More than an hour of glistening jewels pouring forth from the piano lain upon the luxurious, silken blanket of the orchestral background. No more, but certainly no less, is what one expects when listening to Frédéric Chopin’s two piano concertos. And yet, both works have retained their place in the concert repertoire up to this day and age: incidentally, as the only truly heavyweight virtuoso concertos. Once again, this fact speaks for itself, and proves the uniqueness of the music by Chopin on this recording. A profound discussion on the standing and worth of both works in the “piano concerto” genre does not even arise, as both pieces completely invalidate the approach to the symphonic concerto (with its sophisticated dialogues between the soloist and the orchestra as two equal partners), which was laid down perfectly by Mozart and Beethoven. This is a pure representative of the “virtuoso concerto” category, in which nothing is allowed to divert the listener from the performance of the soloist. The orchestra is simply given the task of increasing, by means of an extensive orchestral exposition, the eagerness of the audience for the longed-for entrance of the soloist, and consequentially to provide harmonic support during the further course of the brilliant solo part. In fact, it hardly matters at all whether Chopin carried out the instrumentation of the works by himself, or took advantage of the help offered by others. The so-called “improvements” carried out by composers such as Tausig and Balkirev deprive the concertos of much of their original character.
Although the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21 is the second concerto according to the numbering, it was actually the first piano concerto to be composed by the Polish piano poet. Chopin wrote the three-movement work between autumn 1829 and spring 1830, and gave the première himself in Warsaw on March 17 that same year. Incidentally, this took place in keeping with the traditions of the times: following the first movement, an overture by Josef Elsner and a divertimento for hunting-horn was inserted in the work... (Of course, this constitutes an almost incomprehensible sacrilege for the modern music-lover and for our own concept of the unity of a work!). The F-minor Piano Concerto demonstrates all Chopin’s achievements, not as isolated cases, but interwoven: the nationalistic style, the brilliance of his piano technique and the true romance of his manner of expression. In the first movement (Maestoso), the orchestra unfolds the thematic material of the movement in a detailed exposition, until the piano enters the scene with impressive cascades of semiquavers. After the development, which is full of modulations and dominated by the solo instrument and a motif of sixth notes, the shortened recapitulation makes its entrance, after which the orchestra concludes the movement. The three-part Larghetto is one of the most poetic movements ever written by Chopin, the melodies stream apparently endlessly over the harmonically floating tones of the orchestra. In his own words, Chopin is expressing his love here for a singer: “For the past six months, I have dreamed of her every night.” The Finale (Allegro vivace) is a fascinating and brilliant mazurka with a magnificent ending in the major key. Pianistic brilliance and virtuosity abound at all times.
The “Paganini of the piano” composed his Piano Concerto in E minor, Op. 11 between April and August 1830 in Warsaw, where he had also written his F-minor work. Here, the listener is again treated to three movements, with the minor key at the beginning again brightening into major at the end. Here too, Chopin describes the character of the slow movement grandiloquently: “The Adagio of the new concert is in E major. It is a kind of Romance, tranquil and melancholy. It is meant to create the impression of a loving look back at a special place, which awakens thousands of sweets memories.” It is significant that we do not know of any comments of Chopin’s on the other movements, but of course the emotion is mainly concentrated in the slow movements of the Piano Concertos. The Adagio is preceded by a hugely expanded first movement (of almost 700 bars!), which immediately introduces three clusters of themes in the orchestral exposition, before the soloist makes a powerful entrance with the main theme. The piano just touches on the thematic material and its development, with the solo part retaining a rather more improvisatory, modulating and playful role. In the Finale, a krakowiak (Polish dance in 2/4 time), the orchestra is allowed to play for only short episodes. The virtuoso pianist performs the rushing dance more or less as a “solo entertainer”.