Liner Notes


ANDA, GÉZA (1921–1976) Hungarian, a pupil of Dohnányi, his youthful playing exhibited a freer and perhaps more artistic approach than was captured on later recordings.

ARRAU, CLAUDIO (1903–1991) Born in Chile just a few years after Rosita Renard, he studied in Germany with the same teacher, Liszt pupil Martin Krause, and went on to a long career and fame. The possessor of a remarkable tone, gold alloyed to bronze.

BACKHAUS, WILHELM (1884–1969) Born in Leipzig, the decisive influence of his life was his study with d’Albert. By 1909 he was already the echt Germanic musician, studying manuscripts and urtexts. It is a bit surprising that he had a fondness for Chopin’s etudes.

BARERE, SIMON (1896–1951) Born in Odessa, a phenomenal technician from the age of eleven, he studied with Essipova and Felix Blumenfeld. His death while playing a concerto at Carnegie Hall overshadowed his reputation as an artist for some years.

BARTÓK, BÉLA (1881–1945) The great Hungarian composer is not as famous as a pianist but had in fact placed second to Backhaus for the Rubinstein piano Prize in 1905. He studied piano with Liszt pupil Thoman. This incomplete recording was made shortly before World War II on a piece of recycled X-ray film.

BOLET, JORGE (1914–1990) Brought as a boy from his native Cuba to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, he had lessons with Rosenthal, Godowsky, and Hofmann, but it was the discipline instilled in him by David Saperton that formed his gigantic technique. He credited later-coaching with Abram Chasins for his luscious tone.

BRAILOWSKY, ALEXANDER (1896–1976) Born in Kiev of Polish background, he gave complete Chopin cycles between the two world wars. This Leschetizky pupil was not well served by recordings, only a few of which are faithful to his art. In person his tone was intimate and inviting.

BRAND, NATAN (1944–1990) He came to New York from Israel; his main teacher was Hofmann’s pupil Nadia Reisenberg. One of the last pianists unafraid to bring original conceptions to each of his performances, he was a throwback to the era of personal interpretation.

BUSONI, FERRUCCIO (1866–1924) An Italian who adopted German culture, he was an intellectual, and a unique interpreter; with Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, and Hofmann, one of history’s towering pianists. A composer of music some of which still seems beyond the public, in his day his Chopin interpretations were considered strange and controversial.

CHAPIRO, FANIA (1926–1994) Born in Indonesia of Russian/Dutch parents, she studied at the Paris Conservatory and enjoyed a modest career. She made her New York debut in 1949, when the Times wrote that the “gifted artist’s… playing possessed unusual charm.” Her few recordings reveal her as an estimable virtuoso and an individual artist.

CHERKASSKY, SHURA (1909–1995) Also born in Odessa, the foremost pupil of Josef Hofmann, whom at the start he shamelessly imitated, finding his own pianistic voice only after his teacher’s death. A favorite in England where he resided, he was one of the last pianists with a fabulous, romantic tone.

CIAMPI, MARCEL (1891–1980) Nephew of Liszt pupil Théodore Ritter, his main teacher was Louis Diémer. He taught at the Paris Conservatory longer than anyone else. His little-known recordings have rarely been reissued and are much treasured by collectors.

CORTOT, ALFRED (1877–1962) He studied at the Paris Conservatory with Chopin’s associate, Émile Descombes. Because of his embrace of the emerging phonograph, Cortot was one of the twentieth century’s most famous Chopin players, particularly associated with the ballades, etudes, and preludes. It is said that Rachmaninoff found his etudes “too musical.”

FEINBERG, SAMUEL (1890–1962) Perhaps the greatest of all Russian pianists after Anton Rubinstein and Rachmaninoff, he as several others presented here, was born in Odessa, where Jews were permitted to reside. His recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is a classic of the phonograph.

FOSTER, SIDNEY (1917–1977) Another pupil of David Saperton at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music; recordings of his concerts show he was an admirable artist and virtuoso who should have been better known.

FRIEDMAN, IGNAZ (1882–1948) A Polish pupil of Leschetizky, this colossal virtuoso was overshadowed in his day by several of his contemporaries, but as he made more recordings than the others, he is well-remembered as one of the giants of romantic piano playing. His Nocturne op. 55, no. 2 recording is almost universally admired and might just be the greatest Chopin recording ever made.

GENHART, CECILE STAUB (1899–1983) Actually born on the last day of the nineteenth century, her teachers included Edwin Fischer and Tobias Matthay, but it was her lessons with Busoni that most influenced her. In an autobiographical sketch she wrote “I am a nineteenth century musician.” A few non-commercial recordings survive.

GIESEKING, WALTER (1895–1956) Born in France of German parents, he became the foremost interpreter of French impressionistic piano music, his gradations of piano and pianissimo almost limitless. While not primarily a Chopin specialist, his few recordings of Chopin’s music are object lessons in romantic style.

GINZBURG, GRIGORY (1904–1961) He studied in Moscow with Alexander Goldenweiser and won fourth prize in the 1927 Warsaw Chopin Competition. His many recordings have only recently become widely available.

GODOWSKY, LEOPOLD (1870–1938) Born in Lithuania, almost completely self-taught, his more than 50 arrangements of the Chopin etudes brought piano technique to new heights. In front of the recording horn and microphone he tended to emotional restraint and in general his playing was not well served by the phonograph.

