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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849) Preludes to Chopin
Prelude in C# minor, op.45 (1841) [3:50]
Sonata no.2 in Bb minor, op.35 (1837-40) [20:22]
Prelude in F# major, op.28 no.13 (1838-9) [2:45]
Sonata no.3 in B minor, op.58 (1844-45) [23:52]
Prelude in A-major, op.28 no.7 (1836) [0:46]
Barcarolle, op.60 (1845-6) [8:13]
Prelude in Eb minor, op.28 no.14 (1838-9) [0:24]
Polonaise in Ab Major, op.53 (1842-43, rev. Busoni 1909) [6:25]
Prelude in Ab major, op.28 no. 17 (1836) [2:46]
Mes Joies (transcr. Liszt) [4:08]
Kenneth Hamilton (piano)
rec. 2017, Cardiff University School of Music, Wales PRIMA FACIEPFCD084 [73:31]
The listener may well say ‘not another album of Chopin piano music.’ Yet this one presents an interesting programme backed by some thought-provoking scholarship. It also serves as a good introduction to the composer’s repertoire. What Kenneth Hamilton has done here is to indulge his ‘fascination with the performance styles of the so-called ‘golden age’ of pianism from Chopin and Liszt to Paderewski’ and how these ‘approaches might enrich our performances today’. Hamilton has explored what contemporary dynamics and tempo fluctuations may be successfully recovered from this period. Where a section of the composition has been repeated, Hamilton believes that it must be interpreted slightly differently rather than with ‘structural uniformity.’ He confesses to moderate ‘tampering’ with Chopin’s score of the Second Sonata. We are told that one of the innovations on this disc is to place Chopin’s Preludes where they once belonged: as ‘exquisite prefaces to longer pieces.’ The bottom line is that Kenneth Hamilton wishes to learn much from the great pianists of the Golden Age, rather than accept any one interpretation as definitive.
I do not intend to write a commentary on all ten pieces presented on this CD. Most of them are well-known to enthusiasts of Chopin’s piano music. Three pieces that stood out for me were the Prelude in C# minor, op.45, the Sonata no.2 in Bb minor, op.35 and the Sonata no.3 in B minor, op.58.
The Prelude in C# minor, op.45 was added as a kind of appendix to several editions of the Preludes. I understand that this beautiful piece may originally have been an improvisation made by the composer and later written down. What I love about this Prelude is the forward-looking nature of the harmony and melody: it is like a conspectus of romantic music. One 19th century commentator suggested that it is ‘Oh, so Brahmsian, that bitter-sweet lingering…’ And there are even intimations of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. This Prelude was written at Nohant, the home of George Sand, during the summer of 1841, and was dedicated to the Princess Elisabeth Czernicheff who was one of Chopin’s pupils.
The Piano Sonata No. 2 in Bb minor, op.35 was largely composed during the summer of 1939 with the well-known Funeral March having been completed in 1837. It is often regarded as Chopin’s most successful work in a large form. Hamilton’s approach brilliantly captures both the musical and the technical content of this powerful work. As noted above, the repeat in the opening movement is played with subtle interpretative differences. I was especially pleased with the dynamic contrasts in the second movement showcasing the lovely ‘cantilena’ trio with the ‘vertiginously dynamic’ music of the ‘minuet’ section. I think that Hamilton has caught the ‘winds of night sweeping over churchyard graves’ on the complex and technically challenging but oh-too-brief ‘presto.’ Altogether a satisfying performance.
It was good to rediscover the Sonata No.3 in B minor, op.58. This is a work that I have not heard for several years. Kenneth Hamilton captures the magic (for me) of the beautiful second subject of the opening ‘allegro maestoso’: it always brings a tear to my eye. This must be one of Chopin’s most difficult pieces from both a technical and an interpretive point of view. I agree with the English musicologist Arthur Hedley that ‘its four movements contain some of the finest music ever written for the piano’.
Two rarities are included on this CD. Firstly, Ferruccio Busoni’s ‘improvements’ to the monumental Polonaise in Ab Major, op.53. This was devised in 1909 and is an influential move away from the then prevailing tendency to sentimentalise Chopin. The liner notes do not state if Busoni’s take was written down or is derived from a piano roll. I was impressed with this performance, but do not think it is quite a ‘reworking’ but more a dramatization of the left-hand octaves in the central section. I followed the score of the ‘original’ in the Cortot Edition whilst preparing this review.
The other piece that is ‘novel’ is Franz Liszt’s transcription of Chopin’s song ‘Mes Joies’ (My Joys). The liner notes suggest that this piece was reconstructed by Kenneth Hamilton from a piano roll made by Liszt’s pupil Bernhard Stavenhagen. It represents the pupil’s ‘personal memories of Liszt.’ It was taken from Chopin’s collection of Polish Songs of which Liszt arranged six. It is a lovely piece that seems to transcend almost a century of pianism. Once again, I have not seen the score of the Stavenhagen version. The differences appear to be in the ‘cadenzas’ and the final coda. It is a beautiful piece that demands to be better known in any edition.
The liner notes are written by the pianist. They reflect the history of the pieces and Hamilton’s approach to this music. I must admit that I did not totally persevere with them as the font is very small indeed. (Magnifying glass needed). There is no pdf file to download at Prima Facie’s website. I was disappointed that the dates (even if approximate) were not given in the track listings or (except occasionally) the notes. I know that it is possible to look this up online and elsewhere, however this is a basic requirement for appreciating any musical work. I was unable to find a ‘total duration’ time in the CD packaging.
I enjoyed this new CD of Chopin’s piano music. It took me away from some pressing reviews of music by Michael Finnissy, an essay on Humphrey Searle and some thoughts about William Walton’s Toccata for violin and piano. It is certainly instructive to revisit the truly romantic piano world of Chopin. Kenneth Hamilton’s selection is well-judged and beautifully played.