Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair,” Krystian Zimerman

La fille aux cheveux de lin (“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”) is the eighth piece in Book I of Claude Debussy’s solo piano Préludes, written around 1910. The title was inspired by an 1852 poem by Leconte de Lisle. A single, meandering line pulls us into the ephemeral, dreamlike world this music inhabits. Listen to the way the harmony, built largely on the floating, static pentatonic scale, shifts around this melody in unexpected ways. Listening …

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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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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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Brahms’ First Piano Concerto: Rising to Symphonic Scale

A ferocious, stormy intensity is unleashed in the opening of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. With an ominous inevitability, the expansive opening theme growls, snarls, and lashes its teeth, rising up like some kind of awesome supernatural power. Immediately, we’re drawn into music which is bold and monumental- a kind of symphony with solo piano. For nearly four years, beginning in 1854, the young Brahms wrestled with the form of …

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Gershwin and Ravel Share the Blues

Maurice Ravel and George Gershwin came face to face in New York on the evening of March 7, 1928. The occasion was a soirée hosted by the mezzo-soprano Éva Gauthier in celebration of Ravel’s fifty-third birthday. This was Ravel’s first and only trip to the United States. During a four month, twenty city tour which included an appearance at Carnegie Hall, the French composer introduced American audiences to Rapsodie espagnole, the Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2, and La valse. He …

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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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Chopin’s Fourth Ballade

Frederic Chopin didn’t need to write monumental symphonies. His Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 reveals a universe of musical expression in just over ten minutes. Written between 1835 and 1842, Chopin’s four harmonically adventurous Ballades for solo piano inspired both Liszt and Brahms. Robert Schumann said that Chopin’s inspiration for the Fourth Ballade was Adam Mickiewicz’s poem, The Three Budrys. Let’s listen to a spectacular performance of Ballade No. 4 by pianist Krystian Zimerman. The piece …

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