GOLDSAND, ROBERT (1911–1991) Born in Vienna, he studied with Moriz Rosenthal and his wife, Hedwig Kanner-Rosenthal. A Chopin specialist, one of the last romantic pianists, he spent most of his life in New York, where his beautiful playing was underappreciated.

GREEF, ARTHUR DE (1862–1940) Liszt’s Belgian pupil, he had lessons first with Louis Brassin. Despite the fact that his discography is fairly extensive and his playing distinctly personal and rewarding, his artistry is not widely known.

GRUNFELD, ALFRED (1852–1924) A salon pianist extraordinaire, this Czech artist studied with Kullak, later becoming the toast of Vienna. Something about his unique, velvety tone recorded particularly well during the infant days of the phonograph.

GULLER, YOURA (1895–1980) A child prodigy like almost all the artists presented here, she was born in Paris of Russian-Rumanian parents. Poor health prevented her from enjoying a more extensive career, but she made some remarkable appearances and recordings towards the end of her life.

HOFMANN, JOSEF (1876–1957) The only protégé of Anton Rubinstein, he is considered one of the four or five greatest pianists in history. Similar to Busoni in that his playing was unlike any else’s, he combined note perfection with imaginative, sometimes willful interpretations.

HOROWITZ, VLADIMIR (1903–1989) Born in Kiev, he became the pianist whose name was synonymous with fabulous technique in the twentieth century. His tone was not always ideal for Chopin, and his interpretive decisions sometimes bizarre, but he loved Chopin, played it often, and sometimes produced miracles of Chopin interpretation.

KAPELL, WILLIAM (1922–1953) The “great hope” of American pianists, whose life and career were cut short by a plane crash. Possessor of a sovereign technique and a gleaming tone, his commercial recording of mazurkas is devoid of charm, but this live performance shows better how he played in person.

KOCZALSKI, RAOUL VON (1884–1948) A Polish prodigy said to have played a thousand recitals by age twelve, he studied with Chopin’s assistant Mikuli. Living in Germany he had the opportunity to record much Chopin, his specialty. His two E-flat Nocturne recordings contains variant readings said to stem from Chopin through Mikuli.

KOLESSA , LUBKA (1902–1997) Born in L’viv, Ukraine but moved to Vienna at age two, where she studied with Sauer. Subsequent lessons with d’Albert influenced her greatly. In 1940 she settled in Canada, remaining there as an artist and teacher. Her few, important recordings await adequate transfer to CD.

LARROCHA, ALICIA DE (1923–2009) The Spanish mezzo-soprano Conchita Supervia took an interest in this prodigy and at one of her own recording sessions insisted that the engineers record the nine year old. De Larrocha’s legs were too short to reach the pedals so she accomplished the legato with her fingers alone.

LEVITZKI, MISCHA (1898–1941) A Russian prodigy sent to study with Michalowski, subsequently to Paderewski’s pupil Stojowski, and finally Dohnányi, he was touring the world before age twenty. More a salon artist than a titanic interpreter, his gentle personality, beautiful tone, and exquisite playing were prematurely stilled by a heart attack at age forty-two.

LEWENTHAL, RAYMOND (1923–1988) A pupil of Samaroff and Cortot, Lewenthal almost single-handedly was responsible for reestablishing the music of Alkan in the repertoire. He was one of the last exponents of romantic playing. Personal problems prevented a more extensive career but a number of valuable recordings remain of his recitals.

LHÉVINNE, JOSEF (1874-1944)A fellow student at the Moscow Conservatory with Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, he was much influenced by Anton Rubinstein’s playing. A long-time teacher at New York’s Juilliard School, he was an astonishing bravura player but not as comfortable in slower, poetic works.

LIBETTA, FRANCESCO (b. 1968) An original personality and artist with a gigantic technique, this Italian virtuoso is one of the most astounding keyboard artists of the last several generations; the composer Ligeti wrote that his playing was “absolutely gorgeous.” His mastery of Godowsky’s paraphrases on the Chopin etudes is unparalleled.

LIPATTI, DINU (1917–1950) His early death from leukemia robbed the world of one of the greatest pianists of the day. Born in Rumania, he studied with Cortot in Paris. His musicality and artistry were combined with crystal-clear pianism and a self-effacing attitude that perfectly fit the developing new aesthetic of performance.

LOESSER, ARTHUR (1894–1969) A student of Stojowski, one of the most notable romantic pianists ever turned out of the Juilliard School. Choosing to be a big fish in the small pond of Cleveland, Ohio, he was equally talented as a literary figure—his book “Men, Women and Pianos” remains a rewarding and hefty classic.

MANSHARDT, THOMAS (1927–2009) Another throwback, he grew up in the India of the Raj and continued to bypass the twentieth century when he became one of the last pupils of Cortot. This live performance is probably closer to the way pianists played 15 decades ago than any other presented here.

MICHALOWSKI, ALEXANDER (1851–1938) Polish, a student of Moscheles, Reinecke, and Tausig, he coached with Chopin’s pupil Mikuli when he was forty, but it is unclear that this changed his approach to his playing, one of the oldest styles captured by recordings. He taught scores of Polish pianists.

MOISEIWITSCH, BENNO (1890–1963) Born in Odessa but British by adoption, he was one of the towering poetic voices among pianists of his day, admired by Rachmaninoff and Hofmann. His studies with Leschetizky brought out his rare individuality and artistry.

