Masters of the Romantic: Trifonov Plays Chopin

Chopin and His Admirers

No composer is more tightly bound to the piano than Frédéric Chopin (1810–49), and no composer more transformed the instrument. It is not a stretch to claim that without Chopin the entire history of the instrument’s repertory and players would be altogether different. He rethought the very essence of piano writing and playing, recognizing that in its evolution from a “harpsichord that plays loud and soft,” to its iron-framed and steel-stringed incarnation of the mid-Romantic, the piano had become an entirely different instrument that required an entirely different approach.

Composers since Chopin’s day have regularly written homages to this nerve-wracked, frail little man and his paradigm-busting pianism. Figures as lofty as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff have joined hands with lesser (yet warm) lights such as Federico Mompou in writing works that either take a Chopin melody as their starting point, or else incorporate some element of Chopin’s inimitable style. That’s the impetus behind Daniil Trifonov’s program: the first half consists of homages and the second features one of Chopin’s loftiest creations, the Second Piano Sonata. 

Mompou: Variations on a Theme of Chopin 
Schumann: Chopin from Carnaval
Grieg: Hommage à Chopin from Moods
Barber: Nocturne (Hommage to John Field)
Tchaikovsky: Un poco di Chopin, Opus 72, no.15
Rachmaninoff: Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Opus 22
Chopin: Variations in B-flat major on "Là ci darem la mano,"
Chopin: Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor for Piano, Opus 35
 

Mompou: Variations on a Theme of Chopin

Few twentieth-century piano compositions are as ingratiating as the Variations on a Theme of Chopin by the Spanish composer Federico Mompou (1893–1987). Although Mompou’s output ranges from a late-Romantic, Fauré-inflected idiom to works that reflect serialist techniques, the Chopin Variations show him at his most witty, relaxed, elegant, and refined.

That elegance would seem to be part and parcel of his musical makeup. We can hear Mompou playing the bulk of his own piano works, thanks to a series of recordings he made when he was in his eighties. His technique might not have been quite up to its earlier levels but the man’s aristocratic artistry shines through. He came by all that classy musicianship honestly. He studied at the Paris Conservatory with no less than Isidore Philipp, an esteemed piano pedagogue whose technical training was (and is, via his published method books) impeccably rigorous and all-encompassing. His compositional training was tip-top as well and some even hailed him as Debussy’s potential successor.

Mompou was first and foremost a miniaturist whose pithy, fragrant creations are distinguished by both superb craftsmanship and disarming emotional honesty. As the pianist Stephen Hough puts it: “There is nowhere for the sophisticate to hide with Mompou. We are in a glasshouse, and the resulting transparency is unnerving, for it creates a reflection in which our face and soul can be seen.”

The Variations on a Theme of Chopin started out as an unfinished work for cello and piano. They might have remained in limbo had London’s Royal Ballet not approached Mompou for an original ballet score, following the success of La Casa de los Pájaros (The House of Birds). Mompou wrote the Chopin Variations in 1957 for the Royal Ballet’s commission. The ballet was never staged, but happily the music lived on.

The Chopin theme is the familiar A major Prelude (Opus 28, no.7), which Mompou subjects to a series of variations ranging from the gently perfumed to the utterly transformed. The ballet underpinnings can still be felt, in particular the enchanting ninth variation (a languid waltz). And—at the risk of providing a “spoiler”—the tenth variation quotes another well-known Chopin piano work: the Fantasie-Impromptu, Opus 66.

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Homages and Hat-Tips
Robert Schumann (1810–56) wrote piano works that are typically distinguished by their brevity, intimacy, and privacy. Carnaval, Opus 9, the ne plus ultra of Schumann’s epigrammatic style, consists of twenty concise portraits of masked guests at a Mardi Gras ball. Although most of the guests are imaginary or fictional characters, both Paganini and Chopin put in appearances, each masterfully sketched via an evocation of his characteristic style—respectively virtuosic or lyrical—while remaining indisputably and ineffably Schumannesque.

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The frosty breeze that is the “Hommage à Chopin” (from Moods, Opus 73) by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843–1907) views Chopin’s idiom through a distinctly northern lens. A dark-hued answer to a Chopin Prelude, Grieg’s Hommage offers glimpses of the future in its harmonic language, even at one point suggesting Prokofiev or Stravinsky.

