Discovering Classical Piano Concertos

Jan Ladislav Dussek – Piano Concerto in G major, Op 1 No 3 with Howard Shelley and the Ulster Orchestra

I am sure that I am not alone in steering myself towards favourite Piano Concertos for comfortable listening sometimes overlooking unfamiliar pieces! Such classics among Piano Concertos including compositions by Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Grieg, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky seem to be oft played. I am really enjoying a tour of discovery thanks to Hyperion, amongst which is my current recommendation from the Czech composer Dussek, 1760-1812.

Listening to this composer and notably the three concertos from my recommended Hyperion CD with Howard Shelley at the piano the listener might be forgiven for thinking that this music resembles that of other notable composers. True, however these composers are later than Dussek so, fascinating to note that his music is really well ahead of its time! Born in Bohemia a decade after the death of J S Bach, he travelled, playing concerts and taught across Europe at the same time as composing.

Dussek’s Piano Concerto in G major is an early work composed at a similar time to Mozart’s early Piano Concertos. Unlike all of his subsequent efforts in this genre, this concerto is cast in just two movements. The middle slow movement is omitted. Mozart was a true champion of the cadenza and Dussek felt no need for it and dispensed with it, perhaps influencing other composers to follow suit.
My recommended performance is the utterly reliable recording by Hyperion with Howard Shelley playing and conducting the Ulster Orchestra.

Availability:

www.amazon.co.uk

Enjoy a taster with YouTube:

Jan Ladislav Dussek-Piano Concertos-Howard Shelley (piano), Ulster Orchestra

Classical Music for Winter

Haydn Symphonies Nos 100 “Military” and 104 “London”

Although Joseph Haydn is rightly thought of as a Viennese composer, he spent several lengthy spells in London at the invitation of violinist, Salomon. It was on these occasions that he wrote his last twelve symphonies (Nos 93-104) between 1791 and 1795. I feel that any one of these latter symphonies will appeal to the inexperienced listener wishing to become familiar with this genre of “classical music”. I can well remember introducing my children to a number of Haydn’s latter symphonies and none of the pieces elicited the oft heard “oh no, not more classical music”! Interestingly the listening public in Vienna were used to quite a different manner or theme in music to that which Haydn came across in London. Far from the Viennese court audiences, London suited the bourgeois public. We often refer to the Haydnesque “humour”, however there is more to these symphonies than perhaps can be presumed at first listening.

The Symphony No.100 in G is nicknamed the “Military” Symphony. Here, in the second movement Haydn uses the then popular Turkish music with emphasis on the base drum, cymbals and triangle. The first movement, whose secondary theme, seems to take on the popular theme of the Radetsky March. A thoroughly jolly piece of music!

Symphony No 104 in D was Haydn’s last symphony, written in 1795 when he was 63. This is a work highly reminiscent of Mozart and I find this observation most significant (ref. Konold) that this piece points the way to the orchestral works of Beethoven. Each time I listen to this work I note this observation with interest and agree wholeheartedly. The slow movement is quite beautiful and has been described as “capturing the entire scope and depth of Haydn’s music”. The finale is based on a Croatian folk-song and truly demonstrates the composer’s technical competence.

I have always enjoyed Sir Colin Davis’ interpretation of these famous symphonies and here I am recommending this fine pairing with Sir Colin and the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam.

Mozart – A summer Performance

Mozart: Piano Concerto No 15 in B Flat Major

wolfgang-amadeus-mozart-hintergr-nde-74757This will surely rank as one of the most pleasing of all Mozart’s many and varied works, quite sublime and wholly appropriate for a summers evening of relaxation!

Oft quoted from Mozart the composer to his father, “both (Nos 15 and 16) are bound to make the performer sweat; but the B flat one beats the one in D for difficulty”. Many pianists and commentators have noted that No 15 is one of the more difficult of his Piano Concertos. The work is orchestrated for solo piano, flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns and strings.