NOVAES, GUIOMAR (1895–1979) At the age of fourteen she prevailed over 400 contestants for a place to study with Philipp at the Paris Conservatory, astounding Debussy and Fauré. During her long career she played with imaginative personality and one of the most transcendent piano tones ever recorded.

OHLSSON, GARRICK (b. 1948) Winner of the Chopin Competition in 1970, he has recorded the complete works of Chopin and often plays all-Chopin recitals. His championing of the Busoni Piano Concerto was a pianistic highlight of recent decades.

ORLOFF, NIKOLAI (1892–1964) He studied with Igumnov at the Moscow Conservatory and privately with Taneyev, moving to London after the Russian Revolution. As with Moiseiwitsch, Rachmaninoff and Hofmann both thought highly of his playing. His few recordings reveal a major Chopin player.

PABST, PAUL (1854–1897) It was thought that this virtuoso Liszt pupil had not recorded until the recent discovery of the Julius Block cylinders (see: Marston 53011-2: The Dawn of Recording.) Inscribed in February 1895, these are the earliest surviving recordings of Chopin’s music.

PACHMANN, VLADIMIR DE (1848–1933) Perhaps the most renowned Chopin specialist ever, his style harkens back to the Hummel school, although it was Liszt and his emphasis on individuality of expression that had the greatest role in shaping Pachmann’s playing. Godowsky considered him unique and supreme among all pianists.

PADEREWSKI, IGNACE JAN (1860–1941) The most renowned pianist after Liszt, for decades the embodiment of Polish majesty, famed for his personality and dedication to Poland.  By the time he first recorded, his playing had begun to deteriorate, but this mazurka shows his temperament and artistry.

PLANTÉ, FRANCIS (1839–1934) A pupil of Marmontel, he was recorded just before his ninetieth birthday. His style was formed while Chopin was alive, although the early electrical recording process does not seem to have captured much of his tone. At the end of the etude one can hear him say “bien.”

RACHMANINOFF, SERGEI (1873–1943) A pupil of Siloti and Sverev in his native Russia, hearing Anton Rubenstein was the defining influence on his pianism. He moved to the west in 1918 and became a recitalist noted for persuasive interpretations. After Busoni’s death, his playing was comparable to that of his friend Hofmann’s as the greatest of the age.

RENARD, ROSITA (1894–1949) Born in Santiago, Chile, she studied with Liszt pupil Martin Krause. An impulsive virtuoso with fiery temperament and an astonishing technique, she was also, paradoxically, a simple and deeply religious person. These excerpts from her only Carnegie Hall recital were recorded four months before her death.

ROSENTHAL, MORIZ (1862–1946) Born of Polish parents but formed by Germanic culture, his first teacher was Mikuli. He became the Liszt pupil with the most transcendent technique after Tausig, but it was Anton Rubinstein’s playing that most influenced his art. He didn’t develop the poetic side of his playing until late, fortunately just before he recorded.

RUBINSTEIN, ARTHUR (1887–1982) Perhaps the most satisfying Chopin specialist of the recent past, his great career was long in developing; he didn’t take first place until after the death of other pianists presented here. Never a probing interpreter, healthy playing combined with an attractive public personality sufficed, and coincided with the newly emerging aesthetic.

RUDGE, ANTONIETTA (1884–1974) Almost unknown outside her native Brazil until recently when some of her recordings were released. Her first lessons were with her mother, then with Gabriel Giraudon and Luigi Chiffarelli. She was the first Brazilian pianist to achieve fame in Europe, but health problems curtailed her career.

RUMMEL, WALTER MORSE (1887–1953) Son of a famous pianist and grandson of the inventor of the telegraph, he was a Godowsky pupil who was close to Debussy. His playing as captured on recordings has a mysterious, compelling power; his life as recounted by biographer Charles Timbrell was apparently a fantastic romantic adventure.

SAPERTON, DAVID (1889–1970) Born David Sapirstein in Pittsburgh, he was always overshadowed by his father-in-law Godowsky and his boss at the Curtis Institute of Music, Hofmann. A remarkable virtuoso in his own right, his early recordings of Chopin’s etudes are some of the best recorded performances.

SAUER, EMIL VON (1863–1942) Another Liszt pupil who was influenced by Anton Rubinstein’s playing, he was born in Germany and studied with Anton’s brother Nicholas in Moscow before going to Liszt. An elegant virtuoso with a personal style, he enjoyed a full career and love-life. His recordings are classics.

SCHARRER, IRENE (1895–1971) More of a virtuoso than her fellow Matthay student Myra Hess, she rescued the Scherzo of Litolff’s 4th Concerto from obscurity. In 1927 Boston critic H.T. Parker wrote: “Her felicities of touch were endless and each was like a flowering of Chopin’s speech.”

SCHEIN, ANN (b. 1939) Trained in her native United States, she studied with both Mieczyslaw Munz and Arthur Rubinstein. Her first recordings, made when she was nineteen, established her as one of the premiere Chopin pianists of our time.

SCHNABEL, KARL ULRICH (1909–2001) Son of Arthur Schnabel and contralto Therese Behr, he studied piano with Leonid Kreutzer and Paul Juon in Berlin. Perhaps surprisingly, he was fascinated by Chopin’s Third Scherzo.

