Chopin’s Four Scherzos: Darkly-Veiled Jest?

On Monday, we explored five monumental scherzos from nineteenth and twentieth century symphonies. These ferocious works leave behind the original lighthearted concept of the “scherzo,” which means “joke” in Italian. The dynamic, sometimes terrifying, drama unleashed in this music is anything but a joke. Fryderyk Chopin’s four Scherzos for solo piano are similarly definition-shattering. They are filled with moments of haunting mystery, turbulence, soaring Romantic fervor, and intense drama. In his review of Scherzo No. …

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Rubinstein Plays Chopin: Three Legendary Recordings

Today marks the 132nd anniversary of the birth of the Polish-American pianist, Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982). In its obituary for Rubinstein on December 21, 1982, the New York Times pointed out a remarkable lineage: Undeniably, part of the Rubinstein manner (and mystique) was his pianistic pedigree, which went back to many legendary 19th-century musicians. Rubinstein’s first big-name enthusiast was Joseph Joachim, the violinist friend of Brahms. His early piano training came from Karl Heinrich Barth, a pupil …

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Chopin’s “Barcarolle in F-Sharp Major”: Krystian Zimerman

Frédéric Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp Major, Op. 60 feels dreamy and autumnal. Its serene, wistful, rocking rhythm transports us far beyond the Venetian gondolier associations we might typically expect in a barcarolle. Musical Romanticism is all about the moment, pulling us into the expressive pathos of a single chord. We get a sense of this mysterious process at work as this music unfolds, from the quiet, shimmering transcendence of this passage, to the shifting harmonic …

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A Flash of Operatic Drama in Chopin’s Second Concerto

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 …

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Ivan Moravec Plays Chopin

  The legendary Czech pianist Ivan Moravec passed away on Monday at the age of 84. He was widely regarded as one of the finest interpreters of the music of Chopin. Mozart and Debussy were also high points of his repertoire. Born in Prague, and initially limited by the constraints of the Iron Curtain, Moravec first became known in the West through his recordings. Listening to Moravec’s extensive discography, it’s easy to …

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Debussy’s Études Turn 100

Apart from the question of technique, these Études will be a useful warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands…. This was Claude Debussy’s warning to students who dared attempt to play his twelve fiendishly difficult Études for solo piano. The short pieces were even technically daunting for Debussy, who described them as “music that soars to the summit of execution,” and requires you to occasionally catch …

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The Joy of Wrong Notes

The element of surprise is an important ingredient in every great melody. Each note of a melody sets up expectations which are either fulfilled or delightfully challenged. Often subconsciously, we enjoy the unexpected “wrong” notes that take a melody in a bold new direction. We listen closely to hear how the disruption will work itself out. For an example, listen to the jarring appoggiaturas in the second movement of Mozart’s otherwise serene Piano Concerto …

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