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Music Feature Print

Frédéric/Fryderyk Chopin: Idol of the "Mighty Five" French Pianist-Composers

December 23, 2021 - Easthampton, MA:

When I wrote in 2011 and early 2012 the article mentioned in the title, posted on June 15, 2012, I was unaware of any recordings of Chopin's music on period instruments. Six years later, several had been released, and I had also read and researched Chopin more and learned more about him, his music, and his playing style, so I decided that I needed to write something about all of these subjects, because all five of those pianist-composers held him in such high esteem; there wasn't enough to make a separate article, so I created an "Addendum" to place at the end of its text. Information, books, and recordings have continued to come to my attention, increase in number, and become more widely available, and I have continued to add to that Addendum, and it is now extensive enough that it needs to stand alone, especially because two very significant things happened this month that needed to be added.

However, I think it also needs to retain the original format of a consecutive accumulation of dated additions, because such items will likely continue to appear and re-surface, or be released that I will want to add in. Hence the separate article, with its original opening paragraphs retained; the reason for this will become evident. I have updated the internal cross-references within the article and with others on the website, fixed some misspellings and typos, and added in a few additional items and details in appropriate places, between [ … ] if appropriate. Since my first entry in the Addendum opened with the 21-CD Real Chopin set (whose name will take on another meaning in a later entry) issued by the Chopin Instytut, I am grouping all the entries that mention recordings under that portion of the initial reference to those, retaining in chronological order their posting dates, and will continue this practice in the future, to make it easier for readers to find them.

January 2018

When I researched and wrote this piece six or seven years ago, there were very few recordings of the music of Chopin performed on period instruments available, at least in the USA, and I have since become aware of and acquired several significant ones, including the complete traversal issued in a 21-CD boxed set entitled The Real Chopin, NIFCCD 000-020, © 2010, performances recorded 2005-2009, by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute (Narodowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina), established by the Polish Parliament in 2001 in Warsaw, the sponsor of the International Chopin Competition that has taken place there every five years since 2005; it also sponsors an annual Chopin Festival. It has a museum in Warsaw and also owns Chopin's birthplace in Żelazowa Wola, now also a museum.

For this traversal, the Instytut used two instruments from Chopin's time that it owns: an 1848 Pleyel, serial number not given, that it purchased in 2005, and an 1849 Érard, serial # 21118, that was given to it by the Ryszard Krause Foundation; the former has its original components, the latter has some restored ones; the accompanying 1/2-inch thick booklet contains photographs and detailed descriptions of both. It includes, as its first CD, # 00, a 31:18-minute historic performance by Raul Koczalski (1884-1948) on 21 February 1948 in Warsaw, on an 1847 Pleyel, serial # 13823, that had been purchased by his pupil Jane Wilhelmina Stirling, and which Chopin himself played in Scotland in 1848 on his last tour before his death, then in the Jagiellonian University Museum in Kraków, but apparently now in the NIFC.

I purchased my copy from a Presto store in Leamington Spa in the UK because it was not available in the USA and as far as I can tell, it still isn't; if you go there and search under Chopin Institute, you will see the c. 100 items available. A similar search at Arkiv Music brings up zero; the set is not among them, but is still available directly from the Instytut or from Amazon.com at more than double the price.

The Instytut has also issued some 20-plus other single CDs using these instruments, in particular one of British pianist and conductor Howard Shelley playing the three sonatas, NIFCCD 022, © 2010, 79:41, mostly played on the 1849 Érard, with two movements of Op. 35 played on the 1848 Pleyel, and a lovely one of 18 of Chopin's songs sung by Dorothée Mields, accompanied by Nelson Goerner playing the 1848 Pleyel, NIFC CD 023, © 2011, 51:55, that I also own. The Instytut owns several other period instruments as well that have been used is some recordings, and all of those in the set have been issued separately; to find these at Presto, search under "Real Chopin;" they are also available from the NIFC. There is some duplication of works within the set, performed by different pianists, many of whose names will not be familiar to most Americans, but all are superb performances. Some, like Nelson Goerner, impressed me sufficiently to seek out others of their recordings, not necessarily of music by Chopin or performed on period instruments.

A fine recording of Chopin's rarely performed and recorded earliest music is by Costantino Mastroprimiano, performed on a c. 1826 Graf, serial number 1092, Brilliant Classics 94066, © 2010, 71:45. Before going to Paris, Chopin visited Vienna twice, in 1829 and 1831, where he played Grafs that Conrad made available to him in his shop. This instrument is very significant and unusual in that it still belongs to the descendants of its original purchaser, and is in the house in which it was then installed, the Palazzo Contucci, built in the first half of the 16th century in Montepulciano (in Tuscany, near Siena), with all of its original components, recently reconditioned by Edwin Beunk.

