Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In review--Bon Anniversaire Chopin (200th)

Frèdèric Chopin (1810-1849)
Stephen Hough
Chopin Late Masterpieces

I regret that up until now, I have only heard Frèdèric Chopin’s music in passing. I heard waltzes and lullabies mostly, but I had never sat down with a recording and taken a good listen or attended a piano recital of Chopin’s music. I knew tidbits of information about the Polish composer’s tumultuous relationship with French author George Sands (a woman) and his death at a young age from TB, but only now with the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth (he was either born in February 22 or March 1 in 1810), am I getting acquainted with the composer and virtuoso pianist.

I received English pianist extraordinaire Stephen Hough’s Chopin (Late Masterpieces) recording in the mail yesterday. The premise behind the recording revolves around the innovations and transformations that take place in an artist’s work during the last years of life. Many great artists of various disciplines are mentioned in the liner notes, but many of these artists lived beyond 40 years, Chopin died at the age of 39. And similar to another famous composer, Mozart who died at the age of 33, Chopin was also hailed as a child virtuoso, both as a pianist and a composer with some of his greatest innovations of genres and inspirations outpouring in his late years. These works include Barcarolle in F sharp major, four mazurkas (a Polish dance), Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat major, two nocturnes, Piano Sonata No 3 in B minor and the recording ends with Berceuse in D flat major.

Stephen Hough performed a diverse set of compositions in which he could display his mastership of slow and lyrical passages in contrast to fiery ones in the vein of the Romantic Era in which Chopin lived and composed his music. The liner notes mention some of the innovations that Chopin brought to nocturnes and his invention of the Polonaise-Fantasy genre. Rich harmonics and counterpoint come up in the liner notes, but more importantly can be heard throughout the pieces on the recording. All the pieces sound complicated despite their sometimes tranquil mood. The Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat major possesses many moods from a sheer playful delight to a small blast of passion. It feels broody at times too.

Piano Sonata No 3 in B minor also displays mood swings and great dexterity on the pianist part. Not only is Hough faced with the technical challenges, but also the emotional ones. While not possessing the over-the-top passion of Russian Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos or even Russian Composer Sergei Prokofiev’s piano concertos, nonetheless I'm surprised of the range of dynamics in Chopin’s late work, since I mainly have known him as the composer of tranquil piano work. And I recall a friend playing a CD of Chopin’s waltzes and lullabies to put her child to sleep (over 16 years ago now).

Chopin lived with a lung ailment (either tuberculosis or cystic fibrosis) since his childhood, which curtailed his adult life and intimate relationships, especially with George Sands. Similar to Mozart, who Chopin admired, he enjoyed early years as a child prodigy and later great esteem as a composer in Western Europe as well as, back home in Poland where he is still hailed as a musical genius. While Mozart’s work possessed childlike glee and wild abandonment of a sort, Chopin’s music flows with emotions (not surprised since he was born under the sign of Pisces, which rules flowing emotions and music). Chopin mostly composed for solo piano and his work must have seemed small in comparison to other Romantic Era composers of his time, and certainly more quiet and contemplative, though not less broody than composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven.

As someone who believes in the healing aspects of music, I wonder if composing and playing piano, prolonged Chopin’s life. His sister died of TB at the age of 14 and his father also died from the disease. Chopin also had many bouts years prior to his death when his doctors pronounced him already dead from the disease, and yet, he recovered as if something, most likely his music kept him going. Only time will tell if researchers find a “Chopin Effect” for healing lung ailments and other pulmonary diseases. Ironically, the composer’s heart was preserved and it is held in a church in Poland. And my final word on that I get a sense that the composer put a lot of heart into his music. Certainly I can feel some heartfelt emotions on my end 200 years after Chopin’s birth. And cheers to Stephen Hough for bringing these heartfelt emotions alive on this disc.


Note: For piano buffs--Chopin composed and played a Pleyal piano.

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