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante in E-flat major
  3. Allegro

Mozart reached his peak as a virtuoso pianist between 1784 and 1786, a period that saw him composing some 12 Piano Concertos (Nos 14-25). Numbers 15 and 16, which are generally coupled together on CD were penned within one week in March 1784. As a lay-listener I am astounded at this and full of admiration for this gifted and prolific composer.

I cannot over enthuse about the performances of Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra, indeed is there really any better exponent of Mozart’s Piano Concertos? One review of this Concerto stated “Perahia’s interpretation of the hunting horn third movement is the closest thing to perfect Mozart on the piano I have ever heard”.

Recommended CDs:

  • Mozart Piano Concertos Nos 15 and 16 with Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra
  • Mozart Piano Concertos Nos 15 and 16 with Mitsuko Uchida and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Tate.

Available at: www.amazon.co.uk

Classical Music Choice, Spring

Bach Keyboard Concertos Nos 1, 2 and 4, with Murray Perahia and Academy of St. Martin in the Field

Johann Sebastian BachI am certain that few amongst the throng of classical music lovers would shy away from the musical achievements of Johann Sebastian Bach. He can be justifiably proud of moving the Keyboard to centre stage. Amongst the most popular of all his compositions for keyboard, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, composed in first part during 1721 were the fore-runners of the keyboard concerto. It was during his tenure as Director of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum in the 1730s, Bach arranged a series of at least eight solo keyboard concertos. I well remember listening to the lovely Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 composed by Bach and was further delighted to be introduced to Parahia’s soloist-conducted keyboard concertos. This Sony performance is typically stylish as well as discreet.

The Keyboard Concerto No 1 is thought to be based on a lost violin concerto in D minor. This concerto has remained the most popular of the collection from the 19th Century up to today. Interestingly Mendelsshohn played it and Brahms wrote a cadenza for it. I personally really enjoy the character of second keyboard concerto in E major. It is thought that that this one was based on a concerto for a wind instrument, perhaps for the oboe. Bach initially seems to have used this work for church music. In 1938 he restored the music as a keyboard concerto. The Concerto No 4 in A major has very likely stemmed from an earlier concerto, perhaps again one for the oboe. Bach performed this concerto at least twice, himself once in 1739 and then in 1742. We are often left wondering- did the great composer write these pieces for the harpsichord or the fortepiano? In 1733 a local newspaper from Leipzig reported that “Bach’s group would now feature a “Clavicymbel”, the likes of which has not been heard before”. This suggests that Bach’s keyboard concertos were indeed designed to highlight the fortepiano, still relatively unknown to Saxon listeners.

I am often reminded that as I listen and enjoy this music, these are really the forerunners to the later piano concertos of Mozart and Beethoven. What an important development, that would evolve into some of the best-loved music in the classical repertoire. There are a number of recordings of these three keyboard concertos available and Adras Schiff, like Perahia commands a wide range of colours, but I must say I cannot fault the Sony recording.

This CD is available from Amazon.co.uk and will certainly inspire the first-time listener to explore more of Bach’s works and perhaps tempt them to try Perahia’s great performances of Mozart.

Classical Music for the Summer

Johann Baptist Georg Neruda Trumpet Concerto in E flat

It is disappointing that relatively little is known about the classical Czech composer Neruda. It is recognised (Wikipedia) that he lived from c. 1708 to 1780. He was born in Bohemia to a well-respected music family. Following his early years as a violinist and conductor in Prague, he became Konzertmeister in the Dresden Court Orchestra.

His composition output includes 18 symphonies, 14 instrumental concertos, sonatas, sacred works and an opera “Les Troqueurs”.

