Pianist Anton Kuerti was born in Austria, grew up in the USA, and has lived in Canada for the last thirty-five years. His teachers included Arthur Loesser, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and Rudolf Serkin. At [...]
They spoke about it
Frederic Chopin wrote no symphonies, operas or string quartets, generally considered the ultimate Olympian challenges for entry into the Pantheon of the greatest composers. He is indeed the only undisputed member of this elite group to abstain from those categories except Bach, whose Cantatas, Passions and Mass are easily the equivalent of symphonic and operatic creations; so Chopin is uniquely triumphant in having reached the pinnacle of musical achievement exclusively through works for the piano.
Indeed, the inspiration, continuity and inventiveness of his melodies is forever so enthralling, and the narrative and dramatic implications of his creations make words so superfluous, that we should simply deem him the greatest operatic composer who never wrote, nor needed to write, an opera.
The most mechanical and prosaic of instruments, the piano, is at the same time the one with the greatest expressive potential. Its very coolness, and its lack of intrinsic sound colours and sustaining power, demand that the composer overcome these handicaps by weaving a complex and highly personal fabric of textures that will impose on listeners the illusion of a splendour of sonorities and of a vocal paradise. Adding to this the piano’s limitless harmonic potential creates a palette that totally satisfied the artistic impulses of Chopin, and with this palette he achieved a personalization of piano writing so stunningly original that it has yet to be surpassed (though Scriabin and Rachmaninoff came close).
The works on this CD were all written between 1842 and 1846; together with the Barcarolle, Op. 60, and the Cello Sonata, Op. 65, they constitute all the substantial works of this, his last productive period. Although he lived on until 1849, ravaged by disease and depressed both by his poor health and personal disappointments, the last three years were tragically mute, in contrast to the feverish compositional activity of Schubert, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Verdi and others in their final years.
Perhaps this is why less has been said about a “late” style of Chopin than is the case with so many other composers. None the less, his style during these final years does exhibit many characteristics that clearly distinguishes it from that of his earlier works. Without disparaging the genius displayed in the works he wrote in the 1830s (all his important compositions were created between 1829 and 1846), it is clear that a new plateau of subtlety, profundity, and nobility is reached in these last works which places them near the summit of pianistic creation.
Consider, for example, the heart-rending poetry of the second subject (index: 1, 1:31 from start of track) of the first movement of the B minor Sonata, which is spun out with such vast perspective, ever fresh and inventive, accompanied—or rather, illuminated—by an unostentatious but exquisite filigree of arpeggiated figurations; compare this to earlier visits in the lyrical domain, such as the main theme of the Etude in E major, Op. 10 No. 3, with its short, symmetrical phrases, its conventional accompaniment, and its unrelenting, heavy sweetness. Or, later in the same movement, compare its spectacular development section (2, 8:04), highly contrapuntal and harmonically audacious, with the relatively conventional and sequentially repetitive first movement developments of both piano concertos.
Chopin wrote only 7 full-length, multi-movement works, and he was obviously less comfortable in these than in his shorter works. In the B-minor Sonata, the proportions of the movements and their inter-relationships are certainly less convincing than their individual merits. The Scherzo is ephemeral, effortlessly (except for the performer) and deliciously cascading back and forth over the keyboard. Paired with a soulful, gently rolling middle section (3, 0:36), it seems too short, too unsophisticated and too good-natured to follow the first movement’s exalted drama, and its rather distant tonality of E-flat major seems almost an arbitrary choice. One might almost suspect that it was written earlier and attached to the Sonata as a convenient after-thought.
Choosing to have the Largo in B major, with both of the outer movements also in B, also seems less than ideal, especially in view of its length. But its profound yet simple melodic incandescence, and the timeless, improvisatory murmuring, in suspended animation, of its central section (4, 2:40), renders such arguments nearly irrelevant.
The simple ABABA form of the Sonata’s impassioned Finale would appear to be as conventional as the form of Chopin’s early Scherzos, and could hardly support the sweeping drama of this movement, were it not for the extraordinary concept of having the first return of the main idea (5, 1:44) in the sub-dominant, E minor, rather than the tonic. Combined with the increasingly tumultuous texture of each return, this imparts a freshness and unrelenting continuity of tension to the movement and helps make the final return (6, 4:33) truly apocalyptic.
The Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op. 61, distinctly transcends the earlier, more conventional polonaises by its vast variety of moods, ranging from the informal, delicately improvised introduction to the almost maniacal, sprawling joy of the frenetic coda (9, 11:56). Along the way, the piece completely forgets its very tenuous association with the typical polonaise rhythm and character, which is only used as a starting point (7, 2:13) and essentially vanishes by the middle of the piece. The luminous, introspective middle section in B major (8, 6:58) has a compelling continuity and a compassionate tenderness which was not even equalled in the corresponding section of the highly regarded Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49, written just 5 years earlier. Interestingly, both pieces have a hushed, suspended central section in B Major, and in both cases this key is about as distant as one can get from the home tonic.
The sophistication of the E-major Scherzo, Op. 54, certainly contrasts sharply with Chopin’s first Scherzo, whose powerful drama and pianistic inventiveness is not enhanced by a rather repetitive design. Here in his last Scherzo, he intersperses a flighty Mendelssohnian whimsy with Chopin’s own inimitable cascading figurations, and adds only an occasional touch of his more typical melancholy. Particularly impressive is the long but ever poignant vocal quality of the middle section (10, 3:30), the controlled fervour of the seamless retransition (11, 6:43) to the main section, and the full-throated glory, compared to its former shy sweetness, of the main theme’s return (12, 7:11).
The F minor Ballade, Op. 52, is the work of a master story-teller, who casts a hypnotic, unbroken spell over his listeners, something his more sectionalized first two Ballades, splendid as they are, do not quite achieve. First, softly yet enticingly, he invites us to listen, almost monotonously setting the stage and barely even broaching his topic. He continues “mezza voce” (half voiced), presenting the main subject (13, 0:34) with great mystery and sparse understatement. For what seems like an eon, the atmosphere remains almost unbearably submerged and distant, only to shrink even further away with a modulation to an exotically sweet section in the remote key of G-flat major (14, 2:26).
The return of the main subject (15, 3:36), now thickly filled in with impatient counterpoint, at last breaks the introverted constraint, and a brief, full-voiced climax is reached, only to fade to another intimate, central section (16, 4:34), where sweetness again reigns. But the music is no longer hushed, and soon flowers into a more animated section. After a brief return to the instrospection of the opening (17, 7:04), a new and even more gloriously orchestrated and stunningly ornamented variation of the main theme (18, 8:00) raises the emotional pitch. A splendid transformation of character now incorporates an ecstatic version (19, 8:39) of the previously delicate central section (16, 4:34) into the continuously swirling motion. A hair-raising, wildly contrapuntal super-virtuoso coda (20, 10:01) crowns this work with almost desperate agitation, and shows once again, how far the composer has travelled from the comparatively mundane virtuosity of some of the Op. 10 Etudes.
© 1997 Anton Kuerti