Chopin Piano Works Vol.1 – Felipe Browne – CR5149
£9.99 – £15.99
“The auditorium immediately perceived the incredible colour of sound and immense variety of tones and rhythm”
“What a treat to hear the strangely neglected Prelude in C# minor Op.45, of which we heard a magical interpretation”
The works of Frédéric Chopin are one of the chief glories of the piano repertoire, and their popularity with performers and listeners alike has never waned since then- creation in the early nineteenth century. Many were first introduced to the public by the composer himself, who was admired as pianist and composer in equal measure by his contemporaries. His playing was praised by the critic of the London Daily News in 1848 for its ”exquisite delicacy, with the liquid mellowness of his tone, and the pearly roundness of his passages of rapid articulation”.
As a composer, Chopin cultivated a variety of genres, including those established by his predecessors, such as the Nocturne, and entirely new ones, such as the Ballade. The present album offers a wide-ranging selection of Chopin’s longer and shorter works.
The Ballades are among Chopin’s longest and most complex single movement works. He was the first of the Romantic composers to apply this title taken from the realm of poetry to purely abstract instrumental music. Although the title “Ballade” hints at a strong narrative element to the music, Chopin was reticent in specifying what this might be, telling Schumann merely that he had been inspired by certain poems of Mickiewicz. It thus remains for the individual performer and listener to supply his or her own programme.
The improvisatory, bardic introductory bars of the Ballade in G minor, Op.23, usher in a theme permeated with sadness, which consists of a reiterated sighing motive. A lyrical theme subsequently emerges which, from quiet beginnings, rises to heights of rapturous lyricism. A terrifying coda brings to a close a work which American critic James Huneker called “the odyssey of Chopin’s soul”.
The second Ballade in F major, Op.38, is dedicated to that ardent admirer of Chopin’s art, Robert Schumann. Schumann limned a portrait of Chopin in his Carnaval, Op.9, and dedicated his Kreisleriana, Op.16, to him. He had also introduced the young Chopin to the
German musical public in 1831 when he wrote in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitschrift, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!”. This Ballade opens with an andantino of great beauty and simplicity which, the mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot tells us, the composer was especially fond of playing to her. A storm is unleashed in the ensuing presto con fuoco, which subsides into a less settled version of the andantino. A reprise of the presto leads to a furious coda which closes with a bleak reference to the opening andantino.
The tragedy which haunts the first two Ballades is absent from the third Ballade in A flat major, Op.47. this work is the soul of charm and graciousness with, as it were, only passing clouds of darkness obscuring the sun. The opening theme of somewhat shy, tentative charm returns at the close in a blaze of glory, with an intervening section based on a distinctive rocking theme.
The fourth Ballade in F minor, Op.52, is widely considered to be the greatest of the set and one of crowning achievements of the piano literature. Its enigmatic opening was compared by Huneker to the smile of the Mona Lisa. It sets the stage for a waltz-like theme of nostalgic sadness, which later recurs with harmonic and contrapuntal elaborations. In its midst appears a lilting 6/8 motive reminiscent of the andantino of the second Ballade, Op. 38. This too later reappears over a sweeping accompaniment, and at the very point when this theme has reached heights of elation, a psychologically telling note of doom is struck which points inexorably to the work’s tragic conclusion.
The Fantaisie in f minor, Op.49, is a work of heroic, Byronic stature, and is, like the four Ballades, among the composer’s most important extended works. Martial themes alternate with passages of rhapsodic lyricism. At the work’s heart is a chorale-like passage in Chopin’s religioso style, later briefly recalled before the incandescent coda.
Together with the Preludes, Op.28, the two volumes of Etudes Op.10 & 25, are the only works Chopin composed as a cycle. Each Etude dwells on a particular technical or musical problem, yet each is infused with a high degree of poetry, achieving what Louis Kentner called a “perfect fusion of the athletic and aesthetic” The Etude in C minor, Op.12, has long been known as the ‘Revolutionary’. The news reached Chopin in Stuttgart of the failure of the 1831 Polish uprising against the Russian occupiers. This Etude has, without firm evidence, often been claimed as Chopin’s anguished response to the sufferings of his beloved homelands. It is a tour de force of left hand bravura overlaid by traumatised outcries in the treble.
