Pianist, author and lecturer Kenneth Hamilton discusses his new CD More Preludes to Chopin.
“I was delighted, encouraged and touched by the popularity of the first album of Preludes to Chopin. More Preludes to Chopin is the second instalment of what will eventually be a three-CD cycle, presenting all of Chopin’s preludes as prefaces to longer pieces. As with the original CD, this new recording shares its inspiration with that of my book After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford University Press), namely 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 or adapted in a modern context to enrich our own playing. I argued in the book that our aim should not be a direct imitation of earlier players, or an attempt somehow to recreate historical recordings with modern technology, but to open ourselves to a range of interpretative possibilities (from Chopin’s own day and the generations thereafter) that challenge current conventions. And of course, we should first find out how the musical score itself would actually have been read in Chopin’s time. In several respects, the meaning of the notation has changed significantly over nearly two centuries. It is easy, therefore, for us to think that we’re being “faithful” to Chopin while inadvertently being the exact opposite.
In relation to the repertoire recorded here, this once again means that the entire production team – pianist, piano technicians, producer and editor – has worked hard to ensure that that the Steinway used (although it is a modern piano, and not a historical instrument) could produce the silken “singing tone” so prized by Chopin and his immediate successors, rather than the more cuttingly metallic sound often heard today. Moreover, reading Chopin’s scores from what would probably have been the perspective of his contemporaries means in practice that I have freely 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 referring to tempo as well as character, the first two implying a slightly slower, the third a slightly quicker tempo. The same goes for hairpin markings. These are now commonly regarded as signs for crescendo or diminuendo, but in Chopin’s day, and for nearly a century afterwards, were indicative of small-scale tempo fluctuations and agogic intensifications.
In repeating sections of the score, I have mostly tried to achieve interpretative variety rather than the “structural” uniformity usually advocated in the last decades of the 20th century, when many musicians were keen to sweep away what they regarded as “corrupt” Romantic performance traditions. Listeners will notice, for example, that, in some of the repeats of the second section of the op. 64 no. 2 Waltz, I gently (I hope) bring out the lower line of the arpeggio figurations, and occasionally extend the final scale chromatically after the manner of Paderewski. I have, I confess, actually added a repeat of the initial section of the C-major Prelude, following the example of Liszt and Busoni. In this longer version, the piece forms a weightier preface to the g-minor Ballade that closes the CD. Additionally inspired by Busoni is the rendition of the central section of the “Raindrop” Prelude as a continuous crescendo.
I have also tried to take into account the apparent intention of Chopin’s original pedal markings – contradictory though they may be in the various editions published during his lifetime – although I do not consistently follow them in detail, as the modern piano frequently demands a very different use of pedalling. To give just one example, I’m fascinated by the “colouristic” pedalling that one of the original editions indicates for a few bars near the end of the wild and hectic Prelude in bb minor. This reduces the clarity of the figuration for a couple of seconds (even on a piano of Chopin’s day) and produces an effect of desperate, almost chaotic abandon.
And then there’s the question of rhythm – I’ve also tried to respect 19th-century custom here. It was common practice to assimilate triplet rhythms between melody and accompaniment, or at least to have the option to do so, unless otherwise indicated (it simply saved time to write things out in what is to us a “misleading” fashion). The normal way of “otherwise indicating” was to do exactly what Chopin did in the E-major Prelude. Here he double- dots the melody towards the end of the piece, when parts of the tune should be played in a differentiated rhythm – in other words, after, not with, the triplet accompaniment – to create a notable rhythmic intensification at the close of the Prelude. In the same fashion, the melody and accompaniment in the “grand opera chorus” finale of the Polonaise-Fantasy was almost certainly intended to be played in uniform triplets. To do otherwise turns what should be a grand and noble span of melody into an oddly jerky polyrhythm.
I am certainly not arguing that any of the specific approaches mentioned above are unique in modern performance, but I do hope, taken together, that they represent an intriguing – and convincing – divergence from common practice. Listeners will notice a particular difference in pieces like the famous Nocturne op. 9 no. 2, where I have “preluded” according to the custom of Chopin’s day by first playing the accompaniment for a few bars on its own before bringing in the tune; have arpeggiated many of the left hand chords (they should be harped “like a guitar”, according to Chopin’s pupil Wilhelm von Lenz, who studied the piece with the composer); have treated the direction Rubato as indicating a subtle dislocation between melody and accompaniment (Chopin’s usage of the term), and played some of the exquisitely ornate melodic variants that Chopin himself wrote by hand into the scores of several of his pupils. There is no doubt that a performance of this Nocturne merely “as printed” would have been acceptable in Chopin’s day, but perhaps no more than that. “Finished artists” were expected freely to ornament the melody, and the variants show us exactly how the composer himself did this.