The Contucci family has long been winemakers, but has also long been involved in cultural activities and music in particular. The recording is filled out with a rarely played and recorded short later work, and is a delightful listening experience. Mastroprimiano is a fine performer on early instruments and has made numerous recordings on them, including two others using this one, both featuring soprano Eleonora Contucci, descendent of its purchaser, in music of other composers, and one of music by Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888; he was a neighbor of Chopin for the last years of Chopin's life), acquaintance of Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Debussy, and Satie, Brilliant Classics 94341, © 2014, 66:43, played on an 1865 Pleyel, serial number 38590 that was originally purchased by pianist-composer Eugène Keterer (1831-1870, studied at the Conservatoire at the same time as Saint-Saëns, d. of smallpox in the siege of Paris by the Germans), now restored and in the Collection Casiglia in Palermo, Sicily.

Other recordings of works in the standard repertoire:

Alexei Lubimov, Ballades, Barcarole, Berceuse, & Fantaisie, Op. 49, Erato 2292-45990, ©1993, 63:11, performed on an 1837 Érard, one of the first recordings of Chopin on a period instrument by another period-instrument specialist, a fine performance, copies can still be found.

Arthur Schoonderwoerd, Mazurkas, valses & autres danses, Alpha 040, © 2003, 66:15, and "Ballades & Nocturnes," Alpha 147, © 2009, 61:49, both performed on an 1836 Pleyel; Schoonderwoerd is one of the finest Dutch harpsichordists and fortepianists.

John Khouri, The 27 Études, Music & Arts, CD-1150, © 2004, 56:06, performed on an 1832 Broadwood; a fine recording with a nice sound, though Chopin may not have ever played a Broadwood.

Yuan Sheng, Ballades, Impromptus, 24 Préludes, & Nocturnes, Piano Classics PCL0049, © 2012, 3-CD set, 56:18, 78:00, & 66:66, performed on an 1845 Pleyel in the Frederick collection of Historical Pianos (See text of the article in the title), from which it can be ordered; I was present at the live performances of these that preceded the recordings. Sheng is professor of piano at the Beijing Central Conservatory, and has his BM and MM from the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied under Solomon Mikowsky.

December 2021

Another interesting related boxed set that I did not include in the original Addendum is: Chopin; His contemporaries and his instruments, a six-CD set of various composers, musical works, pianists: CDs 1-4, Bart van Ort, 5, the Mastroprimiano listed above, 6: a mixture of Hollandish ones, all well known in Europe (I have a fortepianist friend in NYC who studied under 1 of them) and instruments: Broadwood, Pleyel, Érard, Graf, & Tröndlin; Brilliant Classics 94048, © 2010, TT: 390[= 6.5 hrs]:58 (1: 66:30, 2: 58:21, 3: 49:31, 4: 66:58, 5: 72:09, 6: 77:29). A good way to get to know all of the components without breaking the bank; it includes all of Field's and Chopin's Nocturnes, the former having been the first to compose one.

November 23, 2019

Hubert Rutkowski recently issued a carefully chosen representative selection of works composed by Chopin throughout his life performed on an instrument made just two years before his death: Chopin on Pleyel 1847, Piano Classics PCL 10129, © 2018, Pleyel, 1847, serial number 14444, Collection of Adam & Barbara Wibrowski, rec. at Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (Art and Crafts), Hamburg, DE, TT, 63:58. As with his Debussy recording (see the article mentioned in the title above), the pianist's notes in the accompanying booklet are precise and thorough, and explain how the sounds are produced and how they are different from those produced by a modern instrument, and also, how they differ from those of an Érard. They give an exact description of the instrument's construction, of how it makes its sounds, and how the pianist must work to produce them, both being unique to Pleyels; the accompanying photo shows the straight stringing in this instance. He also discusses its role in the "Chopin style" (see below), and his touch (touché), and the veracity of Chopin's famous comment that playing a Pleyel took much more work on the part of the pianist than playing an Érard, explaining why. Like his Debussy CD, this one will be ear- and mind-opening for the listener.