Utterly different is the Etude in A flat major, Op.25, No.1. Here a serene melody floats over an arpeggiated accompaniment. Schumann likened Chopin’s playing to an aeolian harp, and that name has sometimes been applied specifically to this Etude. Kleczynski, however, tells us that in attempting to elucidate this piece, Chopin told a pupil to imagine a shepherd sheltering in a cave from a storm, gently playing his flute. Hence, this Etude is sometimes known as the ‘Shepherd Boy’.
The 24 Preludes, Op.28, takes us through the complete cycle of major and minor keys, as Bach had done in the Well Tempered Clavier. It has become customary among pianists to play Op.28 as a complete cycle in conceit, although there is no evidence that Chopin did so himself. Many of the Preludes are short to the point of being epigrammatic. The Prelude in D minor, Op.28, No.24, is the last, and one of the most extended, of the series. It forms a fine, tragic climax to the cycle. Its thematic material bears a strong resemblance to the opening of Beethoven’s Appassioanta Sonata, Op.57.
Chopin inherited the Nocturne form from the Irish composer-pianist John Field, whose examples are marked by an elegant melancholy. Chopin made the genre his own, using the Nocturne as a vessel for some of his most exquisite, intimate thoughts. The Nocturne in C minor, Op.48, No.1，is one oi his most magnificent essays in this form, opening with a lento of classical, one might say, Hellenic poise and dignity. The central section takes the form of a chorale which rises from hushed beginnings to heights of visionary splendour. The reprise of the opening theme is now set over a palpitating accompaniment of repeated chords which foreshadow Scriabin.
Notes © 2001 Robert Markham.
Many years ago, I read a programme for a piano recital which included the 4 Ballades by Chopin, performed by Alfred Cortot. This programme caught my attention, as Cortot thought that the source of inspiration for these Ballades was an epic poem called “The Adventures of Konrad Wallenrod” by Adam Mickiewicz. Suitably inspired, I have outlined below the main themes of this poem as they appear in each Ballade:
The First Ballade tells a story of the conquest of the Moors in Spain and how the Spanish made fun of them during a victory celebration. The Moors prepared a ruse in which they obtained all the worst possible maladies, such as leprosy and black-death, amongst many others. When the celebrations were over, the Caliph embraced the Spanish General saying that the best laugh is the last. The Spanish General then realises with horror that he is going to die …
In the Second Ballade, the Russians have began their invasion of Lithuania. The local soldiers are praying for peace in a small town near a frozen lake, in which the stars are reflected. They have left the womenfolk praying in a Church nearby. Suddenly, a special spell is cast over the women, and they all become all sorts of different flowers. The Russian army approaches this village and stop to admire the pretty flowers, blooming in midwinter. In doing so, they are swallowed up by them! The Russians are therefore defeated…
In the Third Ballade, a youngster is having a wonderful time flirting his way around different towns, In one of them, he encounters a very pretty girl, to whom he proposes marriage. As is his habit, he deceitfully promises her eternal love, and tells her that he has to return home to aavise ms family of tneir engagement. His fiancée follows him on his journey, and sees him flirting with another girl. What he doesn’t realise is that his fiancée is Queen of the River Danube! Feeling betrayed, she consigns him to the depths of the river where he is condemned to remain forever, watching in despair as hundreds of water nymphs dance around him…
In the Fourth Ballade, we encounter an old man with three boys. He is crippled and a widower, so he tells them that they have to fend for themselves, even though he knows it is probable that they will perish when they leave, due to the harsh winter conditions. He glimpses them through his window crossing the white fields. The boys reach a wood, where they make a fire for the night. Suddenly they see a little flickering faiiy in the flames. They ask her to help them obtain food, which she does, and so they are able to return home. The father is amazed to see them, and overjoyed to have them back. When he sees the fairy, who is incredibly beautiful, he asks her to stay. She agrees, but only on condition that she is treated like a fairy and not a human being. One day, the father’s desire for her becomes so great that he embraces her, and so she disappears. Tragically, the four of them then all die, frozen to death …
For The Fantaisie I have created my own story: A recently married man is conscripted into the Polish army. Whilst he is fighting, one is privy to both his personal anguish and his triumphs. The Polish army is defeated, and he is brought into hospital fatally injured. However, he is certain that his prayers have been answered, as he is told that his wife has escaped and is well, he is then able to die in profound happiness, knowing that in being reunited with his Creator, he is eventually going to be with his dear wife forever…
The Nocturne, The Fantaisie impromptu, the Revolutionary and the Prelude #24 (the latter two pieces representing the Russian invasion of Poland in 1831) are amongst my most beloved works of art and I have played them with great joy for over 15 years. I hope these ideas will help you enjoy this beautiful music as much as I do. © Felipe Browne.