The title of the CD itself, More Preludes to Chopin, refers to the general custom of preluding mentioned above. Chopin’s Preludes were not intended as isolated pieces, nor to be played as a complete set, but to be used as preludes or introductions to longer works. They are treated as such here, with one exception (discussed below). In Chopin’s day, and for a century or so thereafter, pianists would perform a prelude before each concert item. Chopin’s wonderful 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 (in an age of unreliable instruments) to test out the piano. I’ve modified this approach a little–by, for example, taking a more liberal attitude to the tonal relationships between prelude and subsequent piece than was common in the 19th century, but I have adhered to the introductory spirit of the earlier practice, either by anticipating the mood of the subsequent piece (for instance, the elegantly lyrical Bb major Prelude is followed by the equally songful Nocturne op. 9.no. 2) or by setting up a direct challenge to it (the wildly passionate bb minor Prelude is followed by the consolatory Nocturne op. 55 no. 2). The one exception is the famous “Raindrop Prelude”, op. 28 no. 15, presented at the centre of the CD as an independent piece. This, in my view, is the only prelude in the entire set of 24 that is of an expansiveness to justify such treatment.
Although Chopin never indicated which specific pieces his preludes might be paired with, some preludes have such a strong similarity with the opening of other pieces in the same key that they seem destined to be together. This is especially true of the Prelude in f# minor and Polonaise in f# minor, which will appear in the third and final volume of this CD cycle, and of the Prelude in c minor and Nocturne in c minor, which begins the present disk. In fact, the latter two pieces are so self-evidently “twins” that they were often paired by 19th- century pianists. Other similarities are difficult to ignore: the mediant harmonies of the E-major prelude directly foreshadow those of the opening of the Polonaise-Fantasy, the harmonic sideslips of the Bb-major Prelude are akin to those used in transition passage of the Nocturne op. 9 no. 2, and the intense lamenting of the e-minor Prelude seems to be a perfect preface to the sorrowfully resigned lilt of the a-minor waltz. Listeners might reasonably point out that by adding yet another prelude to the “preludial” introduction I have already included with the op. 9 no. 2 Nocturne (mentioned above), I have basically produced a prelude to a prelude. But although this practice might seem oddly redundant to us, it was common in Chopin’s musical world, and does have (I think) a piquantly charming effect.
And now a little more on the pieces themselves: The title “nocturne” – literally “night-piece” – was first used by the erratically talented but consistently inebriated Irish pianist-composer John Field to describe short lyrical pieces of subdued mood. Chopin was a committed admirer of Field’s music, and he proceeded to adopt his style with even greater harmonic daring and a much more fertile melodic imagination. The earliest Chopin nocturnes, especially the famous op. 9 no. 2, are obviously derived from Field in texture and atmosphere, but the later pieces depart significantly from their model in complexity, subtlety and sophistication. For that reason, the profusion of ornamentation considered appropriate by the composer to the op. 9 no. 2 Nocturne would be out of place in the sensuous “duet” Nocturne op. 55 no. 2.
The powerfully dramatic nocturne op. 48 no. 1 is easily the most magnificent of Chopin’s works in the genre. Although it is in a simple three-part form, the range of emotion and the implied narrative elements break all expected boundaries and encroach on the world of the ballade, or even of the operatic scene. We first hear a noble, contemplative melody in the minor key, strongly recalling the arias of Bellini. (Chopin’s student Wilhelm von Lenz, cited above, gave a detailed account of Chopin’s advice on the performance of part of this theme – I’ve tried to keep this in mind here.) The contrasting central section is of genuinely bardic scope and grandeur, with a new major-key theme in widely spread arpeggiated chords sounding like a chorus singing to harp accompaniment. As the tale grows more triumphant, the tune alternates with defiant cascades of double octaves–an assertive, virtuosic, and utterly unexpected passage in a nocturne. The tragic return of the opening minor-key melody springs another surprise. Instead of a straightforward repeat, Chopin combines the tune at double speed with an agitated chordal accompaniment in triplets, as if composure has now toppled headlong into outright despair. The piece has always reminded me of an operatic hero contemplating his impending execution, like a premonition of the last act of Puccini’s Tosca.
The two waltzes are completely contrasting in character. The a minor, op. 34 no. 2, was erroneously published as a “brilliant” waltz. It is far from brilliant, but ruminative, haunting and melancholic, with a brief hint of a smile towards the end. The well-known op. 64 no. 2 is a memorably quirky piece that seems to want to become a mazurka–or at least, the sporadic emphases on the second and third beats of the bar in the opening theme strongly give this impression–and I’ve accordingly played the relevant passages with this idea in mind. I’ve prefaced this waltz with the equally quirky and volatile c#-minor Prelude.
The Polonaise-Fantasy is Chopin’s last major work for piano solo, and one that many of his contemporaries found especially difficult to comprehend, owing to its sudden changes of mood and complex chromaticism. With hindsight, we can see the former as an attempt to emulate the capriciousness of an improvised fantasy, and the latter as foreshadowing many of the futuristic harmonic traits of Liszt and Wagner. Ironically, Liszt himself found the Polonaise-Fantasy a hard nut to crack. In old age he wrote:
“In 1849 I did not yet understand the intimate beauty of the last works of Chopin, the Polonaise-Fantasie and the Barcaroll–and had some reservations regarding their morbid tone. Now, I admire them totally–despite the pedantry of a few cloth-eared critics who fail to appreciate them. […] They are not only very remarkable, but also very melodious, nobly inspired, and artistically proportioned, in all respects on a level with the enchanting genius of Chopin. No-one else should be compared with him–he shines alone and unique in the artistic heavens. His emotions, grace, grief, power, and transports are unique to himself. He is a divine aristocrat, a feminine archangel with prismatic wings! Forgive me for expressing my thoughts in so bizarre a manner.”
