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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
More Preludes to Chopin
Kenneth Hamilton (piano)
rec. 2018/19, Cardiff University School Music, Wales

The basic premise of this CD is well-stated by Stefan Pieper (Klassik Heute) who comments, ‘Hamilton’s approach to Chopin ignores the pianistic fashions of today’s music market, challenges the dogmas of historical performance practice, and offers an entire palette of new and intriguing experiences.’ Then in the liner notes: ‘It is not about creating ‘accurate’ historical performances of these pieces, but to ‘open ourselves to a range of interpretative possibilities (from Chopin’s own day and the generations thereafter) that challenge current conventions.’ Kenneth Hamilton has attempted to get behind some 160 years of interpretation of Chopin’s music by evaluating how the music would have been heard in the composer’s day, considering evidence of details disclosed by the composer to his pupils, and how the great Romantic pianists (Liszt, Busoni, Godowsky et al) of the past have understood this music.

The repertoire includes pieces from across the entire range of Chopin’s piano music, including Nocturnes, Polonaises and Waltzes. One relatively rare number is the Brilliant Variations on the Rondo ‘Je vends des scapulaires’ from [Hérold’s] Ludovic, op. 12 (1833). (Note that it is ‘des’ and not ‘les’ as in the track listing.) It is not a work that I am familiar with; the theme is taken from a long-forgotten opera by Ferdinand Hérold, who died in the year Chopin composed it. In this charming set of variations, the tenderness of the Nocturnes is contrasted with a brilliant, dance-like finale. It deserves to be better known.

Each ‘major’ work is prefaced by one or other of the Preludes. This, Hamilton writes, was the ‘general custom’ in Chopin’s time and for about a century afterwards; they were ‘exquisite prefaces to longer pieces.’ Most listeners and concertgoers in 2020 will expect these Preludes to be played as a group or at least in a well-judged selection. I personally would listen to them in this manner and feel that all of them are worthy and work well as a cycle. The only exception to Hamilton’s ‘rule’ is the inclusion here of the Prelude in D flat major, op. 28 no. 15 ‘Raindrop’ (read torrential downpour) dating from Chopin’s stay in Valdemossa, Mallorca during January 1839. It is played as stand-alone piece, with no introductions.

I will give only a single example of Hamilton’s approach in practice. Included in the first volume of this project were the Piano Sonatas no.2, op.35 and no.3, op.58. These two major compositions account for more than half the CD’s duration and give a focal point for listening. In this latest disc, there is only one long work to get one’s teeth into, and that is the Polonaise-Fantasie, op.61 composed between the autumn of 1845 and the following summer. It is one of my least favourite pieces by Chopin but judging by the number of recordings available it retains its popularity amonst pianists.

This work is prefaced by short Prelude in E major, op.28, no.9 which was written some eight years earlier. In both these pieces Hamilton has restored the ‘uniform triplets’ and, in the Prelude, the double-dotting of the melody. Although these are vitally important details for the cognoscenti, I do wonder if the ordinary listener and even most Chopin enthusiasts will notice. I guess few will sit up and say, “Aha! That’s where my appreciation of this Prelude has been going wrong all this time” - and that is where I think the only problem lies with this disc. It is quite definitely designed for experts and ‘groupies’ of the composer. The nuanced interpretations all make for interesting and entertaining performances, but how many listeners, while enjoying this CD, will be following the scores with a notebook to hand, jotting down details of Hamilton’s reworking and editing of these pieces?

The liner notes, written by Kenneth Hamilton, are excellent and present the rationale for this disc. As noted in my review of the first CD in this project, the font is miniscule and puts off all but those with the sharpest eyesight from reading them. Fortunately, there is a .pdf copy available on the Prima Facie webpage. The only problem here is that the pages are out of order. Dates of these compositions (where known) are not given. I used Maurice J.E. Brown’s dated Chopin an Index of his Works in Chronological Order (1960) in my preparation of this review.

All these pieces are superbly played and whatever the editorial tinkerings may entail, they come off exceptionally well. It is to be hoped that Volume 3 of this project will soon be released. It will be interesting to see what ‘longer’ pieces are coupled with the remaining Preludes. Despite not being convinced that this is the best way to hear, enjoy and understand these miniatures, I think this is an interesting conceit which demands our attention.

John France
Prelude in C minor, op. 28 no. 20 (1:38)
Nocturne in C minor, op. 48 no. 1 (5:58)
Prelude in E minor, op. 28 no. 4 (1:44)
Waltz in A minor, op. 34 no. 2 (4:38)
Prelude in E major, op. 28 no. 9 (1:04)
Polonaise-Fantasie, op. 61 (13:03)
Prelude in B flat minor, op. 28 no. 16 (1:12)
Nocturne in E flat major, op. 55 no. 2 (4:36)
Prelude in D flat major (‘Raindrop’), op. 28 no. 15 (5:18)
Prelude in C sharp minor, op. 28 no. 10 (0:30)
Waltz in C sharp minor, op. 64 no. 2 (2:52)
Prelude in B flat major, op. 28 no. 21 (2:08)
Nocturne in E flat major, op. 9 no. 2 (4:20)
Prelude in F major, op. 28 no. 23 (1:00)
Brilliant Variations on the Rondo ‘Je vends des scapulaires’ from [Hérold’s] Ludovic, op. 12 (7:37)
Prelude in C major, op. 28 no. 1 (0:50)
Ballade No.1 in G minor, op.23 (8:42)

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