CHOPIN: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2; Fantasy on Polish Airs; Krakowiak Concert Rondo; Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise; Variations on “Lá ci darem la mano” – Oleg Marshev, p./ South Denmark Philharmonic/ David Porcelijn – Danacord DACOCD 701-702 [Distr. by Albany] 70:03, 66:01 *****:
Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849), like his fellow musical icons Mozart and Schubert, died before turning forty, and yet each created a miraculously large body of highest quality music in a short life. These two discs celebrate the works Chopin created for piano accompanied by orchestra. Even more of a miracle is that these six compositions were all completed by the time he was twenty!
He was born near Warsaw to a privileged family with loose connections to nobility. He was composing by age seven, and the Warsaw press referred to him as “a true musical genius”. He began composition lessons with Józef Elsner and moved with him at age 16 to the High School of Music within the recently established University of Warsaw. It was under Elsner’s tutelage that these works were written. The first was a typical student assignment, a set of Variations on “Lá ci darem la mano”, the second act aria between Don Giovanni and Zerlina in Mozart’s opera. Following this Opus 2, and some solo piano compositions, next is another derivative piece with orchestra, the Fantasy on Polish Airs, Opus 13. Its four movements all exude the folk-dance quality Chopin championed all his life. That same year, at age 18, he composed a two-movement work, Krakowiak, Concert-Rondo in F major, Opus 14, a truly wonderful piece that makes me sad that Chopin didn’t write more for piano with orchestra, especially with horn.
Some more piano compositions, and then Chopin embarked on his biggest endeavours to date – and the foundation stones of this pair of discs – the two piano concerti. The producers of these recordings had a problem: the two concertos were next in order of composition, but they are each so long (35 minutes +/-) that they can’t be placed on one vinyl disc with anything else – so they abandoned the idea of having the tracks follow the order of composition, and instead placed the concertos – the best known of the six pieces here – one at the beginning of each disc. So the booklet – and this review – places the works in order of composition, but the recordings do not. If you’re not confused already, deal with the fact that Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in f minor, Opus 21, was composed before Piano Concerto No. 1 in e minor, Opus 22, but published after.
The piano concerti are truly masterworks from a young composer with a lot to say. Both opening movements are marked Maestoso (majestic, stately) and open with long orchestral passages (138 bars in the E minor). The second movement Larghetto of the F minor was written, Chopin admits, while he yearned to hear from his girl, Konstancja Gladowska. He writes “Six months have elapsed and I have not yet exchanged a syllable with her of whom I dream every night. While my thoughts were with her, I composed the adagio of my concerto.” The finale, Allegro vivace, returns to a sunny mood and concludes triumphantly.
Chopin’s e minor concerto, the second he wrote, was dedicated to Friederich Kalkbrenner, whose piano concerto he had played at age 14, and whom he finally met in Paris seven years later. Chopin, not being a very literary man, wrote very little about his composing, but he made another exception regarding the second movement, also Larghetto, of the e minor concerto. “It’s not meant to be loud. It’s more of a romance, quiet, melancholy; it should give the impression of gazing tenderly at a place which brings to mind a thousand dear memories. It is sort of a meditation in beautiful spring weather, and by the moonlight, and that is why I have muted the accompaniment.” The closing movement, Rondo: Vivace again follows the pattern of the previous concerto and is rollicking fun.
Chopin began work in Paris on a third concerto but abandoned it, and used some of the solo piano material in an Allegro de concert. The final work Chopin completed for piano with orchestra seems to have taken many months – begun in Poland, then worked on as he travelled through Vienna, Munich and Stuttgart, on his way to Paris. It’s the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante in E flat major. The Andante, for piano solo, was tacked on later to the front of a well-known Polonaise: “spiana” is Italian for “carpenter’s plane” and refers to plane, level or smooth music, and the piece reminds me of raindrops. The Polonaise is an enduring showpiece, but likely the last thing Chopin wrote for orchestra. He detested showiness, and I think he came to realize in his early twenties that he could capture all the color and texture of an orchestra with piano alone.
The pianist on these discs is marvelous. Oleg Marshev was born in Azerbaijan in 1961, and has performed throughout the world. He competed extensively in the 1990 to 1993 period and won three first places and two third places. He records exclusively for Danacord, and has more than 30 albums completed, including many of Liszt, Prokofiev, Shostokovich, Strauss and Tchaikovsky. This is his first Chopin recording, and I expect we’ll see many solo recordings of Chopin by Marshev. The conductor of the South Denmark Philharmonic is David Porcelijn, and he and the orchestra perform beautifully on these recordings. Porcelijn is truly a world artist, originally trained in baroque flute, but now a well travelled and respected conductor. He records for ABC (Australia) and CPO, as well as Danacord.
Danacord is the creation of Dane Jesper Buhl. In 1979, his dissatisfaction with classical record companies of the day prompted him to found the company, and it has remained a champion of Danish composers and Danish musicians since, with a catalog of 400+ recordings, more than half on CD. These Chopin recordings were done in August 2010, in Sɵnderborg, near the southern border of Denmark with Germany. Acoustics and sound are excellent, thanks to Recording Producer and Editor Lennart Dehn. The liner notes, by British polymath Jeremy Nicholas, are superb. But I was surprised to find the booklet only in English, and I was appalled at the cover art (It’s by Finn Sigfusson, cellist in the South Denmark Philharmonic, and it reminds me of the admonition “Don’t quit your day job”).
This pair of CDs is an important addition to my collection, as it tells an amazing story of Frédéric Chopin’s precocious genius, and how quickly he mastered the genre of orchestral music, and how quickly he rejected it and found his immortality with solo piano. I recommend it for yours. [Amazon currently only has this as MP3 files, but may have the CDs later…Ed.]