One of my absolute favourite pieces of trumpet music is Neruda’s Concerto in E flat for Trumpet and Strings. It was originally written for a natural horn but is now performed almost exclusively on an E or B flat trumpet. I had the privilege of hearing this work performed in the breathtakingly beautiful Baroque, Steinhausen Church of Pilgrimage in Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany. Such was the perfection of natural acoustics, I could feel every tone of the trumpet and had to muse over a conflict between the beauty of the composition and the artistry of the performer! This is a marvellous piece of music.

As to my favoured recordings on CD, I have two CDs that I can happily recommend:

Six Trumpet Concertos with Crispian Steele-Perkins playing Trumpet and the English Chamber Orchestra directed by Anthony Halstead. Innovation Music Productions Ltd

Haydn and Hummel Trumpet Concertos (including Neruda Trumpet Concerto in E flat), with Alison Balsom playing Trumpet and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. EMI: 2162130

Both CDs are available from www.amazon.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

Classical Music Choice – Spring

Rossini – The Six String Sonatas

The Italian composer Gioachino Rossini lived from 1792 to 1868, born in Pesaro and is of course best known for his operas, including The Barber of Seville. In 1806, at the age of fourteen, Rossini was given the opportunity to study Counterpoint (the simultaneous combination of two or more melodies to make music) in Bologna. During the next four years he composed various instrumental works, mainly overtures and variations. While I have always loved listening to his overtures, I really enjoy these Six String Sonatas for two violins, cello and double bass.

I find these pieces quite charming, fun and so easy to listen to when the mood for a heavy Symphony or thrilling Concerto is unwelcome. The composition for four instruments displays real assurance and the wit and melodic fluency is clearly evident. All six Sonatas are in three movements. The first movements are in a simplified version of sonata form, with secondary themes that extend the first subject. The slow movements are mostly operatic arias in instrumental guise with the first violin being the soprano soloist. Four of the finales are in rondo form and certainly full of Rossinian wit and sparkle, where as that of No 6 a Tempesta – a storm scene, which was to become a familiar ingredient in Rossini’s operas.

Nowadays, when these Sonatas are performed, they are usually played by a string orchestra and a recording by single strings (as per my recommendation) is a rarity to be cherished. As readers listen to these sonatas I am sure you will appreciate that Rossini was an accomplished singer, they a delight to be enjoyed.

My recommendation is:

Rossini  The Six String Sonatas in Original Quartet Version with the Serenata of London, ASV Digital – this choice may now prove a challenge to locate

My second recommendation is:

Rossini  The String Sonatas on the Hyperion Label, available from www.amazon.co.uk

Classical Music – Autumn 2013

William Boyce 8 Symphonies

Whilst I openly admit to routinely listening to non-English composers by choice, I often return to some favourite native composers, most notably from the Baroque era. My current choice and recommendation of music is composed by William Boyce (1711-1779) and while fresh, bears the influence of his great contemporary Handel. When listening to these instrumental pieces and some of his Cathedral music I recognise it as the very quintessence of the early English genre.

William Boyce was born in London in 1711 becoming a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral. At the age of 25 he became Composer to the Chapel Royal and over the next decade he established himself as one of the foremost English composers of his day. The symphonies recorded as my recommendation were published by John Walsh (Handel’s publisher) in 1760 under Eight Symphonies in Eight Parts. I am sure that readers will agree that the symphonies are constructed in a relatively simple manner, generally having three movements. This reminds me very much of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Despite their apparent simplicity of form, most of the movements are binary (or in two sections) where the first modulates to another key and then the second returns to the original key. This music has a robust and fresh quality of its own and those listeners hearing his pieces for the first time often reflect that the vigorous jigs and tuneful gavottes seem innately English and this is heard at its best in the 4th Symphony (originally overture to: The Shepherd’s Lottery), so often “aired” on Classic FM!

