Performing Chopin

Beethoven: Sonata op. 57 ("Appassionata")

Discovering "L'altro Rossini": Young Meyerbeer's Semiramide

40 to the minim - a study of tempo in Puccini's "Turandot"

Revisiting Senta

How fast does the Dutchman fly?

The Descent from Mount Sinai

Slow movement in Rondo-Sonata form?

Beethoven: Sonata op. 2 no. 2

The Interrupted Feast

Performing Chopin

1. Scherzo no.3, op. 39
2. Tarentelle, op. 43        
                                           


1. Scherzo no.3, op. 39 

This monumental masterpiece is at once one of Chopin's most extraordinary creations and one which suffers more than any other large scale piece of his from bad performance tradition.

The first thing which strikes the listener is that the scherzo is from beginning to end totally and invariably "masculine" in character. Indeed, it has a virile character which makes it sound more like a Beethoven or a Brahms.  Even the most powerful Polonaises include some lyrical section in which Chopin's "feminine" style typical of the Nocturnes springs out. In the C sharp minor Scherzo there is no place for this kind of expression. The second lyrical theme has a solemn – one may say religious – character, which keeps its tone severe and austere just as the first theme. No other piece of Chopin (excluding the Etudes and especially the Preludes, which by definition are usually one-mood pieces) keeps this powerful manly character from beginning to end. Indeed, my piano teacher, Pnina Salzman, who studied with Cortot in Paris in the 30'ies and whose favourite composer was Chopin, disliked it and said that one needed not to be a chopinist in order to play it.

The fact that the general tone is kept for both themes makes Chopin use every other possible contrast to differentiate them – key, texture, dynamic and mood. Thus the first theme is in minor, bare octaves in fortissimo, rhythmic and dramatic in character, while the second is in major, with rich harmonies in piano, melodic and lyrical. He even uses a slightly slower speed for the second theme (which as always I do not define as a different Tempo). This creates a sonata-form like polarity, as many commentators have observed, which is brought to a conclusion near the end, when the minor of the first theme invades the second and leads to the dramatic coda in which its tragic tone prevails. The special feature of this Scherzo however remains in my opinion the fact that with all the contrasts existing within it, it keeps a monochromatic tone in its ever masculine energy.  Although I personally do not share Pnina Saltzman's above mentioned severe judgement, it does demonstrate a spontaneous reaction of a great Chopin interpreter and admirer to an untypical work of his.

As always, the first problem in the interpretation tradition is the exaggerated speed in which the Scherzo is played. It thus loses all its virility and power and the quite often complicated textures which at times tend to counterpoint are lost in a sand storm of noise and pedal. Morever, the first theme is usually played with a totally inappropriate rubato, slowing down on the first two notes (c sharp – a) and then rushing on the following quarters. This again is totally out of place for this rhythmic, powerful and manly theme. It should be played like any other similar theme by Brahms or Beethoven: solid, rhythmic and steady. 4 bars before the first theme begins Chopin write's risoluto. These bars are again usually played with a rubato, while it seems clear to me that the composer wishes to have a tempo giusto feeling after the usually acknowledged harmonic, but also rythmic uncertainty of the beginning.

Chopin's rubato usually springs out from his melodies, as in Italian opera singing. If there is such a melody in the first theme of the Scherzo, it is rather in the immediate piano response to the main octave theme. I would suggest a very slight rubato for these two comments following the octave theme, the first leading back to c sharp minor, the second – to e major. They have a more reflective character, especially in the context in which they appear – opposed to the risoluto character of the octaves. The tenuto which Chopin puts on the last g sharp of the octave theme seems to support this vision. It creates a brief moment of suspension from which the piano comments emerge.
The following contrapuntal writing is often lost in the hysteric speed usually adapted by pianists. Even when it can be clearly heard thanks to excellent technique, it lacks the space needed for expression, notably when it modulates to F sharp minor. The sequences leading back to the theme should be clearly distinguished both form what preceedes them and from what follows.

Regarding the second theme I can only join Anrdré Gide's words condemning any kind of difference of speed between the choral melody and the divine response which is not a pianistic passage, but a melodious diatonic descent formed by the upper voice in the right hand (B flat – A flat – G flat – F – E flat – D flat). It is similar in character to the last descending passages near the end of the Berceuse rather than to the A minor Etude op.25 no.11. This same speed should continue during the whole "development" section until the accelerando towards the return of the first theme, and it is only this speed which allows the beautiful harmonious sounds of the piano to ring above the bell-like basses in an expressive and magical way. The fact that Chopin wrote leggiero above this passage seems again to support this vision. It seem only logical that this indication was necessary because of the relatively slow speed of the passage. The composer's intention is therefore to keep the descent light while playing it at the same slower tempo  of the choral.
I again join Cortot in recommending the addition of the missing G flat in the last passage, obviously due to the limits of Chopin's piano.