Chopin had initially intended simply to call the piece “Fantasy for Piano”, before he added a polonaise rhythm to the main theme and reflected this in the change of title. For all its subtle sophistication, the piece falls easily into four main sections: a hazily atmospheric opening segment designed to suggest improvisation, a vigorous sequel presenting two themes–one angular, the other gracious–with a polonaise accompaniment, a contemplative nocturne/barcarolle episode, and a swaggering finale that transforms the nocturne tune into an almost bombastic French grand opera chorus. But Chopin deliberately blurs the edges of this straightforward outline by the recall of the opening improvisation before the nocturne/barcarolle has come to a close, and by the sudden, whimsical intrusion of a more tranquil passage into the polonaise section’s stormy development. The final surprise is the brusque fortissimo chord that closes the piece, just as we think the music is winding down to a quiet conclusion.
The Variations on a theme from Ludovic by Hérold and Halevy is a completely different type of “fantasy” (as such variations on opera airs were sometimes called): a sparkling piece on a then-popular tune, in the standard style of the 1830s. Nevertheless, it does have a few jeweled features that are decidedly Chopinesque, not least the delicate restraint of the virtuoso passages (Chopin never goes completely over the top, as Liszt sometimes does), a nocturne- like slow variation, and a finale imitating the Krakowiak, a syncopated Polish dance. Ironically, although Chopin’s Variations are (obviously) still played today, Ludovic itself is utterly forgotten, as is the actual song that Chopin used, “Je vends les Scapulaires” (“I sell (ecclesiastical) vestments”–not exactly a catchy text). Liszt himself once heard Chopin play the Variations in a Parisian salon. He recalled: “Such a poetic temperament as Chopin’s never existed, nor have I ever heard such delicacy and refinement of playing. The tone, though small, was absolutely beyond criticism, and although his execution was not powerful, nor by any means fitted for a larger concert hall, it was still perfect in the extreme.” I have prefaced the Variations with the rippling Prelude in F-major, and also added a brief, decorative transition passage of my own at the fermata (pause) of the slow variation, as would have been expected.
Although the Ballade–a strophic narration set to music–was a staple of the operatic world of Chopin’s era, it was he who first had the idea of writing Ballades “without words” for piano. Parisian audiences would have been especially familiar with sung ballades such as that from Meyerbeer’s hit-opera Robert le Diable (1831), which desperately tries to make comprehensible the convoluted background of its ridiculous plot. Although some sort of broad narrative seems to lie behind each of Chopin’s ballades, and although the writings of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz have been shown (by Jonathan Bellman) to have influenced at least one of them, Chopin never mentioned any detailed programme as the source of his inspiration. This is all the more noteworthy in that his era abounded in programme music, from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, with its autobiographical preface in purple prose, to Alkan’s admirably detailed piano etude “Conflagration at the Neighbouring Village”, which even includes a passage depicting the welcome arrival of the fire brigade. The reticent Chopin recoiled from such cinematicallyspecific stories; listeners to his ballades are instead left to construct a plot for themselves. We can say, however, that the tales are mostly tragic, for only the third Ballade ends in anything other than despair.
The Ballade in g minor is, therefore, telling us some sort of story. In fact, the opening theme–preceded by a short “pay attention!” introductory passage–features a series of harp-like sweeps, as if some imaginary bard is accompanying himself as he sings his epic tale. Extensions of this theme lead via a passage of increasing agitation to an outstandingly lovely outpouring of song in Eb major, one of Chopin’s most unforgettably touching tunes. These two melodies provide most of the material for the rest of the Ballade.
Analytically minded listeners will notice strong resemblances in the opening pages of the first Ballade to the exposition of a sonata, namely the broad contrast of two distinct themes and key areas. Nevertheless, similarities to sonata form become less obvious as the piece progresses–at least in terms of tonal structure. The impassioned central section could indeed be thought of as the “development” of a sonata, but if so, the second theme definitely returns in the “wrong” key (Eb major, whereas in a sonata we would normally find G), and the focus of the Ballade’s final pages is not the expected recapitulation of the first theme, but rather a tragically tumultuous coda. This is, admittedly, actually in the “right” key–the tonic g minor–but mostly uses new material. The whole approach is stunningly powerful, and resolutely unconventional.
Less analytical listeners will not lose anything at all if they completely ignore the paragraph above, and simply enjoy the music. Were arcane knowledge of complex key schemes necessary to understand Chopin, then he would be utterly, and rightly, forgotten.”