Recommendation:

William Boyce, 8 Symphonies, The English Concert with Trevor Pinnock , “this disc comfortably surpasses any rivals in both style and accomplishment. The sound of the modest-sized band is brightly and truly reproduced” Gramophone Classical Music Guide, 2010

Available:  www.amazon.co.uk

Enjoy a taste of this music on YouTube with William Boyce, Symphony No.5 in D major, First Movement by Spesam

Classical Music – Summer 2013

Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581

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As we enjoy another splendid season of Promenade concerts at the Albert Hall amidst some glorious summer weather and the very special news of the birth of a baby boy to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, it seems appropriate to recommend a happy piece of enduring music, from the greatest composer who ever lived.

The famous Clarinet Concerto by the same composer is so well known and needs no introduction at all, while this recommended piece is less familiar, as with the Oboe Quartet (K370) and deserve wider recognition. From Mozart’s early teens, the wind instrument which most deeply engaged his enthusiasm was the clarinet. During the last seven years of his life he enjoyed a special friendship with the clarinettist, Anton Stadler for whom he composed some famous pieces, including the above. Such a prolific composer as Mozart was, I think of him as the modern golfer in the “majors”, as they complete another round they have to fill in their card for the course, and so it was with the great composer who would fill in his thematic catalogue. This he did on 29th September 1789 with his Clarinet Quintet and Stadler probably first played it at a concert given in the Burgtheater, Vienna.

My recommended disc for the Clarinet Quintet is performed by the late Dame Thea King and is the first pairing of the Quintet and Concerto in which the solo part is played on a basset clarinet (which is a clarinet similar to the usual soprano version but longer and with additional keys to enable playing lower notes) that was familiar to Mozart.

The first movement of this quintet sets the mood for the entire piece with beautiful moving lines in all of its parts – really delightful. The second is in sonata form, while the third movement consists of a minuet, unusually two trios. The first is for strings alone while the second is a clarinet solo over the strings. The final movement has five variations, the first gives the clarinet a new theme. The second alternates phrases for quartet only with phrases for full quintet. The third, in A minor also begins without clarinet, with a viola melody, but joins in to conclude. The next variation is a lyrical Adagio and a transition leads to an Allegro coda, containing much of a variation itself.

Recommended recordings:

1. Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A major

Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A major

Thea King, basset clarinet, Gabrieli String Quartet – Hyperion Label

2. Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A major

Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A major

Emma Johnson, Contempo Quartet – Universal Record Label

All available from amazon.co.uk

Classical Music – Spring 2013

Classical Music Choice for Spring 2013

Johannes Brahms Piano Concerto No 2 in B-flat major

This masterful piece of music is one of my favourites and is one of his best known works. I am intrigued that this concerto is separated by a gap of 22 years from his first piano concerto. The premiere of the 2nd concerto was given in Budapest on November 9th, 1881 with Brahms, himself as soloist and was an immediate success.

What of the great man Brahms, before I put this wonderful concerto under the spotlight? He was born on May 7th, 1833 in a very poor quarter in Hamburg. The Brahms family lived in a tenement flat consisting of three rooms – a tiny kitchen, small living room and diminutive bedroom, nothing else. His parents were musical and father Jakob often earned money by playing contra-bass in dance halls and beer-gardens. Little Johannes, or Hannes as he was called, was surrounded from his formative years by a musical atmosphere and from the earliest age he desired to study music. When Johannes was 7 years old, his father took him to Otto Cossel to arrange for him to have pianoforte lessons. “Herr Cossel, said Jakob Brahms, I wish my son to become your pupil; he wants so much to learn to play the piano. When he can play as well as you do it will be enough.” Wonderful stuff! Hannes was eager and very quick to learn. He had a wonderful memory and made very rapid progress. When he was only 10 years old a concert was arranged for him, at which he playedchamber music with several of the older musicians of Hamburg and it was a success both financially and artistically. Moving on in time; after gaining some much needed strength by living temporarily in the country, his development as a fine musician was sealed. In disposition Brahms was kindly and sincere and when young he was merry and light of heart. During his developing years he was to meet up with the great Joachim, the reigning violinist of his time and they would become great friends with the latter first performing his epic Violin Concerto in 1879. He was also greatly influenced by his friendship with Schumann who spoke of him as “the young eagle-one of the elect”. Johannes was to become very close to Clara Schumann and they often performed together with Joachim. His more intense activities as a prolific composer coincided with his return to Hamburg and then finally settling in Vienna where he became one of the outstanding musicians of the city. His flat there consisted of three small rooms, the largest of which contained his grand piano, writing table and a sofa with another table in front of it. It was not until about 1880 that he grew his long, heavy beard. He made many happy concert tours and was always received with great honour. He conducted his own works and played his piano concerto in D minor. He loved to take a vacation in Ischl, Austria and would compose with ease in these relaxing surroundings. Brahms was profoundly shaken by the death of Clara Schumann in 1896 and soon fell ill, at this time he greatly appreciated the need of close friends. Despite his rapid failing, every evening he would sit at the piano and improvise for half an hour and when fatigue overcame him he would remain looking out of the window and dreaming till long after darkness had fallen. Gradually he grew weaker and his spirit found release on April 3rd, 1897.