November 18, 2020

I have just discovered, and been able to acquire, a recording: « Chopin chez Pleyel », of a replica of most of one of Chopin's recitals (that includes only solo works by him, but not those that involved collaborators, such as 'cellist Auguste Franchomme, and soprano Pauline Viardot-Garcia) in the Salon of the Pleyel Company, at 22-24 Rue Rochechouart (building no longer standing) on 21 February 1842, performed on an 1836 Pleyel in original condition (Collection of Anthony Sidey) by Alain Planès: harmonia mundi, HMC 902252, © 2009, 20 tracks, TT 80:02. Planès has thoroughly researched Chopin's playing style, as discussed in the books and other sources documented and listed (p. 9; some items are purportedly available to consult in their entirety on the related web site, although I was unable to locate it), and succeeds in replicating in what, to my ears, is an authentic and excellent replica of what Chopin actually delivered. The notes by Nicolas Dufetel in its accompanying booklet are detailed and excellent, and are enhanced by photographic reproductions of the recital program, photographs of the building and the hall itself, of Chopin's apartment in the Square d'Orléans, and of related newspaper notices and reviews, including some comments by Franz Liszt in the Revue et Gazette Musicale of 3 May 1841. Listening to it will bring to life for you and help you understand much of what I have written. It is a real gem.

September 2018

The International Chopin Competition in September 2018 in Warsaw was organized using period instruments for the first time, with five different ones available from which the candidates could choose up to three for different works. Recitals were streamed live on YouTube. I watched those of the sole US contestant, Eric Clark, whom I met in Ashburnham in July, where he played the entire competition program on the Fredericks' 1840 Érard, which he had used for his audition video; he made it to the second stage, but not the third (its winners are not yet listed in Wikipedia); I believe all may still be available online.

January 2019

I must mention the most important book devoted to Chopin's playing style, that he also taught, but no one does today to my knowledge: Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin: pianist and teacher as seen by his pupils, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986, Pp. xvi + 324; translation by Naomi Shobet, with Krysia Osotowicz and Roy Howat, edited by Roy Howat, of the original: Chopin vu par ses élèves, Neuchâtel, CH: Éditions de la Baconnière, 1970 & 1979. This the most comprehensive and detailed compilation of material from available primary sources (i.e., they are not descriptions or paraphrases, but the actual texts/words) addressing these subjects by people who studied with Chopin, including pianists who played and taught his method/style, and a few more related ones, such as descriptions of his playing by his contemporaries, including other composers and music critics, and information about the instruments he owned and played; indeed, it is the most meticulous (I have seen some of the originals, and can confirm those quotes) and thorough such work of its type that I have ever encountered. While additional documents and sources may have turned up in the succeeding 40 years, I can't imagine any of them nullify anything in this work; confirmation and expansion are more likely. It is not, however, for the faint of heart, the uncommitted, undetermined, or impatient, or for the casual browser, because it is ex- and in-tensive, and ultra-specific, with countless detailed, encyclopedic, even, notes that include many capsule biographies of earlier pianists, and cross-references. I write fairly densely, and I have never before seen such a tightly packed work.

I would go so far as to say that no pianist who aspires to play Chopin as he played his own music and openly said he wanted it to be played by others should attempt doing so without first consulting this work, giving it serious attention and study, absorbing and putting into practice its contents, because any other playing style that s/he might use would be incorrect and s/he would be more or less guaranteed to be playing it all wrong. You will see what I mean and why if you delve into this book at all, and even a less-informed music lover can perceive and learn a lot from just perusing its first portion. Chopin's playing and his music was/are exquisitely expressive, mostly quietly so, and supremely refined and sensitive, even in the few ff, or rarer still fff moments, and in the concertos (listen to Grigory Sokolov's performance of the first [Eurodisc 88875194722], for example). He was adamantly opposed to bombast, bravura, and virtuosic display: Liszt openly admired his playing, but Chopin did not return the compliment, and avoided his performances. He perceived a marked difference between music and noise, and preferred the former. Eigeldinger has gathered together in a well-organized manner an incredible amount of information and quantity of details that were not in any way organized by Chopin himself, since he died before he got very far with his Projet de méthode (= planned Method for playing the piano book), all of whose notes are translated in Appendix I, pp. 190-97. This playing style is, along with the playing tradition of the clavecinistes, the basis for the "French" style that the "Mighty Five," especially Debussy, espoused as well, although only Saint-Saëns could have heard him (Fauré would have only been c. 4 ½ when he died), but I don't believe he ever did.

August 15, 2019

Since I wrote the above section, I have discovered another book that deals with Chopin's performance style, but also links it with that of the French clavecinistes (see my article about them and the performance of their works, beginning with François Couperin's L'Art de toucher le clavecin:

Elena Letňanová, Piano Interpretation in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; A Study of Theory and Practice Using Original Documents, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991, Pp. 184, esp. pp. 101-126.