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Samuel Barber (1910–81) may have written only a modest amount of solo piano music, but in 1959 he gifted posterity with the Nocturne, Opus 33, a lovely composition permeated with the radiant lyricism typical of Barber’s art songs. Strictly speaking it’s not an hommage to Chopin, but to Irish pianist-composer John Field (1782–1837), whose Nocturnes for piano paved the way for Chopin’s.

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Throughout his life Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–93) blew hot and cold about Chopin. Entranced by the Polish master’s works during his childhood, Tchaikovsky later distanced himself from what he heard as “sickroom” music, as his friend Herman Laroche remembered: “Of course he could not deny Chopin's talent, and it seems that some works by Chopin, such as the Barcarolle, the Fantasy in F minor, and some Nocturnes, appealed to him to some extent, but this by no means altered the fact that he disliked the whole atmosphere which emanated from Chopin and his method of composition.”

That said, commentators often remarked on certain stylistic and emotional similarities between Tchaikovsky and Chopin. Laroche pointed out that Tchaikovsky, “being elegiac by nature and tending to melancholy . . . has expressed a quite different kind of seriousness: a seriousness of reflection, a frequent sadness and yearning, very often an oppressive sense of spiritual pain, and this, so to speak, minor key part of his personality, which is akin to Chopin, is the one that has been grasped and appreciated most readily.”

Tchaikovsky’s final work for solo piano was a set of short pieces published as Eighteen Pieces (Dix-huit Morceaux), Opus 72. His goal was to write one piece a day (he took longer than that), and upon completing the project on May 4, 1893 he dedicated each piece to one of his friends. Number 15 in the set, “Un poco di Chopin,” is cast as a mazurka—that jumpy, waltz-like dance that Chopin made so much his own—in C-sharp minor, a favorite Chopin (and Tchaikovsky) key. But while the rhythm may partake of Chopin, the musical language is vintage Tchaikovsky.

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Rachmaninoff: Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Opus 22
In 1902, the year Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) composed the Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Opus 22, the Russian Revolution was still fifteen years away, and with it the catastrophic uprooting that would befall Rachmaninoff and his family, as they were obliged to abandon their family properties and embark on lives as permanent émigrés. Although Rachmaninoff’s protean gifts as a pianist ensured him an ample income, he never altogether reconciled to life in Switzerland or in the United States. He seems to have needed the soil of Russia to nourish his creativity, thus his compositional output in his post-Russian period dropped precipitously. For all practical intents and purposes, Rachmaninoff as a composer belongs to the pre-WWI era of Mahler and Elgar, even if he lived into the mid-twentieth century.

But his earlier, relatively prolific output might never have come to pass, either. The miserably humiliating failure of his First Symphony—by way of a woefully incompetent premiere followed by a savage critical drubbing—knocked the insecure young musician into an emotional tailspin and encased him in a crippling writer’s block. Only after hypnosis-based therapy could he return to composition, with his enormously popular Second Piano Concerto of 1901 the happy result. The following year saw two important piano compositions, the Ten Preludes, Opus 23 and the Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Opus 22, Rachmaninoff’s first large-scale solo piano work.

Throughout his career Rachmaninoff was dogged by critical carping about the length of his compositions; the Chopin Variations were no exception. He therefore designated three variations and the coda as optional, but there seems to be no received opinion on the part of today’s pianists on the subject. (Nota bene: Daniil Trifonov omits most of Variation 12, all of Variations 11, 18, and 19, and replaces the coda with a repeat of the original Prelude.)

Based on Chopin’s well-loved Prelude in C minor, Opus 28, no.20, the twenty-two variations display a fascinating accretional quality in that they become progressively longer during an almost inexorable intensification. The Gregorian plainchant Dies irae (a Rachmaninoff signature) puts in a few discreet appearances, while long-lined, full-breathed lyricism occurs in abundance—especially in Variation 16, one of the work’s heart centers. Rachmaninoff’s beloved church bells may be heard ringing hither and yon, and of course the concluding variations take us on an exhilarating slalom through the outer reaches of keyboard virtuosity.

Which is not to imply cheap showmanship. Rachmaninoff maintains rock-solid artistic integrity throughout. In the liner notes for his 2015 Deutsche Grammophon recording, Daniil Trifonov tells us that “the Chopin Variations actually represent a synthesis of Romanticism: Chopin’s elegance meets Rachmaninov’s passion, the early and late Romantic, Catholic and Orthodox, blended together.”

