Hailed as a “hero” (Los Angeles Times), a “smashing” performer (Washington Post), “a pianist who breaks the mold” (International Piano) and “who stands out from the typical trends and artifices offered [...]
They spoke about it
In music, as in life, music lovers and musicians alike sometimes confuse familiarity with knowledge. Music lovers possess recordings, with which they forge an “image” of a given work. Artists are bestowed with a long tradition that is passed down by teachers, who, for generations, have served as guardians of the keys to the work’s mysteries. In both cases, the recording or tradition furnishes an “off-the-shelf” interpretation in which the score and its hieroglyphs are merely a starting point toward Beauty–abstract, comfortable and insignificant.
A new take on any masterpiece is likely to provoke the same shock that the restoration of the Sistine Chapel recently created when centuries of soot, wax, and sweat were removed to reveal its original splendour. Yet even upon its publication in 1839, Chopin’s cycle of Preludes disconcerted the great Schumann himself: “I thought the Preludes most singular. I confess that I imagined something quite different: compositions in the grand style, like his Études. These are almost the contrary: sketches, the beginnings of studies, or, if you will, ruins; eagle feathers in a rag-tag jumble. But every piece bears his distinctive, impeccable handwriting, “This is by Frédéric Chopin”; we recognize his agitated breathing. He is and remains the purest poetic spirit of these times. Mind you, the collection also contains the morbid, feverish, repellent.
But let everyone seek for what suits him, and let the Philistine step away”. And it is to recreate the contemporaneity of the Preludes that one respects the pedal and tempo indications and dares to sustain the rests.
A suggestion: divide the 24 preludes into four categories of works that feature a common writing style or mood. For instance, the preludes in C major (1), G major (3), D major (5), A major (7), C-sharp minor (10), B major (11), and E-flat major (19) would fall into the “Luminous” category.
The first is the only one to which the term “prelude” truly applies. From baritone to soprano, the four voices irresistibly evoke the first prelude of The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach, Chopin’s idol and model. The third leads its melody along the crests of arpeggios that undulate like a wheat field in July. The fifth passes its inconsequential secret from one hand to the other, which come together at the end in a sudden burst of laughter. Our familiarity with the seventh prelude (a signature work of the ballet Les Sylphides) should not eclipse the mystery of this all-too-brief mazurka fragment presented as a minuet. The tenth unfurls in a series of sparkling cascades, interrupted four times by a series of rising chords that seem to laugh to themselves as they rekindle the next outpouring, which is pure Chopin, poetic, dream-like and, dare we say, romantic. In the eleventh, employing one of the secrets of the old masters–the ornament–Chopin evokes the sweetness of life. Equal to some of his études in its difficulty, the last “Light” prelude, the nineteenth, resembles a young girl in its delicate, vivacious exterior, over which the melody glides light as air. After the calm comes the storm. Six preludes belong to this category: F-sharp minor (8), G-sharp minor (12), E-flat minor (14), B-flat minor (16), G minor (22), and D minor (24). Something new arrives with the eighth prelude, molto agitato; a feverish intensity, a rush to the abyss that flies back and fourth across the length of the keyboard then dies away, resigned and hopeless. The twelfth gallops off like a hurricane worthy of Mazeppa’s ride, whirling round as it recedes. The fourteenth rises like a threatening wind, swirling round both hands playing unison, before fading away. For pianists able to tame it, the sixteenth is a gift and a reminder that Chopin was one of the great pianists of his time. In the twenty-second, the melody, confined to the left hand, fights like a caged bear. The concluding prelude, the twenty-fourth, evokes the mood of the Revolutionary Étude (Op. 10, No. 12), with an obsessive left-hand ostinato underlying a furious tempest that ends by hurling itself against three D’s at the low end of the piano. A third category groups five preludes under the heading “romantic”. Numbers 13, 15, 17, 21, and 23 all have in common the dream, passion, and fantasy.
The lento of the thirteenth perches the dotted-halfnote melody on the peaks of arpeggios, which give way to singing chords underlying the piu lento of the middle section, with its melody of boundless intimacy, before a return to a melancholy tone, culminating in a series of broken octaves, like a crown of pearls upon the secret thus revealed. The fifteenth, called the “Raindrop,” is deceiving in that it actually belongs to two categories. The first 27 measures resemble a melancholy nocturne punctuated by obsessive A-flats; these transform into threatening G-sharps, ushering in a mood of almost unbearable fear and anxiety that builds until it bursts, returning to the opening dreamlike mood as if nothing had happened. The next prelude, seventeen, is a nocturne-ballade hybrid. Beneath its exterior of emotional outpouring, this prelude hides a sophisticated harmonic language that saves it from sentimentality. An expansive theme nurturs the evocation of a romantic memory, until the nostalgic voyage concludes with 11 strikes of the clock. The cantabile of the twenty-first prelude’s luminous and serene melody is supported by countermelodies in the left hand whose voices are distributed with subtlety and complexity; a middle section conveys the listener to a world of fulfillment and peace. The twenty-third employs delicate arabesques above the left-hand melody, which rises until it dissolves in the ether.
The last category belongs to what may have once appeared, and may still, as “morbid, feverish, repellent,” to cite Schumann. These include the preludes in A minor (2), E minor (4), B minor (6), E major (9), D-flat major (15), F minor (18), and C minor (20). As we have seen, monsters worthy of Polanski hide beneath the dreamy surface of the fifteenth, but the second, with its awkward, Quasimodo-like limp, creeps along murkily, as if drawn inexorably toward a swamp, which it slides into and disappears. The elegant Chopin of the Parisian salons is nowhere to be found here. The fourth, marked largo, offers a theme of the utmost simplicity that evokes the murmur of a sigh, rising to a moan (the sole passage supported by the pedal) and pausing before taking one last breath. The sixth gives its lamentation to the tenor voice, to which the accompaniment clings, resigned and sad, like droplets of water against a window pane. The ninth, largo, achieves an epic grandeur through a declamatory style worthy of a great prophet or stage actor: an extraordinary and magnificent appeal for truth. The harmonic language Chopin develops here is light years from the conventions of the time and foreshadows Wagner and the 21st century–all in the space of 12 measures! The eighteenth leaves the world of the piano for the rhetorical tradition of dramatic recitative used by opera composers. Could this be an exquisite parody of the excesses of romantic opera, pushing emotional expression to the point of caricature? Another surprising and atypical prelude is the twentieth, a grand and noble hieratic chorale, which requires a daringly slow, funeral-like tempo; in 12 measures or three phrases, Chopin paints a fresco worthy of Velasquez.
Antonio Soler (1729 – 1783), an heir to the Baroque living in the Classical period but possessed of an intuition that opened his eyes to the future, is a salve to our grazed sensibilities after Chopin’s voyage through the heart of Romanticism. Without being mundane, this sonata arranges a graceful return to reality and reminds us that we may do better to partake of reason.
© Georges Nicholson
Radio Host, Author
Translation: Peter Christensen