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Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21
Frédéric Chopin was born in Zelazowa Wola, Poland, on March 1, 1810, and died in Paris, France on October 17, 1849. He composed his 2nd Piano Concerto between 1829 and 1830. The première took place in Warsaw, in 1830. The work runs approximately 30 minutes in performance and is scored for solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, bass trombone, timpani, and orchestral strings.
By the time he was 19, Chopin had already found a unique voice as a pianist and composer. He had written some forgettable apprentice pieces but now, pursuing his interest in Polish folk music, he was doing promising work in forms like the polonaise and mazurka, as well as the nocturne and waltz. His musical horizons were expanding: he began to travel outside his native Poland and, in August of that year, 1829, he made his Viennese début, impressing audiences with his brilliance as a pianist and his novelty as a nationalist composer.
Upon his return to Warsaw, Chopin enjoyed a productive year. He gave some successful concerts, found love, and enjoyed the creative stimulation of political and artistic ferment. He was starting to codify his radical ideas about piano technique, beginning his great set of Op. 10 Études at this time.
He also wrote two piano concertos, and with his première of the Op. 21 on March 21, 1830, Chopin scored another triumph as both pianist and Pole: by popular demand, the concert was repeated a few days later.
Chopin’s concertos – indeed, all of his works in classical forms – have always suffered from comparisons with those of Mozart and Beethoven. It is an old cliché that the larger classical forms he had studied at the Warsaw Conservatory were incompatible with his imagination. As early as 1852, writers such as Liszt remarked that Chopin “did violence to his genius every time he sought to fetter it by rules.” But he was not trying to re-interpret the classical concerto. He was working in a different tradition called stile brillante, made fashionable by such virtuoso pianist-composers as Weber and Hummel. Chopin borrowed from their example a conception of the concerto as a loosely organized showcase for a virtuoso soloist, as opposed to a more balanced, cohesive and densely argued musical drama in the classical vein.
What makes Chopin’s Op. 21 an early-Romantic concerto par excellence is the dominance of the piano part. After introducing the first movement, the orchestra cedes all responsibility for musical development to the piano; there is none of the true interplay of forces that is the mainstay of the classical concerto. The idea that Chopin is a poor orchestrator is an oft-flogged dead horse of music criticism; Berlioz; himself a master orchestrator, was harsh in his appraisal, calling Chopin’s treatment “nothing but a cold and useless accompaniment.” Again, the criticism seems moot. If Chopin treated the orchestra merely as a platter on which to serve the piano, it was because the genre demanded it. Showing off the soloist was the whole point.
If the first movement bears the stamp of the stile brillante, the second shows the influence of Italian opera. The piano style of not only Chopin, but also his contemporaries, owes much to the bel canto operas of composers like Rossini and Bellini, as well as to the leading singers of the day. The delicate melodic embroidery in the outer section is unmistakably operatic; so, too, is the arioso-like piano writing, over trembling strings, in the middle section. Chopin confessed in a letter dated October 3, 1929, that the second movement had been inspired by his secret passion for a younger singer at the Warsaw Conservatory, with whom he had fallen in love and dreamed of for six months without once speaking to her. This larghetto remained one of his favourites, and excited the admiration of Schumann and Liszt.
In the third movement, there is another unmistakable influence. We hear the rhythm of the Polish mazurka, though in a brilliantly stylized setting. Once again, the piano, both in its poetic and virtuosic veins, dominate the music, with the orchestra largely relegated to the roles of cushion and punctuation mark.
There is no denying that Chopin’s concertos betray a youthful want of formal sophistication but, as one observer wrote, they “linger in the memory for the poetry of their detail rather than the strength of their structures.” Those details are so bold and colourful, so imaginative and personal, that the concertos have become the only large-scale early works of Chopin to retain a place in the repertoire.
Programme Note by Kevin Bazzana
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