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Chopin: Variations in B-flat major on "Là ci darem la mano," from Mozart's Don Giovanni, Opus 2
Just as Chopin’s works served as the springboard for inventive new works by Rachmaninoff, Mompou, and others, sets of variations fairly rolled out of the inkwells of composers like John Field, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and Frédéric Kalkbrenner in the 1810s and ’20s. Young Chopin did not depart all that far from their models when he wrote his Variations on “Là ci darem la mano,” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Opus 2, as a precocious seventeen-year-old student at the Warsaw Conservatory in 1827. If Chopin’s Variations are not radical in the context of many contemporary works, they nonetheless display a distinct personality—the voice that obviously caught the ears of Schumann (who upon hearing the piece famously proclaimed “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!”) and the other critics and audience members when they encountered it.

The opus number relates to published works, and Chopin was far from a novice when he wrote his Variations on “Là ci darem la mano.” He had already composed at least one major set of variations for solo piano, his Introduction and Variations on a German National Air (1824), and variation technique would have been very much at his fingertips, for he was a gifted improviser. But the Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” represents the first time Chopin had written a work with orchestral accompaniment, a major step in his development. It would not be a path he would explore extensively, and once he left Poland to settle in Paris, his work was given over almost entirely to solo piano music. (Accordingly, the Variations are often heard in a version for solo piano, as is the case here.)

Chopin approached his Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” fully aware of its importance as a coming-of-age statement, a calling card that would introduce his talent beyond Polish borders. Extensive sketches, false starts, and alterations to publisher’s proofs attest to the attention he lavished on the details of this piece, which, in the end, comes off as a confident work that manages to project its proud assurance in tandem with a feeling of improvisatory abandon. We can share Schumann’s astonishment that already in an Opus 2 a composer should achieve such a clear outline of his mature style.

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Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor for Piano, Opus 35
It has long been an article of commentarial faith that Chopin lacked skill in the larger musical forms such as sonata. It’s not true, but the notion established itself early on. Chopin was a victim of newly-established theories of musical form, based largely on studies of Beethoven and Mozart, that had hardened into sternly proscriptive paradigms. Contemporary works constructed with innovative frameworks were often dismissed as being structurally unsound, even if—as is the case with Chopin’s larger creations—the works stood quite well on their own merits. Chopin’s sophisticated structural technique was lost even on the typically astute Robert Schumann, who rejected the very title of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Opus 35: “The idea of calling it a sonata is a caprice, if not a jest, for he has simply bound together four of his most reckless children, thus under his name smuggling them into a place into which they could not else have penetrated.”

Chopin’s sonatas provided much-needed antidotes to a genre that, as of the early Romantic, had drooped into malaise. Beethoven’s peerless creations had inspired, to be sure, but they had also intimidated. Franz Schubert’s often daringly original forays into sonata writing were not yet known, while most contemporary sonatas were wanly glittering affairs by solid craftsmen such as Hummel, Moscheles, and Field, with a few standouts from Mendelssohn and Schumann to enliven the situation. Chopin’s B-flat minor Sonata dwells in a considerably higher realm than any of those, thanks to its superb dramatic pacing, its unpredictability, its rich tapestries of material, and above all, its confident structural freedom amid all those prim dictates about form.

The Piano Sonata No. 2 of 1839 centers around its third-place Funeral March, the first movement to have been written—it preceded the rest by a good two years—and the emotional/structural heart of the whole. The first two movements, both in relatively traditional layouts (sonata-allegro form and scherzo with trio, respectively) build towards the somber gravitas of this misleadingly familiar movement (hearing it in context can be a revelation), with the following quicksilver finale serving as a delectably disturbing epilogue.

Enigmas, mysteries, and questions abound: what are we to do with those opening chords, so isolated, so threatening, so portentous? What are we to make, if anything, of Chopin’s reported hallucinations while playing the Funeral March? And, above all, what are we to think of that chilly whirlpool of a finale? Perhaps Schumann understood Chopin’s intentions perfectly well on this point: “The Sonata ends as it began, with a riddle, like a Sphinx—with a mocking smile on its lips.”

Notes by Scott Foglesong and James M. Keller (Variations on
"Là ci darem la mano")

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

James M. Keller is the Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. 

(October 2017)