Chopin's planned Méthode is merely a series of unorganized handwritten notes, with many strike-throughs, many of them rudimentary details, or merely random thoughts of potential organization or topics, with several repetitions, riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors (he was nearing the end of his life), on 12 individual un-numbered sheets of diverse papers, of different sizes and types, including some of correspondence stationery and music score paper, some with their verso blank, entitled by others: "Projet de Méthode" (PM). The numbers on them were added by someone else between Chopin and Eigeldinger, most likely Cortot (see below), as the latter determined in his second book (see further below). Its contents are given in Appendix A, pp. 190-97, of the translation of Eigeldinger's 1st book (above section); the original (that I had not yet seen when I wrote that section) only indicates (p. 107, n. 1) its "reproduction" in: Alfred Cortot, Aspects de Chopin, Paris: Albin Michel, 1949, pp. 55-66. Though headed: « Reproduction intégrale du manuscript de Chopin », it is actually a transcription, at the end of chapter III, entitled: « Chopin Pédagogue », pp. 31-66, in which he gives an introduction (pp. 49-55), including mention of this project by Liszt, with a quote from his 206-pp. tribute biography of Chopin (F. Chopin, Paris: M. Escudier, 1852, pp. 190-91; he thought the sheets had been burned), and the detailed description and history of the ms, then referred to as the « Notice pour la Méthode des Méthodes », announcing that he has organized the sheets as best he could. There are photographic reproductions of two of the pages ahead of the chapter, (Pls VII & VIII) between pp. 30 & 31.

This book was translated into English by Cyril and Rena Clarke: In Search of Chopin, New York: Avelard Press, 1952, first published in London: Peter Nevill, 1951. See "3; Chopin the Pedagogue!" (sic), pp. 22-46 (transcription, pp. 38-46), without the photographic reproductions, but with a Bibliography (pp. 221-230), and "Discography" (pp. 231-268) "compiled by Cyril […]," that is introduced as a complete list of the published works in chronological order, with many indicated "Not Recorded," and recordings listed in paragraphs, alphabetically by pianist, for the others – does Ward Marston know about this? – added; rpt Mineola, NY: Dover, 2013 (I saw the US original).

Cortot, pianist renowned for his interpretations of Chopin's music, but not a musicologist, owned the autograph manuscript, having purchased it in 1936, until his death in 1962; it is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library in NYC, part of the Robert Owen Lehman Collection (Lehman acquired it from Cortot, perhaps from his estate, or an auction thereof), on deposit (so not owned by the PML) since 1972, call number C549.S6277, Record ID 114348, described as "19 p. of ms, music and text; various sizes; bound"; this information was provided by Polly Cancro, Reader Services Librarian there.

It was prepared and published by Eigeldinger, ed., as: Frédéric Chopin, Esquisses pour une méthode de piano, Paris: Flammarion, 1993, Pp. 141; the WorldCat entry says it's a facsimile, but no dimensions are given, and the only copies I have located are in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in Paris, and the library of the Université du Québec à Montréal. Some "copies" were made in 2010, according to another WorldCat entry, but it, too, gives no dimensions. Fortuitously, a few are available in the US, notably at Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges, so I was able to look at the latter one; it is a copy of the 1993 original – not the first time I've uncovered an error in WorldCat. The book is c. 5.5" x 9," so clearly the photographic plates are not copies, but reductions of the images of the ms. It contains a complete transcription prepared by Eigeldinger (pp. 40-79), with 64 numbered notes by him (one of Chopin's pages has numbered items), at the bottoms of pages and on interspersed pages, and photographic images of the 19 pp., dramatically reduced, some to c. 5.25" x 6.5", i.e., somewhat like large format post cards, between pp. 48 and 49.

The text is preceded by an "Introduction" (pp. 9-36) that includes (pp. 20-23) a precise description, incl. measurements, of every sheet. These measurements and the types of paper have allowed the dates of the drafting of some to be determined, mostly 1844-46 (p. 21). This book has not been translated into English, though it certainly deserves to be, since it's the definitive publication on this subject. The best and clearest English rendering in print (some minimal information is found in Cortot's description, in the original and its translation) is in Appendix A of the translation of the first Eigeldinger book (above section), but it, too, lacks important details (e.g., paper size and type, which a facsimile edition would make clearer. Howat's note (p. 90, n. 1) in the above Eigeldinger translation gives the best description and the most details in English about the mss; he likely saw it.

December 12, 2021

Flammarion issued a paperback reprint « la présente edition » (p. 6) in 2010, ISBN: 978-2-0812-3812-1 and I was able to acquire a copy; I am attempting, thus far unsuccessfully, to find a publisher who will commit to publishing it if I translate it, and handle the acquisition of the permissions, transactions with which I have no experience.

