Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The secret of wonderment

Chopin: Ballades & Nocturnes
"This is about the greatest music there is for the piano. It’s just extraordinary, the colors, the writing, the surprising form of the pieces, the enigma, the diversity of expression."
Leif Ove Andsnes's praise for these seven short pieces, the 4 Ballades and a selection of 3 Nocturnes by Frédéric Chopin, is extraordinary, and from a lesser pianist it might be a warning sign that these often delicate works have been swamped by bloated seriousness on the one hand, or overblown expectations on the other. But extraordinary things come in small packages: the Mona Lisa is, after all, only 30 by 21 inches. The stories to be told in each of Chopin's pieces are truly epic, and if you think an epic has to be 4,000 pages (with many more to come, in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire), don't forget about The Great Gatsby at 180 pages. Chopin's genius is in his economy as well as the scope of his narrative and the nuances within. Economy is, indeed, where Andsnes shines. Not every gesture needs italics, much less an exclamation point; not every dramatic moment needs a bright spotlight. What is needed instead is the "surprise and delight" that André Gide, in his marvellous Notes on Chopin, asked of the Chopin interpreter:
Each modulation in Chopin, never trivial and foreseen, must respect, must preserve that freshness, that emotion which almost fears the surging up of the new, that secret of wonderment to which the adventurous soul exposes itself along paths not blazed in advance, where the landscape reveals itself only gradually.
One of the keys to Leif Ove Andsnes as an artist is his ability to communicate; this happens mainly, of course, with two hands on the keyboard, but you can see from this short video about the 1st Ballade how engaging and insightful he can be. "Suddenly a door opens!"

Here, by the way, is Gide on that same reveal: "... after a few indecisive measures in F where only the tonic and the fifth are given, Chopin unexpectedly sounds a deep B flat which suddenly alters the landscape like the stroke of an enchanter’s wand." Whether through a door or a wand, the secret of wonderment is revealed.

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