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The Mystery of Chopin - The Strange Case of Delphina Potocka

A Tony Palmer film starring Paul Rhys as Chopin, Penelope Wilton as Paulina Czernicka and Valentina Igoshina, Penelope Wilton and Elizabeth McGorian as Countess Delphina Potocka. Plus recital of works by Chopin played by Valentina Igoshina. Directed by Tony Palmer
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 100 176. Produced by Flashpoint UK Ltd in 1999. [167 min] (film: 109 mins; recital: 58 mins).
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Musical mystery stories seem to be all the rage just now. Following close on the book, Beethoven's Hair, comes this 'revelation' that threatens to overturn many a preconception about the character and life of Frédéric Chopin.

Immediately after the Second World War when the heart of Chopin was returned from Paris to Warsaw, a woman named Paulina Czernicka informed the Polish Ministry of Culture of the existence of several love letters written by the composer to Countess Delphina Potocka. The authorities were scandalised because not only had the Countess's estranged husband been a traitor, but the contents of the letters were salacious, almost pornographic, anti-semitic and full of malicious tittle-tattle about Chopin's contemporary composers including Liszt. (A Countess Potocka indeed had existed and there was historical evidence that she had an affair with the composer and that Chopin had even dedicated some of his compositions to her). The fact that Czernika could only produce notarised copies, undated, of fragments of the letters justified the decision to suppress the material because it was reckoned to be against the best interests of the state, and would destroy the reputation of one of Poland's musical heroes. Afterwards Pauline Czernicka committed suicide - or was it murder. (The death of Pauline Czernicka does seem suspicious. One of the officials explains that she fell from an eighth-story Ministry window…)

Palmer's film investigates and theorises about what actually happened. He hints darkly that the love letters existed and were in some private collection. He suggests that they were written over a period of many years. (It appears that the Countess was the main love interest in Chopin's life and that his affair with George Sand, more of a 'flash-in-the-pan', was over in a space of six months when Sand got tired of the young composer). A somewhat squalid picture of the harshness of life in Paris in the 1830s is presented and we see just how frail and ill Chopin was for much of this time. We learn that he actually made only about 30 public appearances as a pianist in his life and even those caused him considerable anguish. The drama unfolding in the 1940s is shot in grim monochrome and the players include John Bird and John Fortune reprising their political satires from the Rory Bremner show. The scenes from the life of Chopin are shot in colour.

In the recital (as in the film), the very glamorous pianist Valentina Igoshina plays with some sensitivity a selection of the most important and best-known of Chopin's piano compositions. Between the pieces she talks about her early encounters with Chopin's music, reveals how her interpretation has changed over the years and describes her own emotional response to the music.

An interesting story but I am not fully convinced, and more importantly I am not convinced that it has added anything significant to our appreciation of Chopin. In fact I am inclined to sympathise with the Polish authorities' viewpoint. Although not entirely a pointless exercise, I feel that this is not one of Tony Palmer's most successful ventures.

Ian Lace

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