SMETERLIN, JAN (1892–1967) Polish born, a Godowsky pupil. Like Gieseking he was a strapping man whose size belied his exquisite art. In 1936 the Chicago Tribune’s Edward Barry reported “ … he achieved the most ravishing effect of which the piano is capable, that complete disassociation of sound from the mechanical means by which it is produced.”

SOFRONITSKY, VLADIMIR (1901–1961) Born in Russia, his family moved to Poland when he was three, where he studied with Michalowski. In 1916 he began studies at the Petrograd Conservatory and eventually married his fellow student, Scriabin’s daughter Elena. Only twice did he venture outside of the Soviet Republic.

SOLOMON [CUTNER] (1902–1988) An English-born prodigy, he stopped playing in his teens and went to live and study with Mathilde Verne, a Clara Schumann pupil who, it is said, abused him. He dropped his second name, resumed concertizing, and first recorded in 1929. His career was cut short by a stroke in 1956.

SVETLANOV, EVGENY (1928–2002) Taught in his native Moscow, he worked primarily as a conductor, often outside Russia, so that he was eventually fired from his post at the Russian State Symphony because of absenteeism. His recordings of Chopin are little known.

TAGLIAFERRO, MAGDA (1890 or 1893–1986) Born in Brazil on a still-undetermined date, she studied in Paris with Cortot and Marmontel, and was particularly associated with composers Reynaldo Hahn and Fauré. In 1983, looking very glamorous, she gave a superb recital in Carnegie Hall.

VILLA, JOSEPH (1948–1995) Studies at the Juilliard School were supplemented with lessons with Arrau and Hofmann’s pupil Olga Barabini. Romantic by nature, specializing in Liszt, he has become a legend among pianophiles. This mazurka was recorded at his last concert, a private gathering at the home of his friend Jessye Norman.

WILD, EARL (1915–2010) Truly the last pianist trained in the grand romantic tradition, he studied with Barere and Petri. His transcriptions of Rachmaninoff songs are among the best ever penned.

ZADORA, MICHAEL VON (1882–1946) An American of Polish background who studied first with Leschetizky and then became student, disciple, and prophet of Busoni. He had a beautiful tone and romantic, personal style, but the misfortune to be overshadowed by his many colleagues whose art was ever greater.

© Gregor Benko, 2010

A Note from Ward Marston and Gregor Benko

The producers are aware that this compilation will surprise many and disappoint some. First will come cries that “they left out my favorite!”—Cziffra, or Horszowski or perhaps Richter. Later, dismissals will come from those who have other ideas of how Chopin should be played. To those who find the first fault we tender our regrets—the ideal set, with space for all the pianists who could rightly be included, with multiple versions of individual works, would have required two dozen CDs.

In selecting these 65 pianists in 90 Chopin performances, spanning the 108 years between 1895 and 2003, our first consideration was not to “pack” the set with our personal favorites, nor to give a lion’s share to any of that handful of pianists who were history’s towering Chopin interpreters. We worked hard to find a balance between familiar phonograph classics and relatively unknown but striking performances. While some, perhaps even many, of these performances are in our opinions the “best” or “greatest” ever recorded, others were chosen for historical reasons: certainly there are better versions of the Op. 10, No. 7 Etude than Planté’s, recorded when he was eighty-nine, but it is a fact that his performing style was already formed while Chopin was alive; the celebrated Chopinist Arthur Rubinstein never recorded Chopin’s etudes, but continued playing a few of them into his old age; Emil Sauer’s style was formed by Anton Rubinstein and Liszt, and he was nearing eighty when his “Ocean” Etude was recorded. The earliest surviving recording of Chopin’s music, Pabst’s 1895 cylinder of the E Major Nocturne, though incomplete, helps to illustrate what rubato actually meant to pianists born in the shadow of Chopin’s memory. The Nocturne with Bartók and the Third Sonata Largo movement with Rosenthal are both radio broadcast performances, imperfectly captured with the recording running out of time before the performances had ended.

We have included more than 20 live performances, which together help illustrate the fact that the recording process itself has some responsibility for stifling personal freedom of interpretation, with the resultant deadening of music: one need only compare Rosenthal’s studio recording of the Third Sonata Largo with this one, fortuitously taken off the air in England by an amateur with a home disc cutter. Or Kapell’s stiff studio-recorded mazurkas with this gleaming live one. The audience’s misplaced applause before the coda of the F Minor Ballade with Bolet has been retained because it somehow heightens the palpable excitement in the hall that night.

We wanted to include at least one complete set of Chopin’s works, compiled from both live and studio-recorded examples, classics and unknown, and chose the etudes. Here, the set of 27 etudes played by 25 pianists. What Chopin intended—certainly not for any one pianist to sit down and play the complete group—was very much in mind when we made this selection. There is overwhelming evidence that the composer intended his works to be played in a personal style suited to each individual performer, with less emphasis on note-perfect execution or absolute fidelity to the text. Today we are further from Chopin than any musician could have imagined before World War II. But while romantic performance is endangered, it is not yet extinct. Three distinctly personal performances included in this compilation are by living pianists—Francesco Libetta, Garrick Ohlsson and Ann Schein.

Please note that although several recordings in this set contain departures from score, this is not a freak show—these were sincere expressions by respected artists playing in the style in which they were trained, often by Chopin’s pupils and disciples. One benefit to us today is that performances in this style are infinitely rewarding musically, so the compilation can be used mainly for pleasure, as well as a source of stylistic truth. Sensitive hearers will find many of the performances great artistic treasures; each is also another piece of evidence for the necessity of a performer with individual personality to successfully manifest Chopin’s magic.