Eigeldinger implies (first book, p. 4) that Chopin may have undertaken this project as the result of his friendship with Eugène Delacroix, basing this on a sentence by George Sand in Impressions et Souvenirs, p. 88: [« Il [Chopin] nous promet pourtant d'écrire une méthode où il traîtera non-seulement [sic] du métier, mais de la doctrine. Tiendra-t-il parole? » (= He promises us, however, to write a method in which he will discuss not only the craft, but the theory. Will he keep his word?)], likely because Delacroix was contemplating writing something about art and painting. « Delacroix aussi promet, dans ses moments d'expansion, d'écrire un traité du dessin et de la couleur. Mais il ne le fera pas, quoiqu'il sache magnifiquement / écrire. Ces artistes inspirés sont condamnés à chercher toujours en avant et à ne pas s'arrêter un jour pour regarder en arrière. » [Delacroix also promises, in his moments of envisioning/imagining, to write a treatise on drawing and color. But he will not do it, although he knows how to/can write magnificently. These inspired artists are condemned to always look ahead and not to stop a single day to look back.] (ibid., pp. 88-89, my translation; also cited (p. 12) in Eigeldinger's second book [See above]). [Delacroix left preparatory notes and compilations for numerous things that he never completed or wrote, but he did write some articles that were published; all the incomplete items that remain are published in Hannoosh (see below)].

They frequently discussed the connections, relationships, and similarities between the two arts. See Part 2 of my article about sound-color/color-sound synesthesia concerning the relationship between Chopin and Delacroix and Sand, and their discussion, in 1841 (Eigeldinger verifies/confirms this date in his second book, p. 11, n. 1), of this topic for the benefit of George's son Maurice, whom Delacroix was teaching to paint, one of the subjects of Sand's text, fully referenced there, after a pertinent quote, and see Addendum 5 in Part 5 of that article about Delacroix' painting technique and its importance in the history of 19th-century French art as the origin of the Impressionists' style.

The incipit for Eigeldinger's first book (p. 11 in the original) is a quote from an entry in Delacroix' Journal (= Diary), written after a conversation he had with Chopin in his apartment in the Square d'Orléans, with Charles-Valentin Alkan (who also lived there, as did George and Maurice Sand) present, on 7 April 1849 (c. 6 months before Chopin's death, on 17 October), that was followed, at c. 3:30 p.m., by a walk with Chopin on the Champs-Élysées to L'Arc de l'Étoile [= Triomphe]: « La vraie science n'est pas une partie de la connaissance différente de l'art. Non, la science envisagée ainsi, démontrée par un homme comme Chopin, est l'art lui-même. » ("True science does not constitute a separate branch of knowledge from art. On the contrary, Science, when envisaged like this and demonstrated by a man like Chopin, is art itself." [translation, p. 1]). This text is found in Delacroix' Journal, Michèle Hannoosh, ed., Paris: José Corti, 2009, 2- Vols, Pp. 2520, Vol. I, p. 439). This was a wide-ranging conversation about the components and forms of music and about major composers past and present.

In addition to examining and discussing the PM, Letňanová (b. 1942), Slovakian pianist, accompanist, and professor, has researched in sources not seen by others, specifically, writings by some of Chopin's last pupils who lived in Poland and Central Europe (A few other such are included in the Eigeldinger's 2nd book.). She organizes the information she located into the categories: Performance, Method, including Fingering, Repertoire and Lessons, Interpretation, Phrasing, and Pedaling, followed by a brief Conclusion.

She writes that Chopin believed that the earliest lessons should begin with the attack, describing in detail his soft, delicate one (characterized [p. 114] as a "deep, singing attack"), as opposed to the strong hard one taught in prior and other contemporary methods. If a student began the latter way, he asked: "What is that? A dog barking?" (p. 103). He also began by making them relax their hands, wrists, and fingers, the latter more flat rather than rounded tensely like a paw with claws, as most methods taught. The keys should be struck with their pads rather than their tips, because it is easier to control the expression. The hands should be placed lightly on the keys of the E major scale, rather than the more generally taught C major one, because it is a more natural fit/position (pp. 105, 108; sheet 8r of the ms). Total independence of all the fingers must also be taught from day one (pp. 106-7); his first exercises for beginners focused on that.

"In the field of application or fingering, Chopin's new ideas were renounced by authorities in Paris from the beginning; but gradually these new ideas found their own audience and then were spread by students and carefully, even reverently, protected. From the time of J. S. Bach, a great reformer of keyboard rules, only Chopin audaciously overstepped the fingering rules by free application of the first finger on the black keys, when this procedure eased execution and helped maintain the 'tranquility' of the hand and the evenness of the passages." (p. 112)

Letňanová also devotes many words (pp. 116-119) to how Chopin understood and executed tempo rubato (not a new concept with Chopin, as some think), that has caused much discussion and disagreement over the years. He likened music to phrasing in speech and singing, as did many earlier composers, putting words in small groups, separated by punctuation, commas and semi-colons; he wrote some of those very marks in his scores (though many printings eliminate[d] them), samples of which are shown (p. 121). This is the base of his famously unique expression that few modern pianists realize or replicate.

