More Chopin (More Chopin!)

I’m learning a new “easy” piece by Chopin, the Polonaise in G Minor, BI 1. I have little hope of ever advancing much beyond “easy” in Chopin (most of his work is rated at level 8 or 8+). I can play the Waltz in A Minor, op. posth. more or less straight through without too many mistakes, but I think I’ll have to learn to accept that I will rarely play anything without hitting some false notes. It’s not my fingers’ fault, it’s more a question of vapor-lock. But I can live with that if what I do play expresses the music and my own emotional response to it in a palpable way.

At first I thought playing so-called easy pieces by Chopin would mean playing something less than the real Chopin. I should’ve known better. No great artist is ever anything less than himself or herself, no matter what the medium or the occasion. Everything that is in the more difficult compositions like the Sonata in B Minor, op. 35 or the nocturnes is in these simpler pieces as well. Only, the thundering passages that require the use of both hands moving rapidly up or down, or down and up, the keyboard, in the case of the Polonaise in G Minor minor require the use of only one finger. But, oh, what that one finger can accomplish!

I hear in the Waltz in A Minor all the dread and beauty and anger that I hear in his more virtuosic compositions. After exploring the exquisite beauties and disappointments of what it means to be alive, it progresses to a harsh and despairing pronouncement about where life must inevitably lead, ending with a quarter-note two-tone chord that can only be interpreted as a shrug of disgust and angry resignation. A remarkable ending. And yet, I have not heard anyone play this piece without drawing out that final chord well beyond what the score indicates.

I play the waltz slowly, as I play most things, not entirely out of interpretive preference but because at this point it’s the only safe way for me to play anything. But I find it remarkable that all the other interpretations I have listened to play it rapidly, as if it were a bouncy little piece that Chopin tossed off and then put aside as hardly worth his attention. My saving grace is that it seems you can never play Chopin too slowly — I heard one of the premier pianists, it may have been Emil Gilels, remark that even the Études when played slowly are very beautiful. In any case, I can’t imagine playing the Waltz in A Minor much faster than I do play it without losing the emotional impact I described in the previous paragraph. And I’m not sure I would play it faster even if someone could show me that Chopin himself played it that way. I sometimes think a composer’s, like a writer’s, interpretation of his or her work should be regarded with the same skepticism as anyone else’s interpretation of it.

I have to confess that I only got up the nerve it requires to play this music, or any music, with this kind of expression from listening to the performances of Yulianna Avdeeva — although there was some encouragement to be got from a few of her predecessors, such as Alfred Cortot (1877-1962). If Ms. Avdeeva, or anyone else, could play the work of other composers for whom I feel merely a lukewarm response in the same revelatory way she does Chopin, I don’t doubt new musical worlds would be opened to me.


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