The city of Vienna, wishing to do honour to the great composer made an offer to his relatives of the site of a grave where Brahms might lie. He found a resting-place near Beethoven and Mozart, the two masters whom he had so greatly loved. Later, memorial tablets were placed above the doors of the house of his birth in Hamburg as well as his residences in Vienna, Ischl and Thun.

With this little introduction, I hope that readers will have a deeper appreciation for his music and particularly ponder his background whilst listening to the mighty second piano concerto.
Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major Perhaps one of the first observations regarding this piece is that, rather than the typical three movements employed in the Classical and Romantic periods, four movements are used,

1.Allegro non troppo
2.Allegro appassionato
3.Andante
4.Allegretto grazioso

The first movement is introduced with a horn solo and the piano interceding. I am always on the lookout for a cadenza and with this concerto rather unusually it appears at the onset where the woodwind instruments introduce a small motif before the cadenza. The full orchestra repeats the theme after which the piano continues to further develop this theme. I find this one of the most engaging movements of any classical composition.

The second movement opens with a piano solo and is a tumultuous movement with some stormy developments of the theme accompanied by some delightful quiet pieces.

The third movement is quite sensational and very famous and is unusual in utilizing an extensive cello solo. How very beautiful and effective it is.

The final movement consists of five clear sections and significantly in the fourth, Brahms presents a new element in the form of a little march, first played by the piano and then the orchestra comes in. Listen out for the different moods. He loved folk music as listeners will note in this movement.

Typical performances last around 50 minutes and what a very special experience this listening is. It is said that the work was inspired by a holiday Brahms took in Italy.

To enjoy this great concerto one must listen to one of the very best performances. There are a number of outstanding interpretations and the one that still stands out as the best is performed by Emil Gilels.

Recommendations:

Emil Gilels with Eugen Jochum and the Berliner Philharmoniker, Deutsche Grammophon – amazon.co.uk

I personally have great affection for the performance by Gerhard Oppitz and Sir Colin Davis with the Symphonieorchestra des Bayrischen Rundfunks on the RCA Red Seal label. Look out for this one.

Achive Posts

March 2011 – Mozart Symphony No 28 in C major, K.200

April 2011 – Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending

May 2011 – Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor

June 2011 – Franz Lehar, Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow)

July 2011 – Rachmaninov, Symphony No. 2 in E minor

August/September 2011 – Krommer Oboe Concerto in F Major op 37 and op 52

October/Nov 2011 – Krommer Oboe Concerto in F Major op 37 and op 52

My Winter Choice 2011- Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy (Chorfantasie) for piano, chorus and orchestra in C minor. Op. 80

March/April 2012 – Written by Dr. Helmut Frehse

May/June 2012 – Beethoven Symphony No 6 in F major “Pastoral”

