin with a crucial problem: how, after the tenderness of section B, is he to revert to A (in order to keep to the ABA pattern typical of the genre) without psychological diffuseness? Just as reality brutally interrupts the dream, the two chords of the opening of A are to burst into the sixth reprise of melody B, broken up and all the more overwhelming for remaining harrowingly poised on a poignant minor ninth chord. After the return of A, a sempre più animato coda comes to a head triple forte in a discord of incredible violence which Chopin, implacably, hammers out nine times before ripping through the keyboard with a descending arpeggio and an ascending chromatic scale: never can human despair have found such fearsome musical expression.

Let us hear the poet Adam Mickiewicz, a forerunner of Baudelaire and Verlaine, in these five lines from his Crimea Sonnets (1826):

A black and swollen wave roars shorewards:
I bow hold ma my arms towards it.
It breaks on my head, chaos engulfs me:
I wait for my thoughts, a skiff tossed by the swirl,
To lose track and founder for ct moment in oblivion.

Thus, through Chopin’s first scherzo, Russian repression paradoxically gave birth to Slav Romanticism in music, in particular that of nineteenth-century Russian composers! Somewhat similarly, did the miserable Soviet intrigues of the 1980 Chopin Competition, by keeping Ivo Pogorelich out of the final, not draw attention to a daring interpreter of Chopin more emphatically than any first prize would have done? With the three opening scherzos. the Croatian pianist succeeds in expressing all their dramatic force, and does so even in those median passages in which legato lines, breathing-points, a musical flow often held in check, and instrumental colours and textures all join forces to maintain the extraordinary psychological tension. On the other hand it is the sophisticated sense of humour (worthy of the atmosphere at Nohant) with which the performer brings out the elements of musical rhetoric that is to he admired in the Scherzo in E major, where the distinctive, curt staccato fantasia contrasts with the expansive lyricism of the C sharp minor melody.


© Pierre Jasmin / Deutsche Grammophon