The recapitulation of the first theme is one of the most beautiful variations conceived by Chopin. He transforms the weight to the even bars by accentuating the A, thus creating both a rhythmical and a harmonic "syncopation". It is resolved by the immediate repeat of the theme, in which the G sharp in the odd bars is accentuated. This beautiful detail is again completely lost in performances where the only preoccupation of the pianist is playing at the fastest tempo possible to demonstrate his octave technique. The result is no difference whatsoever between the first presentation of the theme and its recapitulation, in spite of the composer's creative and ingenious invention.
Considerable help for the interpreter could come from imagining the passage orchestrated, using strings and woodwinds for the theme, and horns, trumpets trombones and timpani for the A's and later the G sharp's. Especially the last A of the series, interwoven between the C sharps of the theme is very difficult to produce clearly on the piano. This is of course only an aid for the imagination of the pianist and is not by anyway meant to be realized actually on any occasion in an orchestral form. Technically speaking, changing the pedal before the A's and the G sharps for the first and second phrase respectively and keeping it for two bars helps achieve the right effect.

A last indication for the tempo of the scherzo, is to be found again in the structural conception of the piece, namely in the fact that the Coda is marked Tempo I. What one usually hears of course is a very fast coda, but which does not equal the speed of the first section. Indeed the beginning is played so fast that it would be impossible to play the coda at the same speed. I suggest nothing faster than 100 to the dotted half. This would be already very fast for the coda though possible and will allow the interpreter to respect the structure of this monumental architecture, giving him at the same time the space needed for expression.

Listen to my recording of the Scherzo

2. Tarentelle, op. 43

This work, like many others of Chopin, suffers from the terrific speed in which it is usually performed. Transformed into a mere challenge of dexterity and concentration, it loses the special melodic curves and harmonic colors which make it one of the most beautiful yet untypical creations of the composer's later period.
Moreover, the simple form of A-B-A is given here a special touch through the use of the indication più animato for the return of the A section. This speed is gradually reached by the preceeding poco a poco piú animato and pushed even further in the sempre più animato e crescendo of the coda. By raising the speed, Chopin gives the form a clear line, and adds a new coloring to the otherwise ordinary and therefore "transparent" structure. This change of speed (which I do not call a change of Tempo) goes along with the variation given to the A section by a delicate contrapuntal touch in the inner voices of the theme. Needless to say, enhancing of the speed towards the return of the theme and later in the coda is impossible at the tempo normally taken by pianists.

Not all music derived from dance should be performed at a speed which allows dancing. Most of Chopin's waltzes are a good example for that. As Belotti has observed, in whatever concerns dancing, they are usually "either too slow or too fast" . In the case of the Tarentelle however, I see no reason that it not be performed at a tempo in which it can also be danced. This is a piece very close to the dance itself, and apart from the beautiful treatment of the composer, in his own personal way, there is nothing here that aims to any kind of transfiguration of the dance, as one could say of Bach's suites or indeed, Chopin's Waltzes, Mazurkas and Polonaises. It may be compared – among many other possible examples – to the Furlana at the end of act I of Ponchielli's La Gioconda. This one has to be danced on stage obviously, and I see no reason why Chopin's Tarentelle should be taken even a little bit faster. As a general reference I would recommend the starting tempo as 138 to the dotted quarter, mounting to about 152 in the piú animato section, leaving space for the further acceleration in the coda. The Italian indication Presto does not mean as fast as you can, and as we know from Schumann's 2nd piano sonata in G minor, even such an indication should always leave the possibility for accelerating if it is required later in the movement. Pianists looking for impressive effects forget that playing an entire piece at a fast tempo is much less effective than a big accelerando towards its end, which is also a typical feature of Italian music as can be seen in many opera overtures and concertati.

Another idea for the tempo could come from the fastest limit in which Chopin's A flat Impromptu should be played. This light hearted piece can be played either at a more comfortable tempo, which gives it an elegant and lyrical character, or at a slightly faster one, which makes it more brilliant and playful. In my opinion both options are valid, although my personal tendency is of course towards the first one. However the initial tempo of the Tarentelle - which is related to the Impromptu by key and time signature, as well as by the pianistic writing – is for me exactly the same one as the faster tempo for the Impromptu.

The central episode which contains the most expressive harmonic and melodic moments of the piece (bars 84-116) requires the naturally subtle rubato, which it is usually given. However the usual ritenuto before the coda is to my taste totally out of place. The highly expressive pianistic and melodic descent on the Neapolitan chord towards the coda meets the g-flat in the melody on the tonic chord, which is a marvelous effect, combining at the same time surprise and a recurrence of a former theme. Slowing down just before the coda weakens the effect and makes it lose its spontaneity.

I admire Cortot's idea for the very last measures, which is playing the last musical phrase an octave higher on its repeat, as one can hear him doing in his studio recording of the piece. He sees the move of the left hand to the higher octave an indication for the right hand to do the same, impossible for Chopin because of the limit of the keyboard at the time. I find it coherent and effective both musically and pianistically and do not see in it any kind of betrayal of the composer's thought and intention.

The Tarentelle is obviously one of Chopin's strange creations. Even to the well acquainted listener, it would be hard to recognize the composer's hand print in it. And yet only Chopin could write such a splendid Tarentelle: we recognize him first of all in the elegance of the pianistic writing, in the modal harmonies, in the delicate contrapuntal touches and in the melodic lyricism which he cannot avoid even in a dance piece based principally on rhythm. Like the Berceuse taking the form of variation and transforming it into a new, original and unique example, the Tarentelle is an "alternative" essay in Chopin's beloved dance forms.

Read on Belotti's book "Chopin" in My Library

 

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