"In the interpretation of his works, one should think constantly about this unity between the principal idea (melody) and the lace (ornamental, small notes). If the ornaments [tradition carried down from the clavecinistes] are executed heavily or inappropriately, with the same importance as the main motive, in the same tempo as the structure before, then they produce banality, spoiling the formal perfection of Chopin's music." (p. 119)

I would venture to say, as I did above, that no pianist should attempt to play Chopin's music without reading the pages devoted to him in this overlooked work, and Eigeldinger's edition of the PM, which are Chopin's own words, carefully and extensively elucidated by a pianist who is also a teacher, meticulous musicologist, and Chopin scholar, and whose other sections with other contemporary related items (incl. some original Chopin mss) and works in mss by others in his second book are equally informative. Chopin was decidedly a Romantic, but one grounded in the earlier Baroque (he warmed up, to play and to teach, by playing some of JSB's "great 48") and Classical composers. Aloys Fuchs, 1799-1853, Austrian musicologist and collector, gave him an autographed score of scales and other exercises by Beethoven [second Eigeldinger book, pl. 44]; how appropriate!, as a souvenir when he was in Vienna in June 1831 that he kept for the rest of his life, because he admired him. Chopin focused on discreet, refined, sometimes delicate even, and sensitive expression in the music, abhorring the other kind of Romantic: dramatic, flamboyant, superficial display, to which too many pianists today convert it, and thereby betray it/him. Audiences may "eat it up," but they haven't heard the "real" Chopin and truly appreciated him.

November 23, 2019

Another phenomenon that has occurred since I wrote this is that more pianists in the newest generation have become interested in the sound of early instruments and in learning the playing style of the earlier French pianist-composers to be able to use it when performing on modern ones. A striking example is the winner of the 2015 Chopin Competition, South Korean Seong-Jin Cho, who now lives in Paris and studies at the Conservatoire with Michel Béroff. His Competition-winning performance has been released under his name, Deutsche Grammophon 479 5332, © 2015, 75:52; his touch is as light as a feather, even his forte moments are light, and seem to me the closest I have heard to what Chopin's playing has been described as being by those who heard him, and that all five of these heirs espoused and sought to imitate. Its booklet has good write-ups of the Competition and the Instytut. I discovered him when his most recent recording was released late in 2017: mostly early music of Debussy, 479 8308, © 2017, 72:47; it is an equally impressive display of this technique and how Debussy's playing was described. I anxiously await a recording on a period instrument…

March 2, 2020

I recently serendipitously came across, on the shelves of a bookcase in the home studio of a pianist friend, in which she hosts house concerts, when I was attending one, a biography of Chopin with which I was not familiar: Adam Zamoyski, Chopin; Prince of the Romantics, London: Harper Press, 2010, Pp. xii + 356. Unable to locate a copy in a local area library, I took out its now out-of-print predecessor: Chopin; A New Biography, Garden City, NY, Doubleday & Co, Inc., 1980, Pp. 374, from Smith College's Josten Performing Arts Library, and read it in its entirety (within c. 48 hours!). The © for both is held by the author.

At first glance, I had guessed that it focused on the details of the life of the composer, the person and the personality, rather than the music, might well contain information not present in other biographies, and might explode some legends and myths. I was correct on all fronts (we learn, for example, that Chopin, like Schubert, may have contracted a venereal disease when he was young, while "philandering in the company of [Norbert Alfons] Kumelski" in Vienna in 1830-31 [p. 87 (orig.)/77 (new)], reported in an 18 November 1831 letter he wrote to the latter.), purchased a copy of this edition, and read it in its entirety. You would likely enjoy reading it once, too.

Its three-paragraph Preface confirms this, and states (p. xi) that the author "[…] rework[ed] the text thoroughly […]," but this is, in fact, a significant overstatement. After the opening chapter, which begins with the 10 October 1849 funeral (rather than the ancestry and the birth that opened the original, and follows here), the text is mostly somewhat rearranged and redistributed and only (s)lightly altered, until the last chapter, which incorporates the former Epilogue, is necessarily revamped, and contains some new additions. The original 14 chapters, all but two of whose titles are changed, are transformed into 16. Some of the middle chapters (5-10 [orig. 5-9], for example) are entirely unchanged. In other chapters, many paragraphs remain unchanged, while a few are modified, including some occasional trimming. Much of the reworking is, in fact, purely cosmetic: reformatting, breaking up long paragraphs, and incorporating previously set off quotations into the text itself by breaking them up.

