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This interpretation problem also prompts me to speculate on the extent to which approaches to Chopin's Études may have changed and metamorphosed even during the composer's own all-too-brief lifetime; indeed, Liszt's way with them may even have been a principal precursor of this.
Nowadays, these core works are, in the main, heard by listeners -- and practised and performed by pianists -- on modern pianos; it is worth remembering Sorabji's rueful remark that piano manufacture and design, which had made giant strides forward in the seventy five years since the appearance of Op 10, became comparatively stagnant throughout the seventy five years that followed (his own Steinway dates from 1896). Was it not therefore inevitable that, even without the interference of generations of editors, approaches to these works would have undergone substantial transformations? The Érards and Pleyels of Chopin's acquaintance were light years away from the Steinways from the end of his century, yet performances of Chopin on instruments of his own day are a phenomenon much more recent than either. It is also worth remembering that Chopin's great colleagues Liszt and Alkan lived to see far more of these design and manufacturing developments than Chopin himself did.
We would likewise do well to consider whether and to what extent Chopin's own approaches to his Op 10 may have moved forward during the two decades from his late 'teens when (incredibly) he wrote them to his latter years in the mid- to late-1840s when such works as the Barcarolle, Polonaise-Fantaisie, Third Piano Sonata and Sonata for 'cello and piano preoccupied him; it would perhaps be idle, though nevertheless interesting, to speculate still further on how much more different his approaches to them may have become had he survived into his eighties and observed all the changes in instruments, piano pedagogy and keyboard playing traditions that occurred during that time. Gordon rightly regrets the absence of any recordings by Chopin himself, yet had recording technology and Chopin's longevity permitted, we might have derived a shock or three had we accordingly been allowed to hear one recording from him dating from the 1830s and another from the 1880s!
Copyright © 9 March 2004
Alistair Hinton, UK