July/August 2012 – Hummel Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 85

October/November – Chopin – Prelude Op 28 No 15 in D Flat, Sostenuto (Raindrop)

Winter Classical Music Choice 2013 – Antonio Vivaldi’s – The Four Seasons

Classical Music October/Nov

Chopin – Prelude Op 28 No 15 in D Flat, Sostenuto (Raindrop)

Etudes Op 10 Nos 1 and 2

Notes kindly prepared by Dr. Helmut Frehse

Frederick François Chopin (1810 – 1849)

Tourists spending their holidays on the isle of Mallorca should not fail to pay a visit to Valldemossa. This picturesque village is famous for one landmark: the Royal Charterhouse (Real Cartuja).It was founded as a royal residence and later converted into a monastery of the Carthusian order. The monastery existed from 1399 until its secularisation in 1835. The historic estate was sold to private owners, who have since hosted prominent guests, including Frédéric Chopin and George Sand. Since the 19th century Valldemossa has been promoted internationally as a beautiful spot thanks to the affection of a distinguished traveller and cultural writer, the Austrian Archduke Ludwig Salvator.

Chopin, the famous Polish composer and virtuoso pianist, was of French-Polish parentage. He is considered one of the great masters of Romantic music. A renowned child-prodigy pianist and composer, Chopin grew up in Warsaw and completed his music education there. He composed many mature works in Warsaw before leaving Poland in 1830 at age 20, when he settled in Paris. During the remaining 19 years of his life, Chopin gave only some 30 public performances, preferring the more intimate atmosphere of the salon. In Paris, Chopin found artists and other distinguished company, as well as opportunities to exercise his talents and achieve celebrity. Before long, he was earning a handsome income by sales of his compositions and teaching piano to effluent students from all over Europe.

For most of his life, Chopin suffered from poor health. In 1848, he returned to Paris from a tour of the UK and died shortly thereafter in his home at Place Vendôme 12. He was penniless at this point; his friends had to pay for his stay there as well as his funeral, which was attended by over 3.000 people, including Delacroix, Liszt, Victor Hugo and many other celebrities.

After some romantic alliances with Polish women, from 1837 to 1847, Chopin carried out a relation-ship with the French writer and pioneering feminist Amantine Dupin (1804 – 1876), the Baronesse Dudevant, better known by her pseudonym George Sand. In 1822, at the age of 18, she had married Baron Dudevan (1795 – 1871). In 1831, she left her prosaic husband and entered upon a four- or five-year period of “romantic rebellion” with various affairs of varying duration. Her most widely used quote is “There is only one happiness in life, to love and to be loved.” In 1835, she was legally separated from Dudevant and took her children with her. In 1836, she met Chopin at a party hosted by Countess Marie d’Agoult (1805 – 1876). From 1835 to 1839 the Countess lived with Franz Liszt and became close to Liszt’s circle of friends, including Chopin, who dedicated his 12 Études op. 25 to her (his earlier set of 12 Études, op. 10, had been dedicated to Liszt). D’Agoult had three children with Liszt; one of them was Cosima (1837–1930), who first married pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow and then Richard Wagner.

Chopin initially felt an aversion to Sand (“What a repulsive woman she is. Is she really a woman?”). Sand, however, admitted strong feelings for the composer. By the summer of 1938, Chopin’s and Sand’s involvement was an open secret. A notable episode in their time together was a turbulent and miserable winter on Majorca (November 1838 to February 1839), where they, together with Sand’s two children, had gone in the hope of improving Chopin’s deteriorating health. Chopin was already ill with incipient tuberculosis (or, as has recently been suggested, cystic fibrosis) at the beginning of their relationship, and spending a winter in Majorca – where Sand and Chopin did not realize that winter was a time of rain and cold, and where they could not get proper lodgings – exacerbated his symptoms.

