February 27, 2017. Chopin, Rossini and more. This is one of those overabundant weeks: several composers of great talent, each deserving a separate entry. Frédéric Chopin was born on March 1st of 1810 in a small village of Żelazowa Wola, about 30 miles west of Warsaw, the Polish capital. We celebrate him, probably the greatest piano composer of all time, every year. This time, we’ll play one of his pieces in different interpretations. We’ve done something similar but with just one pianist, when we dedicated an entry to three different interpretations of Chopin’s Polonaise in F-sharp minor, Op. 44 made by Arthur Rubinstein at different stages of his career. Today we’ll play one of the Ballades, No.3 in A-flat Major, which was written in 1841. By then Chopin had been living in Paris for 10 years: he left Poland in 1831 in the aftermath of the November Uprising, a Polish revolt against Russia, which was brutally suppressed by the czarist army. In 1841 Chopin was at the peak of his creative power and still healthy: just one year later the symptoms of the disease that killed him at the age of 39 would start showing up. Ballade no. 3 is in the repertory of every concertizing pianist, so the selection of interpreters is almost infinite. We’ll narrow it down to just three: first, a historical recording made by Sergei Rachmaninov, most likely in the 1930s (here). You’ll notice the freedom of tempos, which would probably be deemed inappropriate today. Even though the recording quality is not very good, the nuanced performance is lovely. The one made by Maurizio Pollini is very different, much tighter and precise, but still warm; the overall lines are wonderful. The performance by Ivan Moravec, made in 1966 (here), is probably the most idiosyncratic and the most lyrical. It’s slower by a minute than Pollini’s. If you go to our library, you’ll also find several recordings made by “our” pianists: Sophia Agranovich, Gianluca Di Donato and Mario Carreño among them.
Gioachino Rossini, who stood at the origins of the bel canto opera, was born on February 29th of 1792. A melodic genius, he was known to work incredibly fast. He composed 62 operas, but, even though he lived for 76 years, all of them were written within a period of just 20 years: his last opera, Guillaume Tell (William Tell) was composed in 1829, when Rossini was 37. It’s said that he was late composing the overture for La gazza larda (The thieving magpie), so, to ensure that it was done in time, the producer locked Rossini in a room. As he wrote the pages of the score, he was throwing them out of a window; on the other side copyists were picking them up and creating the orchestral parts for musicians to rehearse at the very last moment. Here is the result, as interpreted by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Claudio Abbado.
Bedřich Smetana was also born this week, on March 2nd of 1824. A talented composer, he created the Czech national school, very much like the Great Five did in Russia around the same time. He’s probably best known for a set of symphonic poems Má vlast and the opera The Bartered Bride. In 1854 he wrote Piano Trio in G minor, following the death of his older daughter at the age of four of scarlet fever (his second daughter died earlier that same tragic year of tuberculosis). Here it is in the performance by the Lincoln Trio. This year, the violinist Desirée Ruhstrat, the cellist David Cunliffe, and Marta Aznavoorian, piano, were nominated for a Grammy in the Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance category. Our congratulations to the wonderful ensemble.
Antonio Vivaldi was also born this week (on March 3rd of 1678), we’ll get back to him another time.
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