Gregor Benko and Ward Marston, 2010

Producers’ note: Two items were found among the papers of the great “piano critic” Harold C. Schonberg (1915–2003) that we have chosen to include. The first consists of notes for an article he was writing about Chopin interpretation in 1952; the second is an excerpt from a private letter he wrote in 1997 after deciding to never again act as a piano competition juror.

Notes for an Article on Chopin Interpretation

Here is Mozart writing, in 1777: “What these people cannot grasp is that in tempo rubato in an Adagio, the left hand should go on playing in strict time. With them, the left hand always follows suit.” And here is C. P. E. Bach, in his The True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, a book written around 1750. Bach is writing about performance: attack, time values, accentuations and the like. “This brings us to the tempo rubato,” he says, and goes on to describe its problems-how to give all notes of the same value exactly the same duration, how one hand must play against the bar and the other with the bar (which Mozart later echoed). “Proper execution of this tempo,” continues C. P. E., “demands great critical faculties and a high order of sensibility. . . . However, practice alone will be of no help here, for without a fitting sensitivity, no amount of pains will succeed in contriving a correct rubato. As soon as the upper part begins slavishly to follow the bar, the essence of the rubato is lost, for then all other parts must be played in time. Most keyboard pieces contain rubato passages.” (Italics added.)

The amazing thing is that C. P. E. and Mozart had much the same conception of rubato that the romantics and moderns were to have. In the severe words of the Harvard Dictionary of Music, rubato is a term “that denotes a certain elasticity and flexibility of tempo consisting of slight accelerandos and ritardandos which alternate according to the requirements of the musical expression.” Chopin said much the same thing: “The left hand is the conductor; it must not waver or lose ground; do with the right hand what you will and can.” This statement was written down by Wilhelm von Lenz, who also quoted Chopin as saying, “Supposing that a piece lasts a given number of minutes; it may take just so long to perform the whole, but in the details deviations may occur.” And Liszt put it a little more flamboyantly in his well-known definition: “Do you see these trees? The wind plays in the leaves, life unfolds and develops beneath them, but the tree remains the same. That is the Chopin rubato.” According to Jean Kleczynski, Liszt also described the Chopin rubato as “agitation,” saying that “All the compositions of Chopin should be played observing the rules of accentuation and prosody, but with a certain agitation, the secret of which those who have never heard the master find it difficult to fathom.”

It was Chopin, of course, who in his piano playing specialized in the rubato and gave it more prominence than it ever before had. Under his fingers it was, in those days, a strange and awesome phenomenon. Musicians of the old school had much trouble getting acclimated to it; some never did; whereas a Bach or Mozart rubato caused them no trouble at all. Most of the difficulty was Chopin’s exaggerated (to their ears) distortion of the rhythm. But Chopin’s rubato was largely an idiosyncrasy stemming from his national background. The mazurka, the polonaise—those were unusual, exotic rhythms, as Chopin conceived them; and in his own performances he gave them very free treatment. He also saw to it that his students followed suit.

Well known is the run-in Chopin had with Meyerbeer. It was described by von Lenz. Seems that von Lenz was taking a lesson with Chopin, and was playing a mazurka when Meyerbeer strolled in. “That is two-four time,” said Meyerbeer. Chopin beat out the rhythm, then counted it aloud. Meyerbeer still maintained that it was two-four. “’It is three-four,’ almost screamed Chopin, and played it himself. He played it several times, counted aloud, and stamped the time with his foot—he was beside himself! It was of no use, Meyerbeer insisted that it was two-four, and they parted in ill humor. But Meyerbeer was not being pig–headed. Contemporary musicians simply found Chopin’s beat hard to count. The young Charles Hallé, who was studying in Paris, had the opportunity to hear Chopin very often. In 1845 or 1846 he told Chopin that most of his mazurkas, when played by himself, appeared to be written not in three-four but in four-four time, “the result of his dwelling so much longer on the first note in the bar. He denied it strenuously, until I made him play one of them and counted audibly four in the bar, which fitted perfectly. Then he laughed and explained that it was the national character of the dance which created the oddity.”

It worked the other way, too. When Chopin played a piece in four-four time, Hallé reported that there always was a three-four feeling. Hallé, incidentally, took his life in his hands when he told Chopin about his rhythms. Surprising that he did not get his head bitten off. It was not until later that he learned about the quarrel between Chopin and Meyerbeer on this very subject. The Polish composer was always very touchy about his music and his pianism. Hallé sums up Chopin’s playing with a comment about its most remarkable feature: “the entire freedom with which he treated the rhythm, but which appeared so natural that for years it had never struck me.”

This is interesting. Under Chopin’s magic fingers, his four-four mazurkas undoubtedly sounded subtle and natural. But any pianist who tried it today would be laughed off the stage. Even Josef Hofmann, that great possessor of an instinctively flawless rubato, never tried anything so outré. Our entire philosophy of the rubato has changed, these days; the romantic rubato is out of fashion. With the advent of post-World War I neo-classicism, we adhere to a much stricter notion of note values. Is it in the score? we ask. And thus the romantic rubato is not only looked down upon, but it is completely misunderstood by the post-Hofmann-Gabrilowitsch-Rosenthal-Friedman group of younger pianists.

