🎧 One Thing to Listen for in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2

Have you ever been so bowled over by the beauty of a piece of music that you’re not even sure where to start? Us too! In this new series, we’ll be underscoring a single element of a beloved piece that you can use as a port of entry. Today we’re focusing on something you probably already knew was important in a piano concerto: the piano 🎹 It may seem obvious to listen to the piano in a piano concerto, but if we look closer, there’s a bit more to it than that…

First of all, it’s a piano concerto by Frédéric Chopin. A veritable “pianist’s pianist” who still ranks today amongst the instrument’s most celebrated and skilled advocates.

Chopin was still a teenager and had not yet finished his studies when he began work on his Piano Concerto no. 2 (which, confusingly, is actually the first of his two pieces in the genre). Yet the comments his teacher Józef Elsner left on his final report card hinted at what much of Europe would discover in the decade to come: “Chopin F., third year student, exceptional talent, musical genius.”

While he would go on to compose in a variety of genres, that “musical genius” was firmly rooted in the instrument he knew most intimately. The beautifully-spun melodies, the flourishes so effortless they feel like they’re being improvised right on the spot… Chopin was able to make the keyboard sing like few other composers and some of the hallmarks of his finest piano writing are already on display here. Let’s listen to Emanuel Ax bring out the almost operatic feel of the slow second movement:

Secondly, it’s one of just a handful of Chopin’s works for orchestra.

Considerable ink has been spilled over Chopin’s interest in and skill with orchestration. Rumours that he may have had a hand with the orchestration of his two concertos—perhaps from his teacher or fellow students?—have even inspired later generations of musicians to take their own liberties; pianists like Alfred Cortot and Mikahil Pletnev have both reorchestrated this concerto, for example.

During the nineteenth century, the concerto was a crucial part of a young virtuoso’s repertoire—particularly the double-threat performers who also composed. While Chopin had a complicated relationship with public performance, preferring intimate settings to larger concert halls, his pair of concertos helped establish him as a household name across Europe.

Chopin concert (Henryk Siemiradzki, 1887)

The first concert, then, although it was completely sold out and the boxes and seats had all gone three days beforehand, did not have as strong an impact on the general public as I had expected. The first Allegro was accessible only to a few, it was applauded but, it seems to me, that can only be because people were wondering what it was and wanted to act the connoisseur! The Adagio and the Rondo made the greatest impression, indeed genuine cheers could be heard… —Chopin on the first public performance of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in Warsaw

While the concerto as a genre had existed for some time by the time Chopin’s pair came into being, the role of the solo instrument had shifted considerably, and during a fair portion of the nineteenth century was even the subject of intense debate. The rise of the virtuoso performer had placed unprecedented emphasis on technical pyrotechnics and some were beginning to worry the concerto was morphing into little more than a flashy one-man show. Chopin was undoubtedly part of the crop of virtuosos fascinating nineteenth-century audiences, but his overall reserved, melancholic style made his concertos a kind of middle ground.

So next time you listen to Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 think about how the piano comes across: flashy superstar? quiet genius? something in between…? Or just let yourself by spellbound by some of the most idiomatic piano writing out there. Up to you.

March 10th, 2019, noon (EST)

1999. Emmanual Ax joins maestro Bernard Haitink (who celebrates his 90th birthday this, week!) and the Berliner Philharmoniker in Krakow for a spellbinding performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

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