Musicweb International. Chopin Concertos

Musicweb International, July 2014

Frederic Chopin—Complete Works for Piano & Orchestra South Jutland Symphony Orchestra / Cond. David Porcelijn Danacord DACOCD 701-702

My touchstone for Chopin’s First Piano Concerto is Martha Argerich on the old Deutsche Grammophon (1969) record with Claudio Abbado: it was in the school music library. I was fortunate enough to hear Artur Rubinstein perform the second Concerto ‘live’ in Glasgow some forty years ago at the City Hall and the memory has remained.

Over the years I have encountered many subsequent performances of these iconic works – both in the concert hall and on record. Virtually every great pianist has had a ‘go’ at recording these works. There are currently in excess of 190 versions of each of Chopin’s two piano concertos; considerably fewer for the other concerted pieces. Unless one is a Chopin ‘groupie’ I guess it is impossible to have an encyclopaedic appreciation of even a small proportion of these interpretations.

It is not necessary to discuss Chopin’s life and works in general nor his piano concertos in particular as they are well-known. However a few notes may be of some help to potential listeners to this CD.

The Concerto No. 1 in E minor was composed between April and August of 1830 and was dedicated to Friedrich Kalkbrenner (1785-1849) who was a then-popular composer, teacher and pianist. It was actually written after the ‘second’ concerto. The piece is characterised by complex figurations and powerful bravura passages balanced with sections of nocturne-like expressiveness that are heartbreakingly beautiful. The orchestra plays a relatively minimal role except for the long exposition of the opening allegro. The three movements are well-balanced with the best-known middle movement providing the emotional heart of the work: the ‘infectious gaiety’ of the finale is also deserving of praise. Cuts were once made to the first movement because it was felt that it ‘it was over long and too much in one set of keys.’ Fortunately, these have been restored in contemporary performances.

The ‘Second Concerto’ was composed in 1829, but was not published until seven years later- hence the confusion of dating of the two concertos. This is a work that has been re-arranged a number of times to ‘improve’ the orchestration. It was deemed at one time that Chopin had relegated that part of the compositional process to his friend, the cellist August-Joseph Franchomme. Composers as diverse as Balakirev, André Messager and Carl Tausig have ‘had a go’ at re-pristinating the score. The F minor concerto was inspired by the singer Constantia Gladkowska with whom the composer was hopelessly in love: ‘he dreamt of her every night and could tear his hair out at the thought that she might come to forget him.’ He did not declare his love for her and she was duly married to another. When the Concerto was eventually published it was dedicated to Countess Delphine Potocka. The work is reminiscent of John Field and Johann Nepomuk Hummel in its musical characteristics, but transcends both these two composers in it subtlety.

Both concertos have been subject to much criticism on account of weaknesses of form, of development and most importantly their orchestration.

I briefly note the other pieces in chronological order:- Variations on Mozart’s ‘Là ci darem la mano’, Op.2 is an early work dating from the composer’s seventeenth year. It is based on the well-loved duet sung by Don Giovanni and Zerlina in Act I of the opera. These are impressive short variations, nodding once again to Hummel, which demand a powerful technique to explore their considerable variety and imagination. The orchestra concentrates on providing interludes between the variations rather than supporting the soloist. The overall effect is exciting and fun with the penultimate variation being a thing of considerable beauty.

The ‘Fantasy on Polish Airs’, Op.13 was composed the following year, and again is really a display piece for the soloist, requiring an ‘elaborate’ technique. James Friskin has described this piece as superficial, and I tend to agree. I guess it is the formal structure of the work that lets it down. The Fantasy is based on a number of folksongs including a ‘Kujawiak’, which is a dance of the Kujawy district of the country. This is a type of ‘mazurka’ albeit somewhat slower than normal. There are two versions of this Fantasy -with and without orchestra. The work opens with a few thoughtful bars before the songs are presented with increasing complexity. Once again the orchestra appears as an afterthought.

The same year saw the first performance of the ‘Krakowiak’, Concert-Rondo in F major, Op.14 which was dedicated to Mme. La Princesse Adam Czartoryska who was an exiled Polish Princess, pupil and friend of the composer. The title reflects a Polish dance from the locality of Cracow. The Rondo opens with a thoughtful slow introduction, followed by an explosion of demanding pyrotechnics. This is a substantial piece in which the composer has managed both form and orchestration to a satisfying degree.

I have not heard the ‘Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise’, Op.22 before. I found that it is clearly a work of two parts: it is as if the composer had jammed a beautifully contrived ‘nocturne’ up against a ‘glittering showpiece’ of a Polonaise. The ‘andante’ was composed in 1834 and the ‘polonaise’ in 1832, but it was published at the same time. I am not sure that they work together. One is elusive: the other is ‘in your face’. Yet in its ‘parts’ it is an enjoyable confection.

The Russian pianist Oleg Marshev is one of the ‘jewels in the crown’ of Danacord’s splendid record label, with a number of important cycles of music for piano and orchestra already released. These include the complete concerted piano works of Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Schumann and most recently Mendelssohn. Marshev is not particularly well-known in the United Kingdom, however his extensive CV reveals that he is in constant demand as an international soloist, appearing in Japan, the United States and many European countries. He combines his performance career with a professorship at the Anton Bruckner University in Linz, Austria.

Marshev copes brilliantly with the technical demands of this challenging music. With Chopin the knack is to balance the elements of sheer poetry, bravura and dramatic outbursts, warm romanticism, imaginative melodies and what was in the early 1800s novel harmonies. In this, Oleg Marshev has achieved everything that could be expected of him. He has the ability to both impress and move.

As always with Danacord CDs, the sound reproduction is excellent, the presentation of the discs are good and the liner notes are ideal. This is a great introduction to these complete concerted works of Frederic Chopin.

While this is not going to usurp my preference for Argerich and Rubinstein nevertheless this is a splendid release that will be a major success for both Danacord and Oleg Marshev.

John France