That is the main reason why there is so little good Chopin playing today. Who now before the public employs a subtle, natural rubato? Rubinstein; Novaes. . . A good deal of thought is necessary before additional names can be added. Unhappily, there can be no really evocative Chopin playing without the subtlest of rubatos; and, equally unhappily, the current idea of rubato only too often involves actual distortion of note values instead of the delicate, proportional relationships and adjustments that are the ideal. Harvey Grace once wrote an indignant piece in the Musical Times, protesting about this “robbery with violence,” and citing chapter and verse where certain pianists would make an eighth note out of a quarter, or a series of galloping couplets from a simple triplet figuration. Were he alive today he would really hear some hop-skip-jump piano playing in the name of rubato.

It is a shame because, when properly and tastefully handled, the rubato is an invaluable adjunct to all music–vocal and orchestral as well as instrumental. It adds tension and interest to the melodic line without distorting it. A good rubato is the equivalent of the variation in line in a Degas pencil drawing, a variation that emotionally varies and heightens the composition in a slight but altogether necessary manner. Not that Degas thought consciously about his variation in line. He didn’t, any more than a great pianist consciously thinks about his variation in a melodic line. But this is over-simplification. Put it this way: both artist and pianist have spent years of practice to achieve the technique where they can instinctively set forth their ideas with complete freedom, yet in accordance with certain rules of taste; and, by the force of their artistry and personality (cf. Chopin with his four-four mazurka) they can make their ideas valid. But that instinctive reaction to taste, form and proportion must be there to begin with. I am inclined to agree with old C. P. E. Bach. Tempo rubato cannot be taught, it must be felt; and no amount of practice alone is ever going to substitute the artificial for the real.

May 17, 1997
Private Letter

“Of course there are many ways to play Chopin. I was a judge at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw two years ago. It was the worst competition I ever attended. Of the 128 pianists, I thought only one had the required skills, and he did not win. As a species of idiocy, the competition rules set a world-class standard. In the first round we had to listen to 128 pianists in a 20-minute program in which he or she had to play one of the Ballades and three etudes....

After the finals we retired for a discussion session. The head of the jury, Jan Ekier, dismissed the efforts of the one good pianist. This, he said, was not ‘the true Chopin style.’

I saw red, and grabbed the microphone.

‘Mr. Ekier,’ I said, ‘I think I know something about the Romantic style. But what is the true Chopin style? Is the true Chopin style represented by the Polish pianist Paderewski, with his poor technique, exaggerated rubatos and constant tempo shifts? Or is it represented by the Polish pianist Hofmann, whose style was pure, simple and if anything, classic? Or the Polish pianist Friedman, with the exuberance and rhythmic freedom you all admire? Or the Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein, with his unaffected, warm, very literal approach? Tell me, what is the true Chopin style?’


‘Well, that was yesterday. Today is today.’


Anyway, my competition days are over. When I am invited, I cite my poor eyesight. So, they say, if your ears are OK (they are) what difference does it make. My answer is that concert-giving has something to do with appearance, transmission, charisma. And if I cannot see the stage, I have no business being a judge...”

Chopin and Luxury

Luxury, from his earliest days to the end of his life, attracted Chopin. He throve on it. Luxury fed his imagination and inspired him to create music of unsurpassed luxuriousness. More than Moscheles, Weber, Dussek, Field, and Hummel, Chopin explored the resources of the developing pianos of his day through resources of the imagination, which were his alone and more extensive than any other’s. This exploration resulted in the creation of new territory—nay, of fabulous landscapes—for future generations to admire, to plumb—with melodies rivaling those of the bel canto operas which captivated him, harmonies from beyond the boundaries of what then was theoretically possible, rhythms so subtle that their exact notation proved impossible.

As a child, Chopin passed more than six years of his life in a wing of Warsaw’s Saski Palace. He was taken by carriage to the Belvedere Palace to play with Grand Duke Constantin’s son and to perform for the Empress Maria Feodorovna.? As he and his genius grew, he came to know the palaces, salons, and personalities of Poland’s wealthy aristocrats—the Czartoryskis, Potockis, Radziwills, Sapiehas, Skarbeks, Zamoyskis—and those families knew him. They coddled the boy and encouraged and promoted the teenager. His eyes drank in their gilded boiseries, walls lined with shining silks, elaborately carved furnishings, glamorous gowns and jewelry, prestigious uniforms glittering with medals. A gold watch given him by the singer Angelica Catalani began Chopin’s association of luxury with celebrity. Then Chopin became a celebrity himself. A celebrity used to luxury.

Paris, where Chopin settled, outshone Warsaw in every respect. The array of wondrous talents in writing, painting, and opera knew no precedent, as was true of the concentration of wealth and of its display through lifestyles of glittering sumptuousness. Accustomed as he had been since childhood to association with outstanding personalities in palatial environs, Chopin had little problem acclimating himself to the new milieu of artistic and social intercourse. His calling cards were a polished personality and a body of highly individual music which—when he played it—projected its novel beauty instantaneously, magically. While in his teens and virtually by himself, Chopin had assimilated the elaborate pianism of the older generation and had begun its transformation into a new expressive medium. Apart from the evidence of his scores, there is no way to know how he did it—no entries in a diary, no letters addressing the subject, no accounts by contemporaries. Moving from the startling accomplishment of his Variations, Op. 2, with its lavish display of fingerish techniques, to the greater phenomena of his concerti and of his earliest etudes and nocturnes, the young man’s music embraced the public and began the seduction of its ears. When Chopin’s folkloric mazurkas, aristocratic polonaises, and elegant waltzes were heard and made available in music shops along with the first of the path-breaking scherzi and ballades, no cerebral hymen remained intact.