Felipe Browne was born in Chile and began his piano lessons in Santiago. In 1984 Browne was singled out for warm praise by Claudio Arrau following a Master Class the maestro gave at the Teatro Municipal in Santiago.
In 1988, after graduating as a concert pianist from the Catholic University, he was invited by Arie Vardi to study in Israel. Following Professor Vardi’s advice, Browne moved to London to continue his studies with Peter Feutchwanger.
He has since performed across many continents and in most of the major European cities. His recent recitals to capacity audiences at The Wigmore Hall and St. John’s Smith Square in London, as well as the Brussels Town Hall, Glinka Hall in Moscow and Grieg’s House in Bergen, have drawn him much critical acclaim.
Since 1999, Felipe Browne has been sponsored by the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs to continue his career in Britain and Europe. His recitals have inspired the following comments:
Review: I – Itogi Magazine Moscow (Spring 1997)
“The auditorium immediately perceived the incredible colour of sound and immense variety of tones and rhythm”.
Review: II – Musical Opinion London (Summer 1999)
“Chopin also evoked splendid responses. What a treat to hear the strangely neglected Prelude in C# minor Op.45, of which we heard a magical interpretation”.
Review: III – The Washington Post U.S.A. (Winter 2000)
“Browne dazzled the crowd with his keen sense of articulation, brilliant finger speed and tempering of power with eloquent sensitivity”
Review: IV – The Gramophone Magazine
“Felipe Browne is a Chilean pianist who possesses a fragile poetic flair”
Review: V – MusicWeb International
Felipe Browne is a young Chilean pianist, who studied in Israel before moving to London to learn with Peter Feuchtwanger. He has produced here a well-balanced programme of Chopin. When reviewing the recent Brilliant Classics issue of Chopin piano music, I mentioned that a small drawback for me was the grouping together of large numbers of the same type of work on each CD. Of course, that works better for some genres than others; Chopin almost certainly intended his Preludes, for example, to be heard in groups, maybe even as a whole set – the key relationships and sequence of mood and atmosphere indicate this. On the other hand, lighter works – Waltzes, Mazurkas, even Nocturnes – are harder to take in this way.
Browne avoids this pitfall in this issue by following a number of larger-scale pieces with some shorter ones. We have the four great Ballades, the F minor Fantasy and the ever popular Fantaisie-Impromptu; then two Etudes, a Prelude and a Nocturne. He is a thoughtful, musical player, not prone to sensationalising the music, but fully aware of its moods and drama. He gives controlled and finely judged performances of the Ballades and Impromptus, and characterises the shorter pieces with great intensity. The splendid D minor Prelude is given a particularly commanding and powerful reading, and the pensive C minor Nocturne makes an impressive ending to the collection.
This is not playing that is going to knock you back in your chair – perhaps just as well – but there is plenty here to admire and enjoy. Browne knows and loves this music, and is able to communicate his feeling for it strongly. However, I do feel that the recording lets him down somewhat in this first volume. It is somewhat lacking in brilliance throughout, and there is an occasional problem with distortion – either that, or something is actually rattling in or on the piano, it’s hard to tell for sure. Those readers who play the piano will know how infuriatingly difficult it can be to track down the source of unwanted vibration, but recording producers simply must do so, and track 8, the lovely Ab Etude, is badly affected.
If glitches like this can be sorted out for the remaining volumes, and I’m sure they can be, it looks as if Claudio records have initiated a welcome and most worthwhile addition to the rapidly growing Chopin discography. © Gwyn Parry-Jones
This Compact Disc is dedicated to Guadalupe Valdés