From the Sleeve Notes: Ken Hamilton discusses ‘Preludes to Chopin’

Pianist / author / lecturer Ken Hamilton discusses his CD Preludes to Chopin (PFCD084):

“From one point of view, a new recording of Chopin needs no excuse- the music is so self-evidently stupendous that it can hardly be heard too much. And I, like many other pianists, can’t resist preserving on disc my passion for pieces that I’ve played with boundless enthusiasm from adolescence onwards. But from another point of view, a new CD does need some justification. After all, most of the works on this disc have been recorded dozens, if not hundreds of times- sometimes routinely, sometimes wonderfully. So, what’s different here?

The inspiration for this recording is similar to that which prompted me to write my book After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford University Press). In other words, a fascination with the performance styles of the so-called “golden age” of pianism from Chopin and Liszt to Paderewski- from around 1830 to 1945- and an abiding interest in how Romantic and late-Romantic approaches might be adopted, adapted or modified in a modern context to enrich our own playing. I argued that our aim should not be a direct imitation of a few essentially incomparable earlier players, or the quasi-recreation of historical recordings with modern technology, but to open ourselves to, and with practice internalise, a range of interpretative possibilities (from Chopin’s own day and the generations thereafter) that challenge some current conventions. The end result will inescapably still be modern- performance, perhaps fortunately, cannot avoid retaining indelible characteristics of its own time and of its performer- but hopefully might also be thought- provokingly varied, communicative and convincing. In relation to the repertoire recorded here, this means that the entire production team- pianist, piano technician, producer and editor- have worked hard to ensure that that the Steinway used, although a modern rather than a historical instrument, could generate the silken “singing tone” so prized by Chopin and his immediate successors, rather than the more cuttingly metallic sound of some contemporary pianos. I have also freely, although far from continuously, applied (or “indulged in”, for those who don’t like the effect…) various types of chordal arpeggiation and dislocation between the hands for expressive intensification. Markings such as sostenuto (sustained), espressivo (with expression), and leggiero (lightly) have been treated as potentially referring to tempo as well as character, the first two implying a slightly slower, the third a slightly quicker tempo. The same goes for hairpins—now often regarded merely as signs for crescendo or diminuendo, but in Chopin’s day, and for nearly a century afterwards, also indicative of small-scale tempo fluctuations. The end effect of all this will, I hope, be spontaneous rather than studied.

In repeated sections, I have tried to achieve interpretative variety rather than the “structural” uniformity regularly advocated in the late 20th century. (There is something to be said for both approaches, but they are, for the most part, mutually exclusive.) For example, the repeat of the Second Sonata’s first movement is done slightly differently- more urgently in places, more placidly in others- but still, I hope, coherently. The treatment of the recapitulation of the Funeral March in the Second Sonata is influenced by that of Ignacy Paderewski, who placed the bass an octave lower, filled out with tightly rolled chords, to produce an effect eerily like distant thunder. I was captivated by this when I first heard Paderewski’s only recording of the March, and since then have alternated between “faithful” and somewhat Paderewskified renditions in my live performances. The version recorded here represents a modest tampering with Chopin’s score, but one that retains the composer’s general dynamic sequence, unlike the once extremely popular “processional” approach devised by Anton Rubinstein, and heard on recordings by Rachmaninov and Raoul Pugno, in which the repeat of the march begins fortissimo rather than pianissimo , and then fades slowly into the distance. I am not, however, defending my interpretation on grounds of “less than full- blown infidelity”. That argument is as unpersuasive aesthetically as it is on the Jerry Springer Show. Ultimately, the listener is either convinced by the effect or not.

I am also not arguing that any of the specific aesthetic approaches mentioned above are unique in modern performance, but I do hope, taken together, that they represent an intriguing divergence from currently common practice. As far as I’m aware, two of the tracks are also first recordings in acoustic/digital format, although the respective pieces appeared on piano rolls around a century ago. Chopin’s Polonaise in Ab is played in a version by the endlessly inventive composer-pianist Ferruccio Busoni. The most prominent variant is the extended octaves that create a continuous climax in the central section, underpinned by what Busoni used to call “crescendo pedal” (that is, pedalling for dynamics, rather than legato), and a bar or two with timpani effects. Busoni himself produced both an edition and a piano roll of this version. The other acoustic/digital premiere is Liszt’s movingly nostalgic arrangement of Chopin’s song My Joys , in an extensive revision dating from Liszt’s last years. It is known in this form partly from a score published long after Liszt’s death, edited by Isidor Philipp, and partly from a fascinating piano roll of 1905 by his pupil Bernhard Stavenhagen, which carries the subscript “according to personal memories of Liszt”. There can be little doubt that this version derives directly from Liszt himself, and moreover, that Stavenhagen’s roll gives a good idea of Liszt’s unconstrained approach to playing it, which I have tried to reflect in my own performance. I have written a chapter on My Joys and other related pieces in the book Liszt’s Legacies (Pendragon Press), for those who are interested in finding out more detail about all the variant versions of pieces passed down by Liszt’s students. It makes, in my opinion, an amusing musical detective story.

And finally, there is the title of the CD itself, Preludes to Chopin, which refers to the inclusion here of a handful of Chopin’s Preludes not as independent pieces, but as what they were mostly intended to be- preludes to longer works. It was the custom in Chopin’s own day, and up until the Second World War, for pianists to perform a (sometimes improvised) prelude before each concert item. Chopin’s intricately jewelled set of 24 Preludes, op.28, gives an example in every key for exactly that purpose. The preludes were designed to attract the audience’s attention (concert audiences could be a chatty and distracted bunch in the 19th century), to prepare the key and complement the mood of the piece to come, and (not least, in an age of unreliable instruments) to test out the piano. I’ve adapted this approach a little- by, for example, placing the Prelude in A major before the Barcarolle in F#-major (technically speaking a mediant key relationship with the succeeding piece, rather than the usual tonic or dominant of Chopin’s day). And any testing out of the piano was, I promise, thoroughly undertaken before the recording light went on. But I have adhered to the “mood-setting” spirit of the earlier practice.”

Ken Hamilton