CHOPIN: The Late Mazurkas = 4 Mazurkas, Op. 41; 3 Mazurkas, Op. 50; 3 Mazurkas, Op. 56; 3 Mazurkas, Op. 63; Mazurka in A minor “a Emile Galliard”; Mazurka in A minor “Notre temps”; Mazurka in A minor, Op. 67, No. 4; Mazurka in G minor, Op. 67, No. 2; Mazurka in F minor, Op. 68, No. 4 (rev. Kingsley Day) – Todd Crow, piano – MSR Classics  MS 1629, 73:15 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Robert Schumann said of the Chopin mazurkas that “each has an individual poetic feature, something distinctive in form or expression.” Chopin’s knowledge of the folk and dance forms of his native Poland thoroughly absorbed the rhythmic and expressive possibilities of the three types he exploits: the mazur and its brisk, temperamental sensibility; the kujawiak, with its stylized, slow tempo; and the oberek, with its characteristic, lively joie de vivre. The fifty-seven mazurkas bequeathed us by Chopin, written throughout his career, 1825-1849, display a wealth of invention—harmonic as well as metric—within the seemingly limited frame of a dance in ¾ time.  Though creations of his own, without direct quotes from his native Poland, Chopin manages to infuse each with a freedom of movement—by virtue of his idiosyncratic rubato—and nuance, by way of an ever-evolving sense of harmony, often that exploits the Lydian or Phrygian modes.  Often, the rhythmic license allows Chopin to segue from one dance form into another within the same piece, since Chopin blurs the bar lines enough to create hemiola or metric shifts within the basic pulse. Such stylistic freedom demands much of the performer, who must demonstrate spontaneity and maturity, a singing line and a capacity for clarity within an often complex, quirky, contrapuntal structure.

Todd Crow, a pupil of Ania Dorfmann and Emanuel Bay, brings (rec. June 2017) a solid, refined sense of the Chopin style to these busy pieces, offering them as charming and intricate, at once. The Op. 41 (1838; 1839) set that opens this survey stands as a kind of template: in E minor, the “Palma mazurka” avoids the tonic and utilizes staggered phraseology that “gropes” its way by open fifths to a more legato and even militant statement of its national ethos. The B Major sets an oberek in sharp accents of a repeated fanfare, with aggressive runs and leaps, almost a waltz. The No. 3 in A-flat Major proceeds evenly until a sense of hesitancy inflects the rhythmic pulse and ends the piece quizzically. The longest of the set, the C-sharp minor, display every opportunity for added ornament or metric variation via rubato and chromatic intervals, a capacity mastered even more fully in the mazurka in the same key, Op. 50, No. 3 (1842), played by Crow with suave affection.   The two melancholy mazurkas without opus number appear in 1841, both in A minor with middle sections in the tonic major. The first appeared in an anthology Album de Pianistes Polonais Moreaux inedits, dedicated to a banker named Emile Gaillard. The magazine Notre Temps published the second, under the title Six Morceaux de Salon.

Portrait of Chopin

Chopin

The two sets of mazurkas, Op. 50 (1842) and Op. 56 (1843-44) display Chopin’s matured harmony and contrapuntal skills. What had been a “mere” folk or dance piece has now become a minor poem or ballade, as in the G Major, Op. 50, No. 1. The ensuing A-flat Major, a kujawiak in duple rhythm, in Crow’s performance, at first takes dainty steps in what becomes an elegant series of nostalgic gestures in modal harmony. Chopin utilizes a series of slightly modulated sequences to build the rising tension of the C-sharp minor Mazurka, whose power of expression has had majestic precursors from the likes of Rubinstein and Lipatti. Chopin’s exploratory sensibility extends into his 1843 Op. 56 mazurkas, of which No. 1 in B Major proceeds as a dialogue in melodic fragments. The masur gains confidence and strength as it extends the chromatic line, rather toying with waltz rhythm in E-flat Major. The relatively brief C Major offers an oberek of gruff rusticity, with intervals of a fourth and fifths, and a central section that offers two competing kujawiaks. The upper voice tries to inject a sense of delicacy in canon, but the stomping rhythm prevails. The most complex of the set, the C minor has the breadth of a ballade, declamatory and introspective. With its audacious polyphony, the piece sounds like an etude as times, rife with bass drone effects. The allure of this strange piece does not elude Crow, who imparts a mystery into its weavings and intimate meanderings, especially the coda.

The 1845 Op. 59 mazurkas well culminate Chopin’s experiments in the form, from the very first, in A minor, expanding the opening period into a twelve-bar statement. An element of fantasy intrudes into the development in the tonic major, using a series of variations on the opening motif.  As a mazur, the piece seems unhappy in the confinements of the form, and a spirit of rebellion saturates its harmonic and chromatic wanderings.  The A-flat Major opens dolce, but its spirit will become defiant, its ballade character marked by syncopes and soon richly harmonized in thirds and sixths. The middle section has Bellini character of bel canto, soaring on a rather ostinato phrase. The F-sharp minor Mazurka delivers an oberek in Lydian temper, rife with canonic episodes and a movement to F-sharp Major, rather in anticipation of the Barcarolle, Op. 60.  This piece seems entirely self-contained, a microcosm of conflicting emotions highly concentrated, perhaps a mirror of Chopin’s mercurial and elastic self.

For his final triptych of mazurkas, Op. 63 (1846), Chopin reverts to a more classical, simpler scale, a mirror of his Warsaw days of modest dimensions. The jaunty B Major mazur has a second theme that intrudes upon the rustic nostalgia. Its last chords leave us in quizzical mode, disturbed. The F minor kujawiak seems all internalized, its passing dissonances, personal recollections mixed anguish and recalled bliss, especially in the A-flat Major trio.  The C-sharp minor Mazurka too echoes the “new simplicity” of the late Chopin style, an elegant kujuwiak, with definite sense of linear ascent—up to a brief mazur—and closure.  The three posthumous mazurkas easily recall the Warsaw days, the nostalgia of national aims and disillusionment. Diatonism competes with chromatic lines, much as in the Beethoven Pathetique, the tension between pain and will. Crow gives the A Minor, Op. 67, No. 4 an especial lilt rife with tesknota, a lament from the heart. The last piece, the Mazurka in F Minor, originally the Op. 68, No. 4 (1846) weaves an elusive tapestry, part oberek, part lilted waltz, but singing in a chromatic line that points beyond Chopin to Scriabin and Wagner.

It’s been a convoluted but thoroughly personal journey of the soul, this disc, which will bear repeated hearings as well as comparison to the acknowledged masters of the Chopin idiom.

—Gary Lemco

More information and track samples at MSR CLassics.

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