Chopin With A Polish Touch Nearly every classical pianist loves Chopin. But pianists from Poland have a special bond with the music of their countryman. NPR Music's Tom Huizenga and Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz spin great Chopin recordings by Polish pianists from 1917 up to today.
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Chopin With A Polish Touch

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Chopin With A Polish Touch


Chopin With A Polish Touch

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(Soundbite of song, "Waltz in C-Sharp Minor")

GUY RAZ, host:

We're hearing Chopin's "Waltz in C-Sharp Minor," the second word of his Opus 64. Tomorrow marks the 200th anniversary of Frederic Chopin's birth.

Now, here's the thing about him. Unlike Beethoven or Mozart or Bach, Chopin never composed a symphony. He never wrote an opera. He gave only about 30 public performances in his life, and he wrote almost exclusively for one instrument: the solo piano.

(Soundbite of song, "Waltz in C-Sharp Minor")

RAZ: Yet, Frederic Chopin is considered among the greatest composers of all time, including by NPR classical music producer Tom Huizenga. Do you?

TOM HUIZENGA: What's not to love about music like this?

RAZ: Good, I'm glad I got it right, and Tom is in the studio with me.


HUIZENGA: Thank you, great to be here again.

RAZ: Now, Tom, you've brought some of your favorite recordings of Chopin's work, and we're going to be hearing recordings by Polish-born pianists, which we'll get to in a moment.

But first, I wanted to ask you: Why is he considered among the greatest?

HUIZENGA: It is interesting that he didn't really behave by all the rules of the day, which said that you had to write operas, and you had to write symphonies and string quartets, but I think you can find all the drama of an opera and all the intimacy of chamber music like string quartets. I think you can find that all over in his music.

RAZ: And this piece that we're hearing, Tom, happens to be a recording done by Arthur Rubinstein, and he actually called Chopin a genius of universal appeal.

HUIZENGA: I think he hit the nail on the head. Listen, if you go out onto the street and say to someone: I'm giving you free tickets to a piano recital, and they're going to play Bach, or they're going to play Chopin, they're going to play Schumann, or they're going to play Chopin, I mean, I think people would say: I'll pick the Chopin recital.

RAZ: All right, Tom, let's listen to some of these pieces that you brought in. What's the first one that you're going to play for us?

HUIZENGA: Well, I thought we'd go chronologically through a number of Polish pianists, and I don't think you can talk about Polish pianists and Chopin without talking about Ignace Paderewski, who was not only a great pianist but also a great composer, and this recording is from 1917. So it's going to sound like bacon frying a little bit, but once your ear gets used to it, you'll find that the playing is quite wonderful.

(Soundbite of song, "Nocturne No. 5 in F sharp major")

HUIZENGA: And you know what else is interesting about Paderewski. Two years after this recording was made, he became the prime minister of the newly independent Polish republic. Paderewski was a bit of a star around Europe and the United States. He was always drumming up support for the Polish people. He signed the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. So he was not only a great pianists, he was also a great politician and was a friend of many heads of many heads of state around the world but kept on all the time with his playing.

RAZ: And so, in a sense, was Chopin sort of like a symbol of sort of Polish, you know, self-determination, in a way?

HUIZENGA: Well, of course, Poles love Chopin, and Chopin's father was French. And Chopin said goodbye to his country in the early 1830s, I think, and never actually came back. But many Poles hold on to him as a very special person, a very special musician whose music really says Poland, especially when he took different forms, Polish dances, like the mazurka, and took a rustic dance and made high art out of it.

(Soundbite of song, "Mazurka in F Sharp Minor")

RAZ: And that mazurka we're hearing, Tom, is by the great Arthur Rubinstein. Now, why did you pick this one?

HUIZENGA: Well, Arthur Rubinstein, I think that if they say that Chopin is the poet of the piano, then I think that Rubinstein is the poet of Chopin. He got into a major Chopin recording groove in the '50s and '60s, and many of Chopin's pieces and groups of pieces, like these mazurkas, I think that Rubinstein felt very close to the mazurkas as kind of a Polish form of music.

And I think something that's special about this particular performance and this mazurka, it points out something that you can find in many places in Chopin's music, which is fascinating to me, and that is this idea that the music sounds like it's off the cuff, and it couldn't be further from the truth.

Yes, it sounds that way, but Chopin meticulously, meticulously went over the music and over the music and crafted it in such a way that it sounds like it's improvised.

RAZ: Like a free-form jazz, almost, but every moment of this has been written down and been refined.

HUIZENGA: Exactly.

RAZ: It's meant to be played this way.

HUIZENGA: So this particular mazurka, it starts out with a very identifiable theme, and it's fine, and you think you know where it's going. Then the theme comes back about halfway through the piece. And then listen to this little stretch of music. You really, there's a theme, and then you really have no idea where it might be going.

(Soundbite of song, "Mazurka in F Sharp Minor")

RAZ: Next up, you brought something slightly more modern. This is from 1987, and this is one of Chopin's ballades.

(Soundbite of song, "Ballade for Piano No. 4 in F Minor")

HUIZENGA: Now, that is just a drop-dead-gorgeous, wistful little opening. It's the "Ballade No. 4 in F Minor," played by Krystian Zimerman. These ballades were longer pieces that Chopin wrote, in the, like, the eight to 12-minute range, and the structure of the piece, don't ask me to try to explain it because I have no idea what's going on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HUIZENGA: What is interesting is that these beautiful melodies flow in from different places. There's a little mini-fugue that shows up in this ballade. There are mysterious harmonies that show up, and then later in the piece, it heats up and heats up, and I dare say it just basically breaks out into violence, which is not a word that we usually know about with Chopin's music, but it gets hot and heavy.

(Soundbite of song, "Ballade for Piano No. 4 in F Minor")

HUIZENGA: Krystian Zimerman won the International Chopin Competition in 1975. Instead of, like, kind of launching a very glitzy career, he just kind of shut down, and he contacted Arthur Rubinstein and studied with him for a long period of time. Zimerman doesn't make many recordings, but when he does, they're fantastic.

(Soundbite of song, "Prelude No. 15 in D Flat Major")

RAZ: Tom, the last piece you brought us is from our current century. This was a recording made in 2005 by a very young pianist. Tell us about this piece.

RAZ: Well, we had a connection between Zimerman and Rubinstein. Now, there's a connection between this pianist - he's 24, his name is Rafal Blechacz - and a connection between him and Zimerman. So this chain of Polish pianists keeps being linked.

Blechacz won the International Chopin Competition in 2005, the last time it was held, and he swept the competition, all the top prizes. He was so far ahead of the pack, they didn't even award a second-place prize that year.

RAZ: And he was only 20 at the time.

HUIZENGA: He was 20 at the time, and when he won the competition, Zimerman sent him a letter of congratulations saying, hey, if you ever need me, I'm around. And they have formed a friendship now, and Blechacz is, I think, a pianist who, at a very young age, really feels Chopin's music very deeply, and I'm sure it's only going to become deeper as he ages.

His first record was of the 24 preludes that Chopin published in 1839, and I thought we'd listen to a little bit of the "Raindrop" prelude, which is the most popular one.

(Soundbite of song, "Prelude No. 15 in D Flat Major")

HUIZENGA: You kind of hear those raindrops in the left hand, this kind of drip, drop, drip, drop.

RAZ: That is Tom Huizenga. He is NPR's classical music producer.

Tom, thanks so much for walking us through some of these Chopin performances.

HUIZENGA: Oh, it's been a pleasure. Thanks.

RAZ: And you can hear full performances of the artists Tom's been playing at our Web site. That's

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