Will the real Chopin please stand up?

Peter Feuchtwanger, piano study

Will the real Chopin please stand up?

The eminent piano professor on the search for style

Does the playing on disc of Raoul Koczalski (1884-1948), who studied with Chopin´s pupil Mikuli (1819-1897), bear any witness to the way in which Chopin played is own compositions or rather, as so often suggested, did Chopin´s unprecedented style of playing accompany him to the grave? "Unfortunately," wrote Berlioz, "virtually no one except Chopin himself can play his music. He alone holds the secret." Are the wonderful performances of the mazurkas recorded between 1923-1930 by Iganz Friedman (1882-1948), himself a Pole and trained in Vienna by Leschetizsky (1830-1915), any indication as to how Chopin may have played these works? According to accounts by Chopin´s contemporaries, Friedman´s interpretations would seem much closer to the master´s style than the sterile straight-laced performances generally heard today. As we belong to an age which prizes authenticity and speaks of ´historical´ performances, should we not question whether we have moved closer or further away from Chopin´s style? It goes without saying that music cannot be experienced in the same way as it was centuries ago, and we are therefore obliged to listen to Chopin´s music through 20th century ears, but even so, there may be clues. Sadly the last 40 years or so have tended towards a lack of refinement and elegance, both qualities synonymous with Chopin´s name. Moreover, difficulty in comprehending Chopin´s elusive style may also be attributed to the recent demise of bel canto, a once notable and much admired school of vocal art which Chopin attempted to emulate, in his playing, throughout his life. Some of todays pianists might gain closer proximity to the Chopin style by listening to the 1906 recording of Verdi´s preferred singer, the soprano Adelina Patti (1843-1919) in the aria "Ah non credea Mirarti" from Bellini´s La Somnambula, reputedly Chopin´s favourite melody (word has it the he asked to hear it at his death bed). In this celebrated recording, Patti, though well past her prime, still deploys to miraculous effect the embelishments used by Guiditta Pasta (1797-1865) the famed singer on whose style Chopin modelled much of his own playing. Throughout his teaching Chopin often cited her as the supreme exponent of bel canto. Yet few pianists today allow themselves to profit from Adelina Patti, whose incomparable singing does much to suggest Chopin´s own use of rubato, agogics, inflection and ornamentation.

We also stand to gain from several contemporary accounts handed down to posterity by Chopin´s friends and pupils and contained in a collection compiled by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger for the Cambridge University Press. Since none of Chopin´s pupils were sufficiently outstanding to pass on their master´s tradition, the so-called ´Chopin style´ was soon lost, to be replaced by a quite different approach, greatly influenced by Liszt. But Liszt, although an ardent admirer of Chopin, possessed an altogether different temperament. While he was drawn towards pathos and the grandiose, Chopin´s personality was distinguished by a quieter, more introspective nature. He is known to have disapproved of loud playing, remarking that it sounded like a dog barking, nor did he favor extremes in dynamics, or nay other form of declamation. Why do pianists not learn from this? Why do so many now play Chopin with such exaggerated fortissimi? The first study of op. 10, for instance, contains no fortissimo in the whole piece and ends with a diminuendo and a quiet low octave C (only thus can the curtain be opened for the ensuing study in A minor, with its polka rhythm.)!

But there were great pianists from the earlier part of this century who also failed to grasp the essence of Chopin´s style. When Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), born the same year as Friedman and also a Leschetizky pupil, referred to Chopin as the right-handed genius, he expressed only a fragment of the truth, badly underestimating, in the process, Chopin´s exceptional mastery of form and counterpoint. For proof of Chopin´s abilities in this respect we need only examine some of the late mazurkas. Three in particular spring to mind: op. 50/3 in C# minor, op. 56/3 in C minor, and op. 63/3 in C# minor. A true understanding of Chopin´s style is impossible without an understanding of his polyphonic genius.

No mention has yet been made here of Chopin´s remarkable harmonic innovations. For this purpose one might look to the first movement of the B minor Sonata and carry out a test of playing through without interruption all of the semiquaver figures from bar 106 to 114 whilst simultaneously omitting all the other voices. A quasi-atonal picture will emerge. Ask a listener, preferably a pianist, to name the composer and the answers are likely to range from Prokofiev to Schoenberg - but never Chopin! Critically, when put to this test even pianists who have purportedly made a thorough study of the work flounder and find themselves at a loss to identify the composer. For all too many pianists, it seems, Chopin´s harmonic genius and its implications for performance still await discovery!

An obvious starting-point in the search for a truly authentic Chopin style is an unexpurgated text, free from the intrusive editing which has played such havoc with Chopin´s music over the years would assist pianists in their quest to form their own ideas and arrive at their own conclusions. The suggestion by some editors that Chopin had an inadequate grasp of harmony and that his grammar sorely needed correction is nothing short of absurd, yet such ´corrections´ abound. Take the Prelude No 13 in F sharp, for example: Chopin erased what had presumably been 6/4 and replaced it with 3/2. By conceiving the piece in 3/2 he enhances the whole meaning of the work. As a result, the più lento section gains considerably in eloquence. Subsequently the second chord in the bar and the deep bass note will no longer coincide with a strong beat, thus creating a floating quality, effectively inducing the pianist to play the work in a more fluent tempo. However, all current editions print the time signature of 6/4. A further example is the original version of the Nocturne in C sharp minor, op. posth., with its startling and unique use of polymetrics. At present, only Henle prints this. The forthcoming complete edition from Peters is urgently needed. Although an unblemished text may prove a relatively small aid in solving a complex jigsaw, it will inevitably bring us closer to a fuller understanding of this revolutionary genius.

first published by "Piano", September/October 1998, p. 16