However, after discovering the couple were not wedded, the deeply religious people of Majorca became inhospitable, making accommodations difficult to find. This compelled the foursome to take lodgings in the scenic yet stark and cold former Carthusian monastery. Chopin had also problems having his piano sent to him. It was only in early January 1839 that George Sand could eventually release it from customs. From then on, Chopin was able to use the long-awaited instrument for five weeks, time enough to complete some works, including the Preludes op. 28.

The winter in Mallorca is still considered one of the most productive periods in Chopin’s life. But during that winter, the bad weather had such a serious effect on his health that the entire party was compelled to leave the island. Chopin’s piano was sold to a French couple, whose heirs are the custodians of Chopin’s legacy on Majorca and of the Chopin museum in Valldemossa. The party of four went first to Barcelona, then to Marseille, where they stayed for a few months to recover. In May 1839, they headed to Sand’s estate at Nohant for the summer. In autumn they returned to Paris. The trip to Mallorca was described by George Sand in “Un Hiver à Majorque”, praising the island’s natural beauty but criticising what she perceived as the prejudices and vices of the natives.

In the years 1839 – 43, Chopin found quiet but productive days during which he composed many works. As the composer’s illness progressed, Sand became less of a lover and more of a nurse to him, but she would maintain her friendship with Chopin while often affectionately venting her impatience in letters to third parties. In 1845, as Chopin’s health continued to deteriorate, a serious problem emerged in his relations with Sand. Mutual friends attempted to reconcile them, but the composer was unyielding. In 1847, Sand and Chopin quietly ended their ten years relationship, two years before Chopin’s death. George Sand had promised that he “would die in her arms”. When he died and at his funeral, however, she was notable by her absence.

The great majority of Chopin’s compositions were written for the piano as solo instrument; all of his extant works feature the piano in one way or another. Chopin, according to Arthur Hedley (1905 –1969, English musicologist and scholar, biographer of Chopin), “had the rare gift of a very personal melody, expressive of heart-felt emotion, and his music is penetrated by a poetic feeling that has an almost universal appeal…. Present-day evaluation places him among the immortals of music by reason of his insight into the secret places of the heart and because of his awareness of the magical new sonorities to be drawn from the piano.” Chopin’s music for the piano combined a unique rhythmic sense (particularly his use of rubato), frequent use of chromaticism, and counterpoint. This mixture produces a particularly fragile sound in the melody and the harmony, which are nonetheless under-pinned by solid and interesting harmonic techniques. He took the new salon genre of the nocturne, invented by Irish pianist and composer John Field (1782 1) to a deeper level of sophistication. He also endowed popular dance forms, such as the Polish Mazurkas and the Viennese Waltz, with a greater range of melody and expression. Furthermore, he was the first composer to take a national genre of music from his home country and transform it into an entirely new genre worthy of the general concert-going public.
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Chopin was the first to write ballades and scherzi as individual pieces. He also took the example of Bach’s preludes and fugues, transforming the genre in his own Préludes. He reinvented the étude, expanding on the idea and making it into a gorgeous, eloquent and emotional showpiece. He also used his Études to teach his own revolutionary style. An essential aspect of Chopin’s poetics of the piano can be found in his exploration of the resources of the instrument to be exploited by a new keyboard technique. This side of his genius is seen, in a pure state, in his Études and Preludes.

The pieces featured are: Prelude Op 28 No 15 in D Flat, Raindrop and Etudes Op 10 No 1 in C Major and No 2 in A Minor

The 24 Preludes Op. 28 were composed between 1836 and 1839. They use all the related major and minor keys, paying homage to Bach’s “Well-tempered Clavier”. Arthur Hedley regarded them as “tone poems, whose dimensions correspond perfectly to the nature of their contents”, rather than as preludes. They are some of the most challenging and evocative pieces of all the works in concert piano repertoire. Some, though not all, of op. 28 was written during Chopin’s and George Sand’s stay in Valldemossa.

