A Prayer for Poland: Chamber Music of Frédéric Chopin: Brent Wissick, cello, Andrew Willis, 1848 Pleyel piano, Richard Luby, violin. Frédéric Chopin (1810-49), Introduction and Polonaise, Op. 3, Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65, Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 8; Albany TROY 1429, ©2010, TT 60:20 ($18.99).

Having reviewed two concerts (October 10, 2008 and January 25, 2007) that served as dress rehearsals for the performances committed to this CD, I have awaited its release with great eagerness. The tragic passing of violinist Richard Luby, who did so much to bring national and international historical informed practices (“The Early Music Movement”) to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, added  poignancy to any celebrations. This CD will be a worthy keepsake to remember an artist of remarkable generosity and talent.

Chopin’s works on this CD show the composer’s artistic growth as well as how he was influenced by skilled players and instrumental innovations. His patron, the Prince Antonin Radizwiłł was an amateur cellist of limited skill. What became the Introduction and Polonaise Brillante for piano and cello, Op. 3 began as a Polonaise only, with the elaborate keyboard part intended for the Prince’s daughter or Chopin, leaving a rather basic cello part for her father. In Vienna in 1829 Chopin encountered the virtuoso playing of the cellist Joseph Merk (1795-1852). Merk persuaded the composer to add the Introduction part to Op.3. The lovely cantabile lines are reflective of Merk’s style but the cellist had little effect on the polonaise part. Cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808-1884), with whom Chopin worked in Paris, enhanced several passages in the polonaise. Franchomme was famous for agile fingerings and extreme left hand extensions. The Viennese print was used for the recording of the introduction, supplemented by some of Franchomme’s passages in the polonaise.

Chopin’s Sonata in G minor, Op.65 was dedicated to the cellist Franchomme and the two premiered it February 16, 1848 in what was Chopin’s last public concert. According to Brent Wissick’s fine program note, it is “a large scale, sophisticated piece that casts both its first movement and finale in sonata form, relieving the seriousness with a dance-like scherzo.” The CD’s title comes from a lecture by the prominent Chopin scholar, Jeffrey Kallberg, who noted the composer (beginning with Op. 35) began quoting or alluding to a prayer-like aria from Rossini’s opera La Gazza Ladra. The ethereal, heart-felt third movement Largo is such a prayer lamenting the division of Poland among Prussia, Russia, and Austria. The opening Allegro, Scherzo, and Finale feature lively dance forms.

Chopin’s Piano Trio in G minor, Op.8 was originally composed for Prince Radziwiłł for a performance at his Warsaw palace. The composer revised it slightly in 1833, the year he began his relationship with the cellist Franchomme. Since it is an early work, the greater part of musical interest, arpeggios, trills, etc., are in the piano part but the string parts are not without interest.

Modern steel-framed pianos often present balance problems in performances of early Romantic and Classical music. Use of a period keyboard instrument can eliminate burying the full sound of strings. Chopin preferred the action and sound of the pianos made by Pleyel and, according to Andrew Willis’ brief note about his piano, the composer said “when I am in form and feel strong enough to find my own sound, I must have a Pleyel.” A contemporary Parisian piano technician described the sound of the Pleyel as having “a special satisfying quality, the upper register bright and silvery, the middle penetrating and intense, the bass clear and vigorous.” These attributes are abundantly evident throughout this recording as Andrew Willis plays his Pleyel grand #15270, made in Paris in 1848, a year before Chopin died. The simple English action yields a bell-like, crisp and clear sound even on the low register, and its middle register is especially pleasing. Instead of overwhelming the gut-stringed violin and cello, the Pleyel blends with them readily.

The musicians used A=440 pitch that approximates the range used in Europe in the early 19th century. Brent Wissick produces a fine warm sound from his anonymous late 19th century German cello. Richard Luby used a violin made by Michelangelo Bergonzi in Cremona in 1757. Both string players’ intonation is immaculate and both have lovely tone, while the give-and-take between players has a special quality of spontaneity born of long experience of making music together. Willis’ articulation of fast passages is superb as is the refinement of his palette of color and dynamics.