If you talk often to people enthusiastic about classical music, you’re bound to run into those who will tell you that the Romantic period was rubbish — you should only listen to Bach, Handel and Mozart! Frankly, they’re dead wrong. Yes, I love me some “Don Giovanni,” but the Romantic period is where things really start getting good. Sure, maybe it’s a bit cliché to love Wagner. And Tchaikovsky? He’s pretty sappy. If you really want to delve into the nitty-gritty of Romantic music, Chopin’s your guy.
If you’ve ever taken a piano lesson past the seventh grade, you probably have heard Chopin’s music. He’s best remembered as an absolutely prolific writer of solo piano pieces that range from fiery mazurkas (spirited Polish marches) to docile nocturnes. For good reason, he’s often part of young pianists’ repertoires. But Chopin’s hardly your garden-variety Romantic composer. In a nutshell, he was a tormented, sickly, womanizing child prodigy who died at the ripe old age of 39. Yet during his short life, he managed to write some of the most wonderfully intricate and diabolically difficult piano music ever created.
I like to think of him as the Jimi Hendrix of the 19th century. Doubt me? Get on YouTube and look up the very first scherzo he ever wrote (Op. 20) — could you do that at 21 years old? Honestly, though, it’s not the flying fingerwork that gets me; rather, it’s the emotion that wells up from the depths of his music. In fact, I can’t confidently point to another composer born in the early 19th century who captured so intensely such raw emotion in his music. Deeply devoted to his Polish heritage, a devastated Chopin wrote the aforementioned tortured scherzo and the famously tempestuous Revolutionary Etude (Op. 10) in response to the Russian Empire’s crushing of the 1831 November Uprising in Warsaw. Keep in mind that Chopin died in 1849 — the music we often regard today as the really Romantic stuff (e.g. Brahms, Massenet, etc.) didn’t really pick up until the 1850s and after. Not surprisingly, Chopin often treated the work of his contemporaries with indifference; if I were light-years ahead of the field in developing the Romantic musical style, I’d probably feel the same way.
But don’t take my word for it: instead, for your own exploration, I highly recommend Deutsche Grammaphon’s recording of Ivo Pogorelich playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Polonaise No. 5. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the incomparable baton of Claudio Abbado, performs wonderfully. The real treat, however, is Pogorelich’s interpretation. Eccentric to say the least, he elevates the recording to a wholly new plane. Those Bach eggheads I mentioned before might also try to convince you that rubato — or the act of relaxing strict tempo in order to heighten expression — is a foul thing. I dare you to give this recording a listen and argue the same. The second movement, in particular, exudes a delicate grace that few of Chopin’s contemporaries even came close to crafting. In fact, he later confessed in a letter that this movement, the larghetto, was inspired by his secret, burning love for a young conservatory classmate, a woman whom he never addressed even once. The whole work totals to about a half-hour of spectacular piano music, a composition that Chopin wrote at the tender young age of 20 — before he had even finished his musical schooling. I hope you’ll agree with me when I say that, as this record so aptly demonstrates, his emotion comes through as clearly on the first listen as it does on the last.