The luxurious lubricity which allowed Chopin to seduce Paris through music at and through the piano was taste—the absence of vulgarity—at its most refined. While others tossed off craftsman-like tinseled trinkets for the keyboard, the diminutive Polish émigré seemed to strew pearl-encrusted valuables. Operatically inflected lines of diatonic melody, which many felt to be Chopin’s primary means of entry into listeners’ consciousness, were treated to ornamentation of unsurpassed grace. Using the damper pedal to link tones deep in the bass with harmonies above and on to melodies in the soprano register and embellishments in the high treble, Chopin coaxed into resonance the entire range of his piano. Genius allowed him to go further, however, by so integrating the tiny notes of appoggiaturas, acciaccaturas, turns, trills, and scalar passages into the melodic stream that they sing indispensably. Remarkable enough in the early, dreamy nocturnes, this achievement was carried over into fleet pieces in which there is melody only of continuous ornamentation. Even so, ears in the 1830s could perceive melody in the flurries of notes, people’s consciousness could follow the ideas and their minds recall them. The imprint resulted then as it has ever since from repetition and variation which bass-line-generated harmonies support in progressions never before imagined and via rhythmic schemes, which propel the music into life. In fact, it is the semblance of life which constitutes the composer’s art-in-time, and it can be experienced from the performance of a small mazurka as well as of a grand ballade. In every piece whatever its form, Chopin reminds us, Life feels like this.

Works of art, generally, are considered to be luxuries. They can be costly, particularly if by an acknowledged master. Once a painting is displayed on a wall or a sculpture placed in a space, it can be savored for the rich experience it provides the viewer who may be the guest of a collector, the visitor to a gallery exhibition, or the sightseer at a museum installation. The sources of pleasure, comfort, challenge, status, prestige, or some other state of being, paintings and sculpture are objects in the real world, as precious as the market allows. We confront them with no intermediary unless we read about them or hear someone speak on their behalf. Their affect can be immediate. As objects they do not change. Viewers can encounter them repeatedly and their stimuli are always the same.

Works of musical art such as Chopin’s exist differently.

A manuscript from the hand of the composer reveals tremendous efforts at precision. Chopin’s ink on staff paper shows us only notes and how they relate to each other in a metric scheme, to each other as lines. Indications of articulation and dynamics, even pedaling, appear along with words relating to mood and tempo. Chopin crossed out errors so thoroughly that they cannot be read. What can be seen is, therefore, what he meant at the time he finished. After engraving by a music publisher and proofreading by the author, the score was printed and placed in the market at a fixed price that was determined by factors quite apart from the content of the work, say, rather by the number of pages and the cost of production. The cost of a printed score, regardless of the greatness or the slightness of the music it represents, could be borne by anyone. What the purchaser bought, of course, was Chopin’s elaborate symbolic scheme upon which an interpretation had to be based in real time, since music as an art exists only as sound in time. The role of the performer is crucial to the esthetic experience. In Chopin’s case, extraordinarily so.

From critical notices and unimpeachable eye-witness accounts, we know that Chopin never played a work exactly the same way from one occasion to another, that his expressive rhythm was more nuanced, more pliant than any other pianist’s, that his touch produced tone of inimitable beauty on the Pleyels and Erards of his day and that the result was always the casting of a spell upon his audience. The scores, ever unchanging, bore no information about how such variety of results might be obtained. When the interpreter was the composer, a pianist without peer, there could be no question of regarding the esthetic experience as authentic. It was the uniqueness of each performance that hearers of Chopin cherished. As his performances in public were rare and those in private privileged to circles frequented by fellow artists and the cream of society, Chopin’s interpretations became the material upon which legends were constructed. Because the income from his compositions was eaten up by his worldliness—a sequence of ever more fashionable, expensive apartments, large bills for his elegantly tailored clothing, and the high cost of his stylish carriage—Chopin had to teach. He made of this necessity a fashionable, profitable pleasure, an extension of the salon, which attracted titled ladies aplenty. His teaching was as ardent as it was detailed, many scores having survived from those periods of study with clarifying instructions and—in his hand—indications for changes to the text. If Chopin had in mind an urtext, then why do five versions of a single waltz exist in finished form? That Chopin’s ideas about a piece could differ greatly from conception to publication is evidenced by the original draft of his Etude, Op. 10, No. 3 marked Vivace ma non troppo. On publication, he headed the piece Lento ma non troppo. Thus it appears that Chopin the composer considered his printed music as something which fixed the history of a piece, whatever it may have been in his mind earlier, to that new point. And it is a certainty that the interpreters whom he guided were taught how to bring to life his music by transcending the mere appearance of the page. To a student who had slavishly adhered to the printed markings in one of his nocturnes, Chopin said, But it’s not that at all—and played it completely differently. To the brilliant Carl Filtsch, who at fourteen was playing the Concerto in E Minor which Chopin had started at nineteen and finished at twenty, Chopin said, We each understand this music differently, but go your own way, do it as you feel it, it can also be played like that.