This is hands-down the best general and readily readable biography of Chopin that I have encountered (see also my review elsewhere in these pages of a longer, more recent, and more scholarly biography). While written in an "anecdotal" style, every fact is carefully and meticulously documented with its source given in the accompanying note. The author consulted many documents in Polish, including diaries and letters of secondary and even tertiary characters in the action, that his predecessors had likely not seen. His mother was a member of the noble Czartoryski family, who were close friends of Chopin as expatriates in Paris, and had a Polish center in their home, the Hôtel Lambert, when he was there. It is written more for the general reader than for the scholar, but the documentation is all there: the notes occupy pp. 310-37. It also includes photographs that I have not seen elsewhere. An excellent capsule description of Chopin's playing style is found on pp. 98-99.

October 7, 2020

I have just discovered that famous 20th-century writer André Gide (1869-1951), was also an amateur pianist, and wrote and published a book about his experiences with Chopin's music: Notes sur Chopin (Paris: L'Arche, 1949, pp. x + 116). The first 40 pages were compiled and composed for this publication; the remainder are extracts from his « Journal » (= Diary) that date beginning in 1893 and ending in 1939 (pp. 45-83), and are in turn followed by unpublished « Feuillets et Variantes » (pp. 87-104), and a letter (pp. 107-110) that a reader sent to him after having read the Notes. There is nothing earth-shaking in these pages, and they are mostly his personal impressions in learning to play certain works, e.g., Impromptus, Préludes, Barcarolle, Berceuse, but the opening pages focus on Chopin vs. Liszt: improvisation and sensitivity – « Chopin est un artiste […] » (p. 1-2) – vs. virtuosity for showmanship's sake, and how most pianists perform Chopin's music as if it were that of Liszt: « Eux jouent Chopin comme si c'était du Liszt. » (p. 2). One way of looking at this difference is to compare an étude by Chopin with a Stüdie über eine Etüde von F. Chopin by Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938), but because they're études, there is also a skills-building component in both that is absent from pure showmanship. Thus, my comments about this phenomenon are nothing new; nor has the clearly long-standing and prevalent bad practice, of which neither would have approved, been corrected. Also interesting is Gide's frequent comparison of Chopin with poet Charles Baudelaire's works. The book has been translated into English, but I have not seen that version.

December 9, 2021, News Flash!

Chopin's last piano gets its 19th-century features back


WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The last piano on which Frederic Chopin played and composed in Paris is being renovated by a U.S. expert who is giving it back its original mid-19th century characteristics. Paul McNulty is spending days at the Chopin Museum in Warsaw filling in some cracks in the soundboard and putting in wire strings like the ones used by Paris piano manufacturer Camille Pleyel — Chopin's favorite — in 1848. "We're very, very close to the character and the identity of this instrument when we put the correct strings on, everything else being in very good condition," McNulty told The Associated Press on Thursday. Pleyel made the instrument, with serial number 14810, available to the Chopin, already seriously ailing at the time, in the fall of 1848. After Chopin's death in October 1849, the piano was bought by his Scottish student and friend, Jane Stirling, who then offered it to Chopin's eldest sister, Ludwika Jedrzejewiczowa. The piano arrived in Warsaw in 1850, where it survived two world wars. Given the provenance and the good condition of the instrument, McNulty said it is "priceless."

Texas-born McNulty says this is the best preserved Pleyel piano in the world, despite having quite a dramatic history. It was treated well by Chopin's family and was not used for concert performances. But it had most of its strings changed for modern ones during renovation in the late 1950s that destroyed its tone and put strain on the whole structure. McNulty and museum authorities believe the current work will bring it as close as possible to the sound that Chopin heard. "We hope it will sing for us again," said Aleksander Laskowski, spokesman for The Frederic Chopin Institute that houses the museum. "So an opportunity to hear the sound of Chopin's piano as he heard it when he composed is quite likely," Laskowski said.

[I believe this is the instrument that the Instytut purchased in 2005, mentioned in the first sentence of the original second paragraph, above. The information missing here is where it was in Warsaw between 1850 and 2005; that info is in the Instytut's notice/press release about the restoration project, that the AP PR did not include.

I have an acquaintance who owns two McNulty replicas, and have heard and own recordings made on others; he's top notch; he lives in the Czech Republic.

December 20, 2021

Fou Ts'ong Plays Chopin

Fou Ts'ong (1934-2020) was the first Chinese pianist to travel to and play in the West. His parents were very intellectual, for which they were persecuted and consequently committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution, by which time Fou was living in London. He participated in the first International Chopin Competition in 1955 (I was a sophomore in HS then, and knew nothing about classical music, because I was living in a very rural area on Eastern LI with no such radio programming), and won first Prize, after Vladimir Ashkenazy and Adam Harasiewicz, the gold medalist, of whom I had never heard or known of any recordings, although I clearly should have (I have found and ordered one). He studied in Warsaw with Zbigniew Drzewiecki, who told him after the competition: "Ts'ong, you are a very special case – so individual. You have your own ideas and I don't really want you to come to lessons that often. I am only here to guide you when you go out of your way, to ensure that you keep your individual approach to music" (p. 6 of the set's booklet note by Jed Distler).

