Chopin Come Alive

Welcome to my music blog.

Despite the title, pianomusicman, I’ll be talking about any kind of music that tickles my fancy, on any kind of instrument.

I’ve had a love affair with music for as long as I’ve been alive, but it was only well into adulthood that I realized how deep the feelings went. Although I grew up in a musical environment and even briefly, all too briefly, took up a musical instrument in my childhood, I had not been conscious of how profoundly I feel music until fairly recently. Of course, none of us realizes how different our feelings may be from those of other people and assume what we feel, they feel and vice a versa. If I had to do it over again, though, and knew about myself what I know now, things would have been different. But, isn’t that true for most everybody?

I’ve only recently started to read about music and musicians, partly no doubt as a consequence of my taking up the piano. So, I’ll have more to say about various composers and performers on that account as well as from my own personal experience, impressions which go back now many decades.

I hope you’ll find all or at least some of my musings interesting and share your own thoughts with me.

But I don’t want to conclude this first posting without mentioning my latest and, at least as performers go, perhaps my greatest musical love: Yulianna Avdeeva, winner of last year’s (2010) Chopin Competition in Warsaw.  If you haven’t heard or heard of her, I suggest you go to YouTube and check out the videos available of her performance in Warsaw: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=yulianna+avdeeva&aq=f

This young woman made Chopin come alive for me. Till then he was in the grips of what has always sounded to my ears as ‪a kind of bloodless salon playing, no matter how skillful or subtle. Through her hands I hear what the music is really about: the tragedy and beauty that is life, and death.

Partly as a result of these recent readings (which I used to avoid, on the theory that anything I need to know about a composer I can find in his or her music), I’ve been listening to various pianists (God bless YouTube) from the present day going all the way back to those who were born deep in the 19th century like Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, Saint-Saëns. For the first time, I’ve begun to realize that there are styles and even fads to performance playing just as much as there are in literature or anything else (my own profession is fiction writing). This, rather late, realization explains a great deal about my lack of response to most 20th-century pianists.

I suspect what Ms. Avdeeva is doing is re-creating a kind of playing that was more typical, in some ways, of the performers of the 19th century. They apparently went overboard (she does not, though some critics seem to think she does), behaving more like our present day rock stars and getting much the same response from their audiences of screaming, and sometimes fainting, fans. All that disappeared in the 20th century (not that star performers didn’t still have groupies, viz. Horowitz), when technique, fidelity to the printed notes and other post-Romantic attitudes produced what sounds to my ear too much of a cookie-cutter approach.

Some sort of reformation of 19th-century excess was certainly in order. Performers were getting away with musical murder, even while virtuosic geniuses arose them. But a great deal, to my way of thinking, or hearing, was lost. Avdeeva’s playing may indicate a return to that earlier kind of very expressive playing, without the flimflam and hype that accompanied it. If so, I say three cheers.

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9 Comments to “Chopin Come Alive”

  1. I would have demanded that Chopin had been my lover if he and I were contemporaries. Oh, well… I suppose I was born too late… Have you read “Chopin’s Funeral,” by Benita Eisler?

  2. No, but after looking at an excerpt on Amazon.com, I think I will. Thank you.

    Imagine those soirees with Liszt playing the right hand and Chopin the left (because he couldn’t match Liszt’s pounding)…and Mendelssohn turning the pages!

  3. It would have been so magical to have witnessed that! So, what is your all-time favorite piano piece, EVER? I know it is hard, but I am interested in hearing it! 🙂

  4. Hard to say. It’s usually the one I’m in love with at the moment, which has been the posthumous Waltz in A Minor for the last year or so, that I am just now getting a handle on. It’s simple enough for a novice like myself to play, but of course it’s still Chopin, with all that means. And hearing his music come out of your fingertips, however ineptly, is an incomparable experience…. I do love all of Avdeeva’s performances in the Chopin competition of 2010, because she made Chopin accessible to me in a way he never was before.

    But I love Bach, Gershwin, Handel, as well as some “minor” composers I’m discovering–Cecile Chaminade, e.g. She’s also playable in a way Chopin and Liszt are not, and never will be, for someone like myself. The IMSLP free scores site has hundreds of such composers available, all out of copyright and therefore free for download.

    Till I got the piano a couple years back, I would probably have answered your question without hesitation with one name: Rachmaninoff.

    What about your own favorite?

  5. Hello! It is so hard to state; I am a violinist, but I wish I could play the piano better. Chopin is definitely my favorite piano composer, and I know the posthumous waltz to which you referred; I used to play it A LOT when I had a piano (it is fantastic)! My favorite Chopin piece, though, is probably his Ballade No. 4 in f minor… I cannot help it, I have loved it from the moment I first heard it. It reminds me of leaves falling, especially when he transitions in the middle of the ballade. I used to play it a lot when I had a piano, and I remember my mother saying “can’t you play something not so melancholy?” There is a poem by Muriel Rukeyser, and it is one of my favorite poems, and in it she writes: “When I was nine, I was fruitily sentimental / fluid: and my widowed aunt played Chopin / And I bent my head on the painted woodwork and / wept.” That is exactly how I feel about Chopin.. a composer so heightened by an emotional connection that he portals to the piano.

    My favorite violin piece is definitely Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “The Lark Ascending”– I have such an emotional attachment to it.

  6. Ms Avdeeva begins the third round of the Chopin competition with this ballade: http://konkurs.chopin.pl/en/edition/xvi/video/3_Yulianna_Avdeeva/stage/3. Elissa Miller-Kay also does a good job with it on Vimeo.

    It still moves me to tears after many, many hearings.

    I have heard “The Lark Ascending,” of course, and also found it very moving. Now I look forward to hearing it again. Thanks for reminding me about it.

    I have a theory that great musicians feel music the way ordinary (I started to write “normal,” but who’s normal? or ordinary, for that matter) people only feel extreme physical sensation or catastrophic emotional ones. Avdeeva looks emotionally drained after playing something like the Ballade or the Sonata in B flat minor. I pity her that she must go on anyway, and it’s no wonder she hits a couple clunkers with the famous polonaise in A-flat. What a workout!

  7. Thank you for the link, sir– I will definitely take a watch and listen to it. You should read the poem I just posted on my blog (the one by Rukeyser that I quoted in my previous post to you). PLEASE let me know what you think of it. 🙂

  8. My favorite composition for violin: Prokofiev’s violin concerto. Seemed a wiseacre showoff piece the first time I listened. Then it became so wrenching I can’t bear to listen to it anymore. I’m referring to Mordkovitch’s version. She plays it as if she were a clear pane of glass whose only job is to show what’s there without any distortion or comment.

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