Here is part of what he told Émilie von Gretsch: When you are at the piano I give you full authority to do whatever you want; follow freely the ideal you’ve set for yourself and which you must feel within you; be bold and confident in your own powers and strength, and whatever you say will always be good. It would give me so much pleasure to hear you play with complete abandon…

Another student recounted: He made me practice first of all constantly varying the attack of one single note, and showed me how he could obtain diverse sonorities from the same key, by striking it in 20 different ways. Chopin’s prismatic range of color through the control of piano tone was no happy accident, it was a developed, qualitative necessity to the performance of his music.

To everyone he reiterated: Suppleness above all—of the body, of the mind. No pedant he.

More than a century and a half have passed since Chopin died. Pianists’ play a higher percentage of his total output than of any other composer, and the public worldwide continues to respond to his music. It is my contention, however, that our response today is different, and that Chopin’s ideas about rendering scores into sound have survived better on paper than in practice, particularly in recent decades.

Rampant ignorance of Chopin’s interpretive style has brought us to the point that the printed score has become sacrosanct to performers, along with much-touted objectivity that has eradicated differences of approach. Technique has become a function of the metronome, not of the solution of musical problems. Many teachers have taught, and competition jurors have confirmed, criteria which obviate Chopin’s expectation that personal perspective be made manifest through tonal beauty, polyphonically inflected contrapuntal lines and buoyant, subtle rhythm. Lost largely, the luxury of affect, which for Chopin was a normal thing. Gone as well, the magic.

Thus, this album—a cornucopian selection of performances, some live, unedited and unfamiliar, all of which reflect one, two or all of the qualities which Chopin deemed to be crucial. Arguably the best known recording here belongs to Friedman: Harold Schonberg, in The Great Pianists, considered it to be “the most beautiful, singing, perfectly proportioned performance of a Chopin Nocturne ever put on records.” In private he said, “It may be the single most beautiful recording ever made of anything.” Vladimir Horowitz paid homage to Friedman’s interpretation by copying it, a rendition that may be heard in his Sony album The Last Recordings. Connoisseurs of historic piano records already know the Rosenthal, Cortot, Backhaus, Planté, and Renard performances of individual etudes as they do Busoni’s nocturne and Paderewski’s mazurka. These can be marveled at along with Hofmann’s much laurelled Larghetto (Concerto in F Minor), Gieseking’s refined Berceuse, the vigorous polonaises by Solomon and Friedman, and the tantalizing Pachmann nocturne. That items as precious as these were once available scattered over multiple releases meant that they could not have the cumulative effect they have here. And, to their standards are added a great bounty of other freely imaginative performances that, generally speaking, the world has not had the luxury to know.

Moiseiwitsch’s unissued 1939 barcarolle stands at the head of the list, more elevated an expression of this music than his 1941 recording that was issued. Along with it comes Lhévinne’s “Thirds” Etude from a radio broadcast, with its emphases of phrasing that place it in a category of rarified difference from the commercial release, which can be heard elsewhere. Particularly treasurable are the ballades by Wild and Bolet, flashing with narrative drama, pushing the limits of the musically possible yet remaining within the bounds of Chopin’s realm. Brand, Scharrer, and Karl Ulrich Schnabel treat their scherzi similarly, with Schnabel reaching such spontaneity that he seems to be composing the piece before us. Where tonal resource is revealed as key to the music’s communicative expression there are the glowing nocturne of Bartók, the exquisitely poised preludes of Levitzki and Novaes, whose 469 same-note raindrops are continually individualized, and the nocturne of Libetta, a study in the hypnotic power of flawlessly sustained, matched tones. Each represents perfection of intent and realization through tone. There being no tone without touch, it is all the more remarkable to hear Alicia de Laroccha as a child, whose feet could not reach the pedals, sustaining the cantabile line and supporting accompaniment of a nocturne entirely by fingertips. The spirit of Terpsichore, as Chopin knew her, is evoked through a group of ineffable mazurkas played for us quite freshly by Brailowsky, Kolessa, Feinberg, Sofronitsky, Kapell, Rudge, Guller, and Grunfeld, and by the waltz performances of an equally impressive array of familiar and unfamiliar names: Horowitz, de Greef, Rubinstein, Smeterlin, Loesser, Rosenthal, Lipatti, Rummel, Rachmaninoff, and Michalowski. How they do dance, no two in the same way. Cultivated sophistication and delicacy mark Goldsand, Saperton, and Schein in the Nouvelles Etudes—as the self-effacing music demands. More pronounced rhetorical expression resides in the nocturnes of Ciampi, Lewenthal, Manshardt, and Chapiro (exquisitely played on a piano of Chopin’s time), each an intense statement of Chopin’s text filtered through a distinct personality. When we hear them against our recollection of Chopin’s instructions to von Gretsch, we feel the impact of a vast creative soul being channeled through the medium of the performer. There is magic in this.

That holds true for the startling interpretations of their respective etudes by Foster and Anda and of their respective impromptus by Barere and Tagliaferro. Each provides a revelation which, like the Pabst nocturne from the dawn of recording’s history, the Koczalski nocturne with its variant crystalline fioritura and Genhardt’s traversal of Michael von Zadora’s witty commentary on the “Minute” Waltz, fly in the face of recent received tradition.

Undeniable purpose lies behind this album’s mercurial personalities and their distinct musical perspectives. What radiates through and beyond the limitations of recordings from acoustical, electrical, and digital sources are Chopin the artist and his profound knowledge of the life of human feelings expressed in music—the ultimate luxury.

©Frank Cooper, 2010