His father was a translator of French literature, which led to Fou's interest in French and France, and to some extent to Chopin. He also had a large collection of recorded classical music that piqued Fou's interest in the piano, that he began learning to play in 1940 and continued to study after WWII with Mario Paci, Italian conductor of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra. He seems to have had an innate sense for Chopin's playing style, and it dominated his interpretations of Chopin's music. He was also the first Chinese pianist to record nearly all of Chopin's music, from 1978 to 1984, issued on vinyl in CBS' Maestro/Masterworks series, that later became Sony when they were released on CD. His recordings of the Mazurkas, for the interpretation of which he received a special award at the 1955 Competition, were always specifically singled out. In late 2021, the company reissued them in a boxed set of 10 CDs with this article's title that are packaged in pasteboard sleeves with the images of both sides of their original vinyl album ones on them. The company shipped me a copy from Berlin to review. (I had purchased some of the CDs, including the Mazurkas, but had none of the vinyl.). Its timing is undoubtedly in tribute to Fou, since he died on 28 December 2020 of COVID-19.

While I prefer period instruments for Chopin's music, because their all-wooden frames and cases render it much better (and more authentically for what he heard, envisioned, and wrote on and for) than modern cast-iron frames ones, it is very easy to hear and see that Fou's feel for Chopin was pretty much phenomenal; he handles the tonal differences of the modern piano extremely well, with dynamics, tempi, and tempo rubato that seem to me to be like those that Chopin stated he preferred, promoted with his pupils, and produced himself according to the contemporary literature, that constitute his "individual approach to music" that was very different from what others taught. I am very pleased to have this very well-designed and produced, and appropriately timed tribute set of these deservedly iconic recordings, and to recommend it highly, for both its quality and its significance; every collection should have a copy. So many pianists render Chopin's music as if it were Liszt's; Fou Ts'ong renders it as if he were Chopin. Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) called him "the 'real Chopin … the Chopin of Warsaw and Paris, the Paris of Heinrich Heine (1797-1856; he lived in Paris from 1831, like Chopin, and is buried in its Montmartre Cemetery; Chopin is in the Père Lachaise, except for his heart, which is in the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw) and the young Lizt'" (booklet, p. 6). I agree: there's no evidence of any banging and thrashing, extravagant gestures, or self-aggrandizement, just the making of beautiful music to be heard and enjoyed.

[Fyi: I have a coincidental curious personal connection with Hermann Hesse (beyond having read some of his works), in that a family in the rural eastern LI, NY, village where I grew up, who arrived there in 1949 the same week as we did (because my widowed mother took a new job as the school's first grade teacher, that she kept for the rest of her career), having come from Stuttgart after all its WWII bombing, sponsored by the wife's sister, who was married to an American who had a chicken farm in that village, were from his birthplace: Calw (pronounced cahlf), a short distance due west of Stuttgart. I have some things that were made there, including five hand-carved and painted wooden birds in three sizes (S, M, & L), given to me by the wife (who was in many ways my second mother), of a species of migratory birds, black with red throats and white chests and white feathers mingled with the black ones on their backs and tails (I do not know its name, but it looks like a type of swallow – some traditional artistic license may be involved in their portrayal; you can find images of similar ones online at picclick.com), who nest there in the spring, like the storks in the Strasbourg area of Alsace in France, on the other side of the Rhine, due west of the Black Forest: it's an almost straight line between Stuttgart and Strasbourg. (I wonder if climate change is affecting these millennia-old annual RT voyages?) A local legend is that if they nest on or near your house, they bring you good luck; these are for the locals (and also for the tourist trade, because "Calw" is painted on a wing of the larger sized ones), and are intended to be fastened above your entry door, (presumably on the outside, but mine are inside, attached to a piece of varnished wood hung like a work of art, because I live in a top (fourth) floor rented apartment in a former 19th-century factory building). Their son, one or two years older than I, was in my mother's class until he learned enough English to be able to move up to the one where he belonged, one grade above me (4th & 3rd). We all consequently became good friends, although his life was tragically affected by constant anti-German-motivated tormenting from other children in the school, to the point that he was institutionalized a few years later; he simply shut down and stopped growing intellectually. Of us five, I'm the only one still alive. I did not know that Hesse was a classical music and a Chopin lover.]