Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sunday Classics: Listening to those first two Chopin preludes


We hear Maurizio play the first seven preludes of Chopin's Op. 28 in Japan, 2002.

by Ken

In Friday night's Quiz-Contest (prize still TBD) we heard four pianists, A-D, and in last night's preview another three, X-Z, play the first two preludes from Chopin's Op. 28 set of 24 preludes, moving through all the major and minor keys advancing via the "circle of fifths." Last night I suggested one particular thing to listen for in each prelude.

We're not going to do any more today than listen to our seven pianists, now properly identified (which I like to think may present some surprises to veteran music lovers), play these two pieces again, followed by some simple notes based on my listening suggestions.

So here again are our seven all-stars, now presented in order of recording:

(Sept. 26, 1877 – June 15, 1962)

(1) No. 1 only: EMI, recorded Apr. 7, 1926
(2-3) Nos. 1-2: EMI, recorded Dec. 2, 1942

(Jan 28, 1877 - Dec. 20, 1982)

RCA/BMG, recorded June 10, 11, 20, 1946

(Z) GÉZA ANDA (Nov. 19, 1921 - June 14, 1976)

DG, recorded July 2-8, 1959

(born Nov. 9, 1930)

Connoisseur Society/VAI, recorded 1965

(born July 6, 1937)

Decca, recorded April 1975

(born June 5, 1941)

DG, recorded October 1975

(March 28, 1903 - May 8, 1991)

Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded June 5-6, 1976


Now I'm not proposing to do detailed commentaries. I'd really rather let the performances speak for themselves. I'm going to confine myself, as noted above, to following through just a bit on the suggestions I offered for simple things to listen for in these first two of the preludes:

Prelude No. 1 in C, Op. 28, No. 1

I'm merely repeating a suggestion I already made last night with regard to the opening prelude, so slight and fleet that it's over almost before the listener has had a chance to fully register it. And that suggestion was in the form of a question: Just what is the basic rhythm of the piece?

Here's what I mean. The rapidly rushing melody, announced so declaratively is clearly in two-beat form: DA-dum DA-dum DA-dum DA-dum, and so on, almost all they way to the end of the basic phrase unit. But how do the "DA" and the "dum" relate, rhythmically? In some performances, notably the faster ones, it sounds almost as if the two beats are of more or less equal length? At the opposite end of the rhythmic spectrum, it can sound as if the "dum" is just a little hiccough leading into the following "DA," sort of like a musically retarded rendering of Dvorak's "Humoreesque."

In fact, as those of you who do read music can easily tell, the bars are in three-beat form, split two to the "DA" and one to the "dum." And the "triple" nature of the rhythm is underscored by the fact that the accompaniment is in triplets. So with the "DA" holding a two-to-one time-value edge over the "dum," and the first beat of each bar being bar far the strongest rhythmically, just how do you avoid the "Humoresque" effect? Or do you perhaps embrace it?

This is where a really speedy tempo can help. As Martha Argerich and Géza Anda demonstrate, you can sort of get around the problem if the pace is quick enough to make the two beats of the bar sound close to equally rhythmically. Vladimir Ashkenazy and Arthur Rubinstein seem to me more or less at the opposite extreme: fairly literal rhythmically, but with enough phraseological smarts to make it "sound."

And then there's Ivan Moravec, who's impossible to type rhythmically, but so totally in control of his range of solutions that the whole thing "plays" with a fluidity and dramatic flair that suggests this is going to be one heck of a performance of the 24 Preludes. (It is.)

Prelude No. 2 in A minor, Op. 28, No. 2

If you look at or listen to Prelude No. 2, you're likely to notice that, for all you've heard about the tremendous technical difficulty of Chopin's piano writing, this doesn't look/sound especially difficult to play. There aren't all that many notes, and what's more, the whole thing is meant to be played slowly! Anybody could play this Heck, I could play this.

And I really could. The only thing is, it would sound like hell. Because when you strip the music down so, you showcase the performer's powers of musical continuity and pianistic tone production.

If you look at the printed music -- and again, you don't have to read a note of music to see this -- what you see for the most part is: (1) in the left hand, a pretty conventional-looking accompaniment figure, and (2) in the right hand, occasional stabs at what I can only describe as "pre-melodic figures." As you listen, you can ask yourself, "Where's the tune?" And as you listen on, at some point you may wonder, "Is there a tune?" (Is it possible that in a piece by Chopin, one of Western music's supreme melodists, there is no tune?)

Here it seems to me our Hungarian representative Géza Anda is on to something. Listen to him play that dowdy accompanimental figure of the opening bars. Why, it's as if it . . . it was a melody. You get an interesting piece if the listener is left waiting for a tune that may or may not ever happen, and you get another sort of piece if you start with the assumption that that left-hand musical space-filler is itself a form of song.


The current list is here.

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At 10:18 AM, Anonymous Bil said...

THANKS Keni, I remain solidly in the no clue camp and can't even seem to get the links on the previous post to play, BUT I had been thinking that what I would have called the left hand rhythm and bass accompany was caring a subliminabable (gwb) melody at times, with the right hand kind of riffing off it (man:).

At 1:10 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, Bil. I don't know what's going on with the links. I redid them repeatedly to make sure they were "right" (ha ha!), and I hate to blame it on the unfamiliar computers I was working on (including a stupid PC from which I couldn't get sound at all), but it's not as if it'll hurt their feelings if I do, so let me go ahead and blame them.

Luckily, it appears to be just you and me, so there's a minimum of harm done. This obviously makes you the winner of the last of these contests. I'll be in touch with some suggestions of prizes.


At 5:23 PM, Anonymous Bil said...

Thanks for these Keni, very intg...

I prefer the oldest one, Alfred's style has kind of holding back quality that makes me want him to speed up a little, but he doesn't :)

Arthur R's my least fav for the same reason.


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