Monday, August 11, 2014

Chopin - Piano Concerto No. 2 In F Minor

Frédéric Chopin composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 In F Minor in 1829-1830. It was actually the first piano concerto that he composed but was published second. He was 19 years old and had completed a course of study with Józef Elsner at the Warsaw Conservatory. Chopin performed the work in March of 1830 at his Warsaw debut.  It was also the work he performed at his Paris debut in 1832 with musical dignitaries such as Berlioz, Liszt and Rossini in the audience.

Chopin was not happy on the concert platform and played very few concerts in his short life. He made most of his living by teaching wealthy students in Paris and by composing.  Interestingly enough, Chopin evidently did not like to write his music out on paper.  He would even change works that already appeared in print. Perhaps his drive for perfection made him think they could be made better.

The few works Chopin wrote for piano and orchestra are usually criticized for the orchestral writing. But Chopin used as his model the concertos of Hummel and Kalkbrenner, not Beethoven. He wrote the piano concertos as display vehicles for himself as pianist at a time when most other piano virtuosos were doing the  same, and in more or less the same style. Thus the piano is naturally the star with the spotlight on it, but that is not to say that the orchestra doesn't have some interesting things to contribute.  Chopin's piano concertos are extremely effective works that are still played. The concerto is in three movements:

I. Maestoso -  The concerto begins with the usual (for the time) part of the exposition where the orchestra introduces the themes of the movement without the piano. The two themes are nothing exceptional, but when the piano enters and comments on them the atmosphere changes. The piano plays the first theme with a very light accompaniment by the orchestra strings and the theme becomes emboldened and more passionate. The second theme gets the same type of embellished treatment from the piano. The development section bristles with virtuosity for the soloist as well as a short episode for orchestra alone. Both themes are developed before the recapitulation. The two themes are dominated by the piano, until the piano reaches a climax with trills (a double trill in the right hand, single trill in the left) and bare octave F's in both hands. The orchestra plays the denouement alone.

II. Larghetto -  Although Chopin is considered a musical innovator, he was notorious for not liking much of the music his contemporaries were writing. Chopin became friends with Liszt but didn't much care the music he wrote, and the list goes on. His composing ideals were J.S. Bach, Mozart, Hummel and in his early years Kalkbrenner. Another composer in this short list is John Field, the Irish composer and pianist who developed the genre of the nocturne. Field was more than twenty years older than Chopin and by the time Chopin came on the scene Field was a famous composer and virtuoso. The second movement is a sweet, melancholy nocturne for soloist and orchestra, one of the most famous and beautiful pieces written. The movement shows the influence of not only Field, but the bel canto opera singing Chopin heard on trips he made to Berlin in 1828 and 1829.

III. Allegro vivace -  Chopin spent his vacations of 1824-1828 in rural areas of Poland and it was on these vacations where he came into direct contact with Polish folk dances, namely the mazurka, and what Field did for the nocturne Chopin did for the mazurka.  This movement as well as most of the other mazurkas wrote were not restricted to the form of the original folk dance. Chopin created much more interest in his expanding of the dance. This movement also has some of the most colorful orchestral writing of the concerto, as a few minutes into the movement Chopin instructs violins and violas to play col legno, where the wood of the back of the bow strikes the string which creates a quite different effect. The music has the distinctive off the beat accents and figurations that Chopin used in his mazurkas. After a short climax near the end of the movement, a solo horn plays:
A horn signal that is followed by music for the soloist that is marked brillante, and the brilliance for the soloist continues until another climax is reached, after which the piano quietly plays a fragment of the mazurka before the final flourish by the soloist and the ending chords by the orchestra.

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