Release Date: 2012

Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Project Manager: David Butchart

Total playing time: 2 CDs [2 hours, 16 minutes]

Copyright: © 2012 Deutsche Grammophon



Even among the great composers, Chopin’s achievement was unique. One of the supreme composer-pianists of all time, his fabulous keyboard technique was virtually self-taught. All of his works involve the piano, most of them as a solo instrument; yet the artistic scope of his music is astonishingly wide. Born and brought up in Russian-dominated Poland, Chopin had begun to make his name when he decided to move (after a short period in Vienna) to Paris in 1831 to pursue a world-class career. In his two piano concertos, both still written in Poland, an individual style is already distinct – one that filters the long-spun melodic lines of Italian bel canto opera through the sonority of the piano, along with a contrasting love of dance rhythms and the ability to summon powerful surges of Romantic drama. A political crackdown in Chopin’s native country brought about his voluntary exile in protest. He never returned, and most of the rest of his life was based in France. There, in spite of a constant struggle with the tuberculosis which was to cause his death at 39, he worked intensely hard at his composing, though he hated the tedium of writing down his music and preferred to develop a work towards its final stages by improvising at the keyboard. Partly due to his illness and partly to a streak of sophisticated reserve in his temperament, he gave few public concerts after his Polish years, supporting himself instead by private teaching and by publishing his pieces. While the performance of much of this music demands huge reserves of virtuosity, he also devised some of it – notably the Nocturnes – to be feasible for talented amateurs. while exploring the same, very individual world of Romantic sensibility.

The Piano Sonata in B flat minor – the second of Chopin’s three works in the medium – is a large-scale masterwork that encompasses both his more conventional side and the radical streak always liable to emerge. The passionate sweep of the first movement is followed by a hard-driving Scherzo with a characteristically yearning central section. Then come the bleak and severe Funeral March and the extraordinary Finale – a compressed swirl of dissonant. themeless keyboard figuration, its turbulent progress cut off as abruptly as d began.

In the Prelude in C sharp minor op. 45 (on unrelated successor to the Op. 28 set) we find Chopin in a thoughtful mood: a single, simple keyboard figure quietly initiates a remarkable journey through remote harmonic regions in a process that seems as natural as breathing. While the Nocturne in E flat major op. 55 no. 2 demonstrates the same peerless ability to sustain a singing, searching musical line above a murmuring accompaniment, the Polonaise in F sharp minor op. 44 returns to virtuoso territory, its outer sections celebrating the triple-time swagger of Poland’s national dance in heroic style. Again breaking the conventional mould, however, an obsessive, even violent transitional section leads towards a haunting interlude based on another Polish dance, the much gentler mazurka.

The vast extent of Chopin’s technical mastery is displayed in his two sets of twelve Études. While each study is concerned to set a specific and often extreme technical challenge to the pianist, this is done with superb imagination in musical terms – as in the cascading figuration of the Étude in F major op. 10 no 8, the flowing “broken chords” of the A flat major op. 10 no. 10, and in the notoriously demanding, filigree chains of the G sharp minor op. 25 no 6. The first two of Chopin’s four Scherzi extend this virtuosity on a larger scale. Each deploys a fairly simple formal design, whose turbulent outer sections are divided by a contrasting central one – wistfully serene in Scherzo no. 1 in B minor op. 20, impulsive and mercurial in Scherzo no. 2 in B flat minor op. 31.

A more sophisticated sequence of ideas unfolds in the 24 Preludes op. 28, a cycle that systematically encompasses all of the major and minor keys of Western music. Ranging from extremes of strange, dissonant harmony (no. 2) and nonchalant simplicity (no. 9) to headlong virtuosity (no. 16) and winsome lyricism (no.17), this is one of Chopin’s supreme masterpieces. So, too, is the remarkable successor to the still fairly conventional layout and agenda of Scherzo no. 3 in C sharp minor op. 39. Compared to this, Scherzo no. 4 in E major op. 54 explores a wonderful new world of mood and expression: the roguish sparkle of the outer sections gives way, in a haunting central interlude, to one of Chopin’s loveliest and most poignant inspirations. This work was already written down seven years before its composer’s tragically early death. Perhaps more than any other, it causes us to wonder what further creative miracles he would have achieved if he had lived longer.


© Malcolm Hayes / Deutsche Grammophon