Prelude No. 15, known as the “Raindrop” prelude, is noted for its repeating A-flat, which appears throughout the piece and sounds like raindrops to many listeners with its suggestion of the “gentle patter” of rain. George Sand had already suggested that such an association might have been Chopin’s motive when composing the Etude. He protested with all his might. It is actually a veritable nocturne.

The prelude opens with a “serene” theme in D flat. It then changes to a “lugubrious interlude” in C sharp minor, “with the dominant pedal never ceasing, a basso ostinato” (American music critic James Huneker, 1857–1921). The repeating A flat, which has been heard throughout the first section, here becomes more insistent. Following this, the prelude ends with a repetition of the original theme. Frederick Niecks (1845 – 1924, German musical scholar and Chopin biographer, resident in Scotland for the bulk of his life) says, “This C sharp minor portion…affects one like an oppressive dream; the re-entrance of the opening D flat major, which dispels the dreadful nightmare, comes upon one with the smiling freshness of dear, familiar nature – only after these horrors of the imagination can its serene beauty be fully appreciated.

The Études op. 10 were composed between 1829 and 1832, when Chopin was still in his teens. They are his first complete masterpiece, a revelation of his genius and marked by an astonishing power of invention. They perfectly combine nobility of musical invention and the solution of formal problems with experimentation in the field of technique and keyboard sonority embodied in a revolutionary pianistic style.

Étude op. 10, No. 1, C major,
forms the majestic portal to the Études. This study in reach and arpeggios focuses on stretching the fingers of the right hand. Huneker compared the “hypnotic charm” that these “dizzy acclivities and descents exercise for eye as well as ear”. Virtuoso pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who refused to perform this étude in public, said, “For me, the most difficult one of all the études is the first one, Op. 10, No. 1. The novelty of this étude is its broad right hand arpeggios in sixteenth notes. These nonstop arpeggios, based mostly on chords of the tenth and covering up to six octaves, surpass the drier octave arpeggios of earlier piano composers such as Beethoven, Clementi or Czerny in richness of overtones as well as in difficulty.

Étude op. 10, No. 2, A minor
This étude is an exercise in developing the independence of the weaker fingers of the right hand by playing rapid chromatic scale figures, accompanied by chord attacks. Meanwhile, the first two fingers of the right and the left hand play an accompaniment of short chords and single notes. The left hand plays a melody in slow legato octaves.

Hugo Leichtentritt (1874–1951, German musicologist and composer who spent most of his life in the USA) describes its sound effect as the “murmuring and blowing of a gentle wind”, French pianist Alfred Cortot (1877–1962) mentions its “gliding and vaporous character”, and Alfredo Casella (1883 – 1947, Italian composer, pianist and conductor) talks about a “character of swift, aerial and unsubstantial mysteriousness”. Huneker writes that “the entire composition, with its murmuring, meandering, chromatic character, is a forerunner to the whispering, weaving, moonlit effects in some of Chopin’s later studies”.

It is a particular physical and psychological challenge to perform this étude in public and especially after the C major one with its enormous stretches. The Australian pianist Alan Kogosowski, famous for his Chopin recitals, reports that even “the imposingly powerful Sviatoslav Richter, who possessed the most awesome technical equipment of any pianist in the world, would quake before this tiny piece. When performing the twelve Études op. 10 as a set, he’d hesitate and sometimes skip over the quiet but treacherous second Étude. And Richter was certainly not the only pianist to feel this way about this little Étude.”

Recommended recordings:

Chopin – 24 Preludes, Op 28; Sonata No 2: RCA Label with Evgeny Kissin
Available at www.amazon.co.uk

Have a taster with the You Tube performance by Maurizio Pollini playing Prelude Op 28 No 15, the Raindrop

Chopin – Etudes Op 10 and 25 with Maurizio Pollini on the DG Label
Available at www.amazon.co.uk