There’s a strange flash of operatic drama in the middle of the otherwise dreamy second movement of Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2. It’s a moment which caught my attention recently, while I was playing this piece in the orchestra.
Chopin, the Polish virtuoso pianist and Romanticist, isn’t a composer we often associate with opera. But, while living in exile in Paris, following Poland’s unsuccessful 1830 November Uprising against the Russian Empire, Chopin frequently attended the opera and developed a fondness for Bellini’s Norma. It’s possible that Bellini’s Bel canto style influenced the “singing” quality of Chopin’s later piano music, especially the Ballades. (For example, listen to the second theme of Ballade No. 1 in G minor). Chopin’s first piece for piano and orchestra, written when he was 17, was a set of variations on Là ci darem la mano, the memorably tuneful duet from the first act of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
The Second Piano Concerto is also a youthful piece, written around 1830 when Chopin was 20. The composer’s distant infatuation with Constantia Gladowska, a young singer he met at the Warsaw Conservatory, may have influenced the second movement’s melancholy beauty. In a letter to a friend, Chopin wrote,
I have…found my ideal, whom I worship faithfully and sincerely… But in the six months since I first saw her I have not exchanged a syllable with her of whom I dream every night, she who was in my mind when I composed [the Larghetto].
There’s something magical about those rare moments when an orchestra’s string section enters into a barely audible, but intense, whisper. The Larghetto movement of Chopin’s Second Concerto is filled with those moments, along with one of the most beautiful, expansive melodies imaginable. One of my favorite passages is this soulful conversation between the piano and bassoon in the movement’s coda. Around 20:59, you’ll hear the piano erupt in a sudden, boldly impassioned statement which, to me, sounds like an intensely dramatic operatic soliloquy. Listen, and see if you agree.
Listen to the entire Second Piano Concerto, performed by Krystian Zimerman, here.