The piano music of Frederic Chopin


My routine over the past year or so has been to spend my last few hours before bedtime writing this dreadful blog.

I need background music to do this. Fortunately, I have a huge CD collection.  Since Partner’s in the next room watching “The Good Wife,” however, noisy orchestral music, and opera, and organ music seems inappropriate.

So I listen mostly to chamber music, and solo keyboard music.

I’ve gone through the Beethoven sonatas, and the Bach suites, and the Beethoven quartets, and the Mozart sonatas and quartets (and quintets).  I tried the Scarlatti sonatas (I own about two-thirds of them – you know I’m a maniac for complete sets of things), but it was like listening to the same thing over and over again.  I got out my set of the complete piano music of Federico Mompou and listened through that.  And the sonatas of Prokofiev, and Scriabin, and Shostakovich.

Finally, feeling bored and disdainful, I pulled out some ancient ultra-cheapo recordings of “The Favorite Music of Frederic Chopin,” which I seem to recall buying for a dollar per CD.

After a few days of that, I went on eBay and bought a thirteen-CD set of the complete Chopin piano music for sixty bucks (which is a pretty good price, if you ask me).

Chopin I used to associate with everything that people hate about classical piano music: frilly, arch, virtuosic, all style and no substance, ornate frippery.

Oh how wrong I was.

This is music written in the first half of the nineteenth century – Beethoven and Schubert were only recently deceased, and Verdi and Wagner were just getting started – and it’s still incredibly fresh and energetic and daring. It changes key all over the place. The virtuosity is never just for show; it’s part of the structure of the piece.  The individual pieces are short; even the sonatas feel like suites.  The melodies are soulful and beautifully constructed.

And the harmonies! They are amazing. Chopin tells stories with chord progressions. There’s often solmething wild going on over the surface – some fancy figuration – but the progressions beneath them are telling the real story. Here, as an unvarnished example, is the C Minor Prelude (you may recognize it as a Barry Manilow song).

I’ve got the Polonaises going in the background as I write this.  I’ve worked my way through the Etudes, and the Preludes, and the Mazurkas, and the Sonatas, and the Scherzos.  (I still have the Waltzes to listen through, but I pretty much know those.) The performer is a Russian namedNikita Magaloff, whose claim to fame is that he did the complete Chopin piano music over and over again. He is precise, and unfrilly, and really very good.

When I was a kid, I didn’t like vegetables.  Now I love them.

Ditto Chopin.

How our tastes change as we get older!

For Sunday: Anne Queffelec plays one of Erik Satie’s “Pieces froides”


I know I’ve posted at least one Erik Satie piece before, but I’m a big fan, so here’s another.


This is one of Satie’s “Pieces froides”: “Cold pieces.”  It is grim and beautiful and pianistic, and has some very beautiful moments.





18_Satie_Pièces_Froides_#1_(Airs_A.mp3 Listen on Posterous




For Sunday: Alkan’s “Scherzetto” (op. 63, no. 47), played by Laurent Martin


I was lucky to discover the music of Erik Satie when I was still in high school.  Since then, I’ve discovered that I have a real taste for the kind of odd disconsolate abbreviated keyboard music that Satie specialized in.  Chopin wrote some, and so did Schumann (and actually Mozart and Beethoven wrote a bit of it too!), and later Scriabin, and Glazunov, and Medtner, and Mompou.



But most especially Alkan.



Charles-Valentin Morhange Alkan was a French piano virtuoso of the mid-19th century.  He wrote very extraordinary music: etudes, sonatas, concerti.  Somewhere along the line, he became a recluse, and a Talmudic scholar.  The story goes that he was killed when he tried to take down a heavy volume of the Talmud from a high bookshelf, and the entire bookcase fell on him, crushing him to death.



Here is the 47th of the 49 sketches from his Opus 63 “Esquisses,” entitled “Scherzetto.”  It is a strange pianistic scherzo, full of peculiar gestures and loads of nervous energy.






47_Motifs_(48)_for_piano_(‘Esquisses’),_Op._63.mp3 Listen on Posterous



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