Viewpoint: review of Chopin’s Piano – A Journey through Romanticism

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Published: 10th February, 2019
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Extending our concept of Viewpoints, we present the second of two book reviews by concert reviewer and pianist Glenn Riddle.  Both relate to the instrument he plays – the piano.

Paul Kildea’s previous book was the much-lauded and somewhat controversial biography Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century.  Chopin’s Piano – A Journey through Romanticism is centred around a single work by the Polish émigré composer Frédéric Chopin.  The 24 Préludes Opus 28 comprise one of the piano masterworks of the nineteenth century and a certain mythology has arisen around them, largely due to George Sand’s A Winter in Majorca and A History of My Life.

The backstory is that in November 1838, the unwell Chopin together with his companion Amantine Dudevant – nom de plume George Sand – fled the harsh Parisian winter, as well as the prying eyes of Parisian society, seeking warmer climes as well as privacy and creative inspiration in Mediterranean Majorca.  In Chopin’s Piano Kildea lifts the veil enveloping the Préludes tracing their inspiration (Bach), their composition (partly though not exclusively in Majorca), their performing history, and most interestingly the instruments on which they were composed.

The book’s structure neatly mirrors that of the Préludes and their initial publication – 24 chapters divided in two parts – and two leitmotifs recur throughout the book.

The first is the Préludes themselves. Kildea explores Chopin’s painstaking compositional process – an amalgam of  “unrestrained improvising” followed by an obsessive working and re-working through of musical ideas.  Kildea also seeks to unlock what it is that makes an inspired interpretation of the Préludes – a sense of mercurial spontaneity and improvisation being the sine qua non.

Interestingly, while they tend to be heard in recital today played as a complete cycle, Chopin himself never performed the 24 Préludes as a whole, and seemingly never intended them to be played as such.  Kildea traces Chopin’s documented (and all too rare) performances of selected Préludes from his Paris years through to the depressingly sad final performances in the last year of his life in London and Scotland.

Subsequent noted interpreters of the Préludes are critiqued: from Russian Anton Rubinstein to Polish Arthur Rubinstein, legendary French pianist Alfred Cortot and finally modern-day Italian Maurizio Pollini, a celebrated winner of the coveted Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. Not all are rated favorably. Perhaps the most interesting observations are reserved for the recorded legacy of Chopin’s “grand-pupil”, the Polish pianist Raoul Koczalski.

The main premise of the book however is the Juan Bauza piano on which Chopin composed a large number of the Préludes while staying in the mountain village Valldemossa, and while awaiting the delivery of his preferred Pleyel piano from Paris.  Kildea traces its history from 1838 – it was perhaps the one and only piano built by the Majorcan Bauza of whom little is known – through to today.

For the remainder of the nineteenth century, the piano sat unassumingly in the former Carthusian monastery where Chopin and Sand resided during that fateful and unexpectedly harsh Majorcan winter.  In 1913 it then came into the possession of legendary Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska before being sequestered by the Nazis in 1940.  After the war, Landowska, now living in the USA, spends considerable effort trying to locate and recover her prized harpsichords as well as the treasured relic, the Bauza Chopin piano.

Chopin’s Piano is meticulously researched and suavely written. Illustrations are plentiful. It is sure to pique the interest of those curious about the music of Chopin, his artistic milieu, his compositional process, as well as his rich musical legacy and how it has been appropriated and interpreted by various Chopinists throughout the last 180 years.

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This review was originally published in The Age.  Republished with author’s permission.