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CD Review

Frédéric Chopin

Three Orange Recordings 3OR-24

Piano Music

  • Sonata for Piano #3 in B minor, Op. 58
  • Berceuse in D Flat Major, Op. 57
  • Scherzo #1 in B minor, Op. 20
  • Scherzo #2 in B Flat minor, Op. 31
  • Scherzo #3 in C Sharp minor, Op. 39
  • Scherzo #4 in E Major, Op. 54
Barbara Nissman, piano
Three Orange Recordings 3OR-24 76:37
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Summary for the Busy Executive: An eye-opener.

Some composers, like Stravinsky, don't allow significant leeway for individual interpretation. Performances may vary in effectiveness, but not really in the basic approach to the music. Chopin belongs to a much rarer group, where the music really does change with the interpreter. Indeed, you might say that Chopin invites interpreters to reveal not only the music, but themselves. It matters which interpreter plays. Nevertheless, most pianists fall somewhere between a scale between Apollonian and Dionysian. The Apollonian (Horowitz, for example) emphasizes Chopin's classicism and elegance. The Dionysian (Argerich, perhaps) stresses the composer's wild side. Then there are those pianists, fairly rare, who seem to "just play" – Rubinstein the exemplar – where the music seems a straightforward, natural expression.

I should say that, certain pieces aside, Chopin's music normally doesn't attract me all that much. His basic musical language reminds me of a genre I usually despise, the salon morceau, all perfumed swoops and swoons. Only the exceptional performer gets me to take Chopin seriously. Barbara Nissman, one of my all-time favorite pianists, qualifies. So this time, I actually looked forward to an all-Chopin program.

Chopin and the sonata form never really meshed. While the three he wrote contain magnificent music, they don't really succeed as sonatas. Beethoven, for example, constructs coherent musical arguments from a limited set of short motifs. Furthermore, the movements of an individual Beethoven sonata seem of a piece – that is, one movement feels like another turn in a larger statement. Chopin instead works with longer themes and phrases, not arguing, but varying, very much like a classic jazz soloist improvises. It's not so much that his movements fall apart, but that they don't develop from basic patterns. Typically, Chopin takes two themes of contrasting moods and alternates them, varying their restatement each time. This results in a structure less like a watch and more like a wildflower. Aside from the beauty and memorability of these themes, Chopin's genius lies in his transitions, how he gets from one to the other. Nissman brings out, more than any other recording I've heard, how Chopin blends the rhythms of one with the theme of another or even merely darkens or lightens the mood effect these transitions. The first movement of the Sonata #3 works with an heroic striving theme and a tender, longing one, a patented Chopin Heartbreaker. The scherzo second movement contrasts an elfin flight with a meditative song as the "trio." Chopin follows this with a slow piece, similar to his nocturnes, in mainly tripartite form. Nissman takes this movement more slowly than most but never drops the musical thread – great legato playing and compelling at the same time, as if a wise old sage tells you something profoundly important. The second theme is particularly gorgeous, mixing beauty with an undercurrent of melancholy. This movement all by itself rewards spending time with the entire sonata. The finale has the energy of the "Revolutionary" etude. In this movement, you can hear a foreshadowing of the brooding Rachmaninoff, in works like the second piano concerto. Nissman negotiates the intricate finger-work easily but leaves you with the considerable poetic power of the piece rather its difficulty of execution. A magnificent performance all around.

The Berceuse strikes me as an artistically risky piece. A berceuse is a lullaby, and composers have traditionally handled it with simplicity. Compare, for example, Stravinsky's berceuse in The Firebird with the "Infernal Dance" or Brahms's "Wiegenlied" with its treatment in his Symphony #2. Chopin's simplicity goes to extremes. It consists of alternating tonic to dominant harmony (think the opening two phrases of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand") in a two-measure group over a repeating left hand, although toward the end, he breaks up the pattern without leaving dominant-tonic. The right hand, however, gives constant variation and filigree, something like a jazz soloist embroidering the same riff. I admit that the piece usually bores me early on – Chopin showing off his chops to an adoring salon – but Nissman manages to turn it into something more.

For me, Chopin splits into poised Classicist and "wild man" Romantic. The four scherzi express his radical side. The scherzo, in triple time, generally expressed lighter emotions, indicated by its root word, the German "Scherz" or "joke" (Austrians occupied a good deal of Italy throughout the centuries). Beethoven first gave the form weight in the scherzo movements of the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, for example. The Romantics in general tended to cultivate two emotions: demonic and fairy-tale – Berlioz's "Witches' Sabbath" and Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream Overture the respective exemplars. Chopin, however, has a more complex emotional palette. He doesn't indulge in either pure demonism or pure whimsy. Grown-up feelings inhabit these works, and led Schumann to comment on Scherzo #1: "How will gravity array itself, if wit is already clothed so darkly?" XX of them are written roughly in ABA form, with varied repeats of each section. The first scherzo, written in Vienna during an unsuccessful Polish uprising against the Russians, is full of both revolution and child-like nostalgia – in the stark contrast typical of Chopin's scherzi in general. A Polish carol provides the material of the central section.

Schumann compared the second scherzo to Byron's poetry because of its maelstrom of passion, consolation, and manic joy. It begins with an enigmatic figure that pops up as punctuation throughout the work – disquieting, like a chill wind in an empty house. The transition back to the opening material is especially interesting, in that the figure that closes the middle section bears a family look to the enigmatic figure, promptly taken up by the composer. The work ends with a coda on the enigma.

The third scherzo breaks the structural mold. No longer tripartite, it proceeds by alternating two main sections: the first, a furious idea in octaves; the second, a gorgeous chorale, punctuated by "silver chains of sound." Chopin spends more time on the second than on the first. However, the two sections share ideas (I suspect subconsciously on Chopin's part). I used to be disappointed in Nissman's interpretation, in that Martha Argerich had me completely under her sway with an interpretation that emphasized the unstable elements in the piece. Nissman, however, takes her cue from the chorale, the classical balance she brings to it affecting the stormier parts of the piece. Her conception convinces on its own, rather than being better or worse than Argerich's.

Scherzo #4, the only one in a major key, takes off from Mendelssohn, rather than Berlioz. However, Chopin's scherzo has more emotional weight than any by Mendelssohn. The music speaks more to ecstasy than to sprightliness. Mendelssohn can make you see sprites flying about. Chopin evokes the wonder within you as you see any beautiful thing. The ardent contrasting section, in minor mode, comes from a Polish folk song. As beautiful as it is, the material from the first section captures most of Chopin's interest. In many ways, this scherzo depends more on associative, sui generis, rather than on classical development. Chopin's turns of thought here constantly foil listener expectations. Yet, this scherzo strikes me as the most coherent of the four. Rhythmic figures from the first section find their way into the second, although slowed down. As for the coherence of the capricious turns of the first material, I have no idea how Chopin brings it off. That's just genius, I suppose.

I consider Nissman one of the foremost pianists today. Her architectural smarts, her strong identification with every composer she plays, the essential nobilimente and individuality of her artistry make every encounter with her playing memorable. I want to hear her play anything, just so I can hear her take on the music. In addition, the recorded sound itself is a pleasure. Either the engineer, Bill Purse, makes her sound like the greatest tonalist since Michelangeli or he has captured a great tone.

Again, I'm not a Chopin headbanger, but this has become one of the essential Chopin discs in my library.

Copyright © 2018, Steve Schwartz