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ALISTAIR HINTON comments on points made
in Gordon Rumson's recent Chopin review


Gordon Rumson's review Brave Heart: Angela Lear's Search for The Essential Chopin contains so much intriguing and thought provoking material that readers may with no small justification assert that it is inappropriately premature for me to comment before I have heard the recording of the Études Opp 10 & 25 which is its subject; I will accordingly apologise in advance and explain that the purpose of my remarks is to consider Gordon's thoughts on Chopin playing traditions rather than the recording itself.

The experience that Gordon brings to bear upon his critique is that of composer, pianist and editor -- a most valuable combination of credentials with which to approach the subject.

For anyone to attempt -- as the enterprising and thoughtful Ms Lear has evidently done -- to go right back to the original source material in the course of preparing her readings is unquestionably of immense scholarly value, to say the very least. Chopin's Études Opp 10 & 25 rocketed straight from his pen into that empyrean of peerless classic status, to remain secure in that exalted position by virtue of well-nigh universal opinion across the subsequent 160 or more years. Whereas critical opinion of them has remained constant, however, practising and performing traditions as well as keyboard instruments have all undergone radical transformations during that time. Even our opportunities to listen to these Études and the circumstances in which we do so have changed radically since Chopin's own day, by virtue not only of the sheer numbers of teachers teaching them and pianists performing them but also of widespread availability of recordings and radio broadcasts which broaden the scope even farther by opening up opportunities for instant comparisons between pianists of different backgrounds and eras.

Gordon's salutary references to Burke and to Chopin's own complaint to Hallé are of the essence here -- and they lead neatly into Chopin's rather better known desire to 'steal away' Liszt's way of playing his Études; the last of these, however, also serves to illustrate something of the very interpretation problem to which Gordon directs much of his attention, for here Gordon speculates that Chopin might have signified a desire to withdraw that Lisztian approach from the arena. This is a fascinating interpretation which I admit had never occurred to me; my own disinclination to concur with it does not detract from its validity as an interpretation at least worthy of consideration. Whatever his own approach may have been at any time, the ill health which dogged most of Chopin's adulthood was, in any case, such as to preclude the possibility that he could project his work with anything like the muscular virtuosity that he observed in Liszt. The tone of Chopin's letter to his father in which he remarked on Liszt's playing of his Études strikes this reader as implying admiration and enthusiasm rather than grave reservation; consideration of it may also beg the question of whether and to what extent Chopin's own interpretations of them would have been different had he enjoyed consistently sound health.

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Copyright © 9 March 2004 Alistair Hinton, UK


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