Notes and Editorial Reviews
Berceuse. Ballade No. 1. Nocturnes,
Anne-Marie McDermott (pn)
BRIDGE 9359 (68:29)
When it comes to Chopin, I’m like the guy in the TV commercial whose wife has just come home with a box of Fiber One and is trying to persuade him to try it. “Sweetie,” she
says, “I think you need a little extra fiber in your diet.” He looks at her impassively and in halting reply says to her, “Oh, Carol, fiber makes me (pause) sad.” Chopin makes
sad, and thus it takes a very special pianist to dispel the sadness or at least make it enjoyable. Anne-Marie McDermott is such a pianist.
What a curious work is the Barcarolle in F?, a late opus from the composer’s pen and one of the last he would play in public. Both it and the Berceuse are one-offs in his catalog, understandable perhaps due to their constraints on rhythmic variety. Yet within those constraints, Chopin steers his gondolier in the Barcarolle into some strange waters, anticipating harmonies and textures that wouldn’t be heard until Debussy. The Berceuse, or lullaby, is presented by Chopin as a set of variations. Dwelling mainly in the upper reaches of the keyboard, it tinkles like a music box, an effect brought out by McDermott with the most delicate touch.
The four mazurkas that comprise the op. 17 set were composed in 1832–33, shortly after Chopin had settled in France. By definition, a mazurka is a Polish folk dance in a triple meter, energetic and brisk in tempo, and with a characteristic accent on the second or third beat of the bar. Chopin sticks to the triple meter rule for all four of the mazurkas, but except for the first one in B?, marked
Vivo e risoluto
, he pays little heed to the conventional tempo or character of the genre. Mazurkas 2 and 4 are marked
and 3 is
In the E-Minor piece (No. 2), the spirit of the dance is transformed into a sort of I’m-feeling-sad-and-sorry-for-myself slow waltz. The third number in the set continues in similar vein, though now the feeling-sad-and-sorry-for-myself is more like I’m-feeling-sad-and sorry-for-you. The final piece in the group is the longest, the saddest, and sorriest of them all. McDermott does the doloroso thing to perfection.
Chopin was among the first to borrow the term
from French poetry and use it to describe a one-movement musical work that incorporates elements of sonata form and variation technique but that doesn’t adhere strictly to a fixed model. He composed four such works separately over a period of time. They are some of his more technically challenging pieces and surely some of his more popular; the No. 1 heard here was featured in Roman Polanski’s film
. McDermott really wows in this one. Her dynamic range is phenomenal and her execution of Chopin’s tricky cross-rhythms and off-kilter right- vs. left-hand coordination make surmounting the challenge sound natural and easy.
Next up are the three mazurkas published as op. 50. Chopin wrote a total of 59 such works, and these three, like the earlier op. 17 set, and virtually every other piece he titled “mazurka,” exhibit much the same
approach to the stylized Polish dance typology, freely intermixing elements of waltz, nocturne, and other musical genres.
Composed between 1830 and 1832, the three nocturnes that comprise the op. 9 set are approximately contemporaneous with the op. 17 mazurkas. McDermott omits the first of them in B?-Minor, giving us the Nos. 2 and 3 in E? and B, respectively. The melancholy infused E?-Major Nocturne is one of Chopin’s signature works, in which a memorable melody becomes increasingly ornamented with each return after alternating with a contrasting idea. Just as so many of the mazurkas are uncharacteristically un-mazurka-like, the B-Major Nocturne is uncharacteristically un-nocturne-like. It begins innocently enough in a kind of dreamy 6/8 marked
. But its central section turns dark and agitated, a night spell troubled by disturbing dreams. It’s especially haunting in the way Chopin retains the thematic outline and rhythmic contour of the easygoing A section but undergirds it with out-of-joint harmonies and surrounds it with menacing passagework. McDermott does an especially good job of bringing the easygoing opening motif to the fore through the swirling keyboard figuration.
Three waltzes make up op. 64. The first of them, in D?, is probably the most popularized piece of Chopin’s entire output, not because it’s one of his greatest works but because it has so long served as a prop for musical pranksters, thanks to a linguistic misunderstanding. This is the famous “Minute” Waltz, so named by its publisher who intended the word to mean “mi-
,” as in “small.” Chopin had his own nickname for the piece. He called it
Valse du petit chien
(Little Dog Waltz), allegedly because its inspiration came to the composer as he was watching a small dog chase its tail.
It has been pointed out that the work’s 153 measures (counting the 15-bar repeat) would have to be played at a metronome setting of 420 to the quarter-note to be dispatched in 60 seconds. That hasn’t stopped the clowns or even the serious from trying. In March 2010, the very serious Royal College of Music in London held a contest to see who could play the waltz the fastest. I don’t know who won, but I’ll bet one of the contestants wasn’t a super-computer. It could have played through the whole piece, with repeat, in about one nanosecond. McDermott plays the piece at 1:34, which is about the norm.
The C?-Minor Waltz (No. 2 in the set) is also quite popular, and this time actually more waltz-like in gait and style. Note author James M. Keller hears in it a strain of Slavic melancholy. The three op. 64 waltzes are among Chopin’s very late works, composed in 1847 at a time the composer was financially strapped and already quite ill. The A?-Major Waltz (No. 3), in particular, seems to abandon the wistful and melancholic for a kind of calm resignation.
The album’s booklet essay quotes Oscar Wilde, who in 1891 confessed, “After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed.” In 2011, I would paraphrase Wilde by saying, “After listening to Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins I wish I
committed.” It’s too late now for most of them, but one of them I can still enjoy without guilt is listening to Anne-Marie McDermott’s irresistible playing on this disc, and you can too. Very strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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