CHOPIN: Les Grandes Polonaises = Seven Polonaises by CHOPIN – Pascal Amoyal, piano – La Dolce Volta

CHOPIN: Les Grandes Polonaises = No. 1 in c-sharp minor, Op. 26;  No. 2 in e-flat minor, Op. 26; No. 3 in A Major, Op. 40, No. 1 “Military”; No. 4 in c minor, Op. 40, No. 2; No. 5 in f-sharp minor, Op. 44 “Tragic”; No. 6 in A-flat Major, Op. 53 “Heroic”; Polonaise-Fantasie in A-flat Major, Op. 61 – Pascal Amoyal, piano – La Dolce Volta LDV 25, 63:32 (4/29/16)  [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****

Pascal Amoyal surveys the seven official Chopin polonaise with passion and poetic zeal.

Pascal Amoyal (b. 1971) recorded the integral set of seven “official” (Paris) Chopin polonaises 27-30 April 2015, recalling, of course, that Chopin had in fact produced some sixteen others from the time he was seven-years-old.  The resonant Steinway Amoyal employs (D-357) has been very closely “miked” by Jean-Marc Laisne, to the point that we can hear the digital depressions on the keys as Amoyal strikes them. The Frederyk Chopin Society of Warsaw had bestowed its Grand Prix du Disque to Amoyal for his 2010 survey of the complete Nocturnes, and he feels the nationalistic Polonaises aim at a more specific context than the “universal” appeal to night-music.

Amoyal opens with the 1831 c-sharp minor, whose mournful appassionato and fortissimo blows signify Chopin’s awareness of the 1830 Russian military incursion into Poland. The enharmonic shift to D-flat for the poetic central section has Amoyal’s lulling us into sentimental reverie and tesknota – aggrieved nostalgia – in which the right hand embellishes a melody close to Bellini’s bel canto tradition. The companion piece, No. 2 in e-flat minor (Maestoso), stems from low depths to rise to a kind of emotional outcry. The clangor has the violence of Beethoven, only to be offset in the trio section (B Major) that seems to await salvation. Amoyal well projects the form of a solemn rondo, but one that lacks mirth. Its most direct ancestor may be Mozart’s a minor, K. 511, but Amoyal’s “orchestral” sonority projects this work into a new dimension.

The two polonaises Op. 40 (1838-39) mean to ‘contradict’ one another: the A Major “Military” has become an emblem of the sensibility of revolt, while the less frequent c minor projects an obsessive descent into the maelstrom.  Yet, this dark dirge has its moment of aspiration and even sensual allure, given in the A-flat Major trio melody in the top voice. The moody melancholy, however, insists on assaulting our senses. The staccato motions might have implied hoof beats in the soft trio, but by end of the piece, they invoke the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Amoyal’s final chord resounds with savage irony.

The 1841 “fantasie in polonaise form,” as Chopin expressed the grand f minor, Op. 44 to his publisher Mechetti, contains an epic struggle expressed in monumental terms.  Whatever of the old dance forms the polonaise might be supposed to invoke has been sacrificed to politics. Its stormy, passionate, rhapsodic nature has moments of exaltation but no less of grim, determined assaults in b-flat minor. Suddenly, the music breaks off into reverie, here in the form of an old-world mazurka in A Major. Amoyal colors this enchanted section with an archaic, modal sound, almost rustic in the manner of bagpipes. Even Franz Liszt found this marvelous work enthralling, its orchestral sonority capable of “thrilling and galvanizing the torpor of our indifference.”

The “emperor” of Chopin polonaises, the A-flat, Op. 53, remains the most identifiable of the set, with its aggressive approach to the form originated by Michal Oginski. The sheer grandeur of the conception, with forward thrust and aspiring counter-theme, have invoked various national images, including galloping hussars for its pounding, crescendo-based middle section rife with manic octaves. Amoyal keeps the momentum at fever pitch, where even its lyrical asides seem more like digressions of fancy in the course of a mighty, militant mission. Nevertheless, the rivulets of trills and passing polyphony convey the poetry that constitutes the Chopin ethos.

Years ago, when on the WQXR-FM radio program “First Hearing,” the panel (including me) were confronted with a performance of the Polonaise-Fantasy by an unknown pianist (it turned out to be Leonskaya), each of us remarked that the challenge lay in finding a thematic thread that links the piece’s diverse moods and energies together. The piece opens with brooding, declamatory, recitative-like chords (Maestoso) that seem to wander; then, a polonaise rhythm enters, mostly introspective in character. The “dance” demands double notes, triplets, and chains of trills and an active bass line. Typical in this late (1846) work, Chopin’s advanced harmony likes its idiosyncratic polyphony, while the expressive line meanders over a fairly steady pulse. Amoyal brings great concentration to the epic middle section, and for a moment we seem to have entered a ballade or extensive, brooding nocturne of luminous, pensive beauty. Whatever remains of the dance element has become wistfully interior, a melancholy reminiscence of grace and lost elegance. At its emotional climax, the piece hurls thunderbolts in a manner that may well transcend Beethoven. Chopin himself felt intimidated by this work, declaring that he’d like to finish a piece “that I don’t know yet what to call.”  Try “original masterpiece.”

—Gary Lemco

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