Thérèse Motard won Premiers Prix in performance and chamber music at the Conservatoire du Québec in Montreal, and then, on a Canada Council for the Arts grant, studied with some of New York’s most [...]
They spoke about it
The cello occupies a privileged position within Chopin’s chamber music output. In addition to idiomatic works, Chopin’s piano music has also generated a number of arrangements. Cellists have no doubt been attracted to the lyrical and expressive qualities inherent in the composer’s solo piano works, which they have found to be admirably suited to their instrument. In the present recording, both the intimacy and brilliance of Chopin’s art are brought to the fore, qualities found both in the original instrumental works and in the arrangements.
Works in the original instrumental medium
The Polonaise brillante for Piano and Cello, Op. 3 was composed in 1829 during Chopin’s visit to the Polish Prince Radziwill, when the composer was a mere 19 years of age. In the following year, he added an Introduction and dedicated the whole work to the celebrated cellist and composer, Joseph Merk.
In a letter he wrote from Vienna to his family in 1831, Chopin relates that he had accompanied Merk at the piano during an evening at the home of Aloïs Fuchs, an art collector and amateur cellist. He also affirms in the same letter that Merk was the first great cellist he had the opportunity to admire at close range.
Chopin’s generous lyricism is obvious from the very first measures of the Introduction (Lento): the cello’s song-like theme is immediately taken up by the piano in a subtle paraphrase which binds the two instruments together from that point on. After this gentle exposition, however, the music becomes more intense and a section full of fury ensues, featuring great leaps at the cello and repeated chords at the piano. In the Polonaise (Allegro con spirito) that follows the Introduction, the irresistible and highly characterised movement of the dance is first heard in the piano part. In a sustained and ebullient rhythm, both melody and accompaniment are exchanged from one instrument to the other throughout the work.
The Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 65 is dated 1846. This is one of Chopin’s mature works (the composer was then 36), and today it occupies one of the foremost positions within the entire cello repertory. The work was dedicated to Auguste Franchomme, Professor at the Paris Conservatory and cellist with the Paris Orchestra and the Théâtre Italien, and no doubt reflects that performer’s exceptional gifts, which by contemporary accounts included perfect intonation and a remarkably lyrical phrasing.
The captivating melodies in the cello part allied with the astonishing brilliance of the piano writing, the symbiosis of timbres and the great variety of figures, notably some brief sixteenth-note passages in the 2nd and 4th movements, succeed in capturing the audience’s attention from beginning to end. The sheer splendour of the opening measures of the first movement (Allegro moderato) have often been compared to the ample sound of the orchestra.
The Scherzo (second movement) establishes the rhythm of the mazurka with a passage in repeated notes, giving way to a slow waltz whose hallmark is a canon conceived as a dialogue between the cello part and the bass line of the piano part. This movement ends with a return of the repeated note passage heard in the opening measures.
The third movement (Largo) is a delicate miniature that features a dream-like theme, also built on a dialogue between the two instruments. The work ends with a Finale in rondo-sonata form whose impeccable symmetry shows off not only Chopin’s abundant lyricism, but also his mastery of the formal structures of the sonata.
Arrangements of solo piano works
As mentioned earlier, cellists did not limit their interest to the composer’s works originally written for their instrument: their quest to expand their repertory also led them to adapt Chopin’s solo piano works. Thus Franchomme arranged several of these works, which he intended either for his personal use or for publication.
Two cellist-composers, the German Friedrich Grützmacher and the Ukrainian-born American Gregor Piatigorsky, also arranged Chopin’s nocturnes and waltzes for their instrument. They must have been fascinated by the beauty of Chopin’s melodies, which were themselves inspired by Italian opera and wonderfully suited to the cello. According to Chopin’s students, the piano under the composer’s touch had nothing to envy the most accomplished of sustained legatos inherent in vocal art. In addition, Chopin associated musical sounds to words, transferring to his instrumental works the principles of breathing as they would have been practised by singers.
The exquisite melody of the Nocturne in C Sharp Minor (1830) is the embodiment of this particular aesthetics. The numerous octave leaps in this theme are modelled on the singer’s way of managing lengthy passages in the voice, and cello bowing is able to reproduce this kind of phrasing is a most remarkable way. The music critic Jean Chantavoine reports, not without a certain romanticism, that Chopin loved these ardent, Bellini- or Rossini-like cantabiles that bring the music’s passionate qualities to a paroxysm only to recede into a supplicating surrender.
In the Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66 (the last of Chopin’s four Impromptus), the spontaneity and liveliness of the sixteenth-note passages lead to a relentless declamation, this time inspired by operatic recitative.
Finally, among the waltzes, it is the Waltz Op. 34, No. 2 which lends itself the most appropriately to the characteristic timbre of the cello: in the original piano model, the opening theme with its sinuous contour is written in the low-medium register of the piano, which is admirably suited to the natural timbre of the cello.
The cello’s particular timbre and lyrical qualities, together with Chopin’s brilliant piano writing, constitute the ideal qualities which cellists have exploited and continue to exploit. According to the pianist and pedagogue Marmontel, vocal phrasing, allied with the ingenious arabesques so central to the composer’s pianistic output, are no less than the summit of art. It is this aesthetics which embodies more than anything else, the consummate art of Frédéric Chopin.
© Claudine Caron, June 2001, for Traçantes, writing and translation services of the Société québécoise de recherche en musique. Translation: Marc Hyland