Chopin & Schubert: Cello Sonatas

Chopin & Schubert: Cello Sonatas
Chopin & Schubert: Cello Sonatas (click images to enlarge)
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Chopin & Schubert: Cello Sonatas

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Schubert and Chopintwo men of genius who had much in common: ultimately tragic figures who both died in their thirties, the last few years of their lives spent under the constant shadow of death; both miraculously inventive; both masters of smaller forms, through which they transformed musical genresin Schuberts case that of song, in Chopins that of piano music; and both possessed of a gift for melody that has won them places deep in the hearts of music lovers. On the other hand, they were in so many ways utterly different: Schubert an unworldly, untidy Bohemian who never enjoyed true worldly success, was not a great performer, but mastered most musical forms; Chopin a fastidious dandy who set sartorial as well as musical fashions ablaze in Paris, was practically worshipped as a virtuoso pianist, but never even attempted to compose a work not featuring his chosen instrument. One wonders howor ifthey would have related to each other had they ever met.

Well, they never did meet; but they might have done so, had Schubert not died in Vienna in late 1828, at the unpardonably early age of thirty-one. Within a year of that catastrophic event, the nineteen-year-old Chopin was taking the great city by storm, the Viennese music establishment stunned and fascinated by this exotic talent from Polanda light flashing across our musical horizon like a brilliant meteor, as one reviewer put it. Later that year, while staying at the Polish palace (a paradise, according to Chopin) of Prince Radziwill, an amateur cellist who had known Beethoven and Goethe and was to be the dedicatee of Chopins piano trio, Chopin wrote his Polonaise brillante for piano and cello as a gift for the Prince and his pretty pianist daughter, Princess Wanda. Chopins much-quoted letter to a friend, written shortly afterwards, in which he dismissed the polonaise as nothing more than a brilliant drawing-room piece suitable for the ladies should not be taken too seriously. It is probably just a self-deprecating squib typical of the composers modesty; and furthermore it should be remembered that, at the time of that letter, he had not yet written the expressive introduction (which was added for a concert in Warsaw the following year)or even, it would seem, the cellos triumphant closing theme (track 2, 4'32) which hastens the work towards its exuberant conclusion. At any rate, since he later performed the work in Poland, and even considered it worthy of the effort of a solo piano transcription (rediscovered only in the 1980s), I think we may presume that, despite his dismissive words, he was fond of the piece. Understandably so: with its alluring blend of refined charm, energy and beauty, it is (in this writers humble opinion) a winner.

On a return visit to Vienna in 1831having left Poland for the last timeChopin encountered the Austrian cellist and composer Joseph Merk, who had been a friend of Schuberts. He is the only cellist I respect, wrote Chopin at the time. When the Introduction and Polonaise brillante was published in Vienna later that year, it bore a dedication to Merk. Moving on to Paris, howeverdestined to be his home for the rest of his lifeChopin met, through their mutual friend Liszt, a second cellist whom he could respect: Auguste Franchomme. Before long Franchomme, a quiet, kind-hearted man (the good Franchomme, as Chopin sometimes described him), was to become Chopins musical partner, close confidant, andnot to put too fine a point upon itgeneral dogsbody. Chopin, highly critical though he was of most other composers, thought highly enough of Franchommes compositional talents to collaborate with him, in 1833, on a Grand Duo concertant for cello and piano based on themes from Meyerbeers Robert le Diable. (Collaborative compositions of this sort were not unusual: for instance, in 1830 Merk had jointly composed a set of variations for cello and piano with Mendelssohn.) Franchomme, in addition to arranging as many as fifty of Chopins works for cello, also composed much music of his own. A taste of his compositional style can be gleaned from the little gem presented here, the first of three nocturnes published in 1838. It seems particularly apt for inclusion on this album in that, while the outer sections clearly betray Chopins influence, the middle section sounds decidedly Schubertian. It also provides a gentle transition between the high-spirited youthful Chopin of the polonaise and the darkly ruminating, inward-looking Chopin of the late cello sonata.

This sonata, by far the most important of Chopins chamber works and the last piece of his to be published during his lifetime, has not had an easy history. Ever since its first appearance, some listeners have been disturbed by its complex tonal language and emotional volatility. Few could deny, however, that it is a major statement, wrought from the depth of Chopins musical soul. Chopin seems to have had the sonata in mind from 1844 at least; late that September, he announced to his lover (or at least companion), the writer George Sand, that he was to try through some sonatas with Franchomme (I wonder which sonatas?). But it would seem that work on his own sonata did not begin in earnest until the summer of 1845, which he spent at Sands country house in Nohant. I am in some strange world an imaginary space, Chopin wrote tellingly to his family around that time. At first, the sonata did not seem to cause undue problems. By the end of the year, he had played some of it through with Franchommeto whom the work is dedicatedand seemed quite satisfied. It goes well. I dont know whether Ill have time to have it printed this year, he wrote carelessly. Alas, it was not to be that simple. A year later, he wrote, again to his family: Sometimes I am satisfied with my cello sonata, sometimes not. I throw it into the corner, then pick it up again. The mass of surviving sketchesenough to fill a whole volumetell their own story. One can all too easily imagine Chopins state of mind as he toiled at the sonata from Sands description of his struggles with an earlier composition: He shut himself up in his room for whole days, weeping, walking about, breaking his quills, repeating or altering a bar a hundred times, writing it down and erasing it as often, and starting over the next day with a scrupulous and desperate perseverance. He would spend six weeks on one page, only to return to it and write it just as he had on the first draft.

The sonata was essentially completed in February 1847, although further changes were still to be made after he and Franchomme performed it privately for friends during the following months. It was sold to the publishers Breitkopf & Härtel in June, and published in October of that year. The first public performance would be given by Chopin and (of course) Franchomme at Chopins final appearance in Paris, at the Salle Pleyel, on 16 February 1848. This was by all accounts an extraordinary occasionone of those moments in musical history which one might well choose to attend when time travel finally becomes available at an affordable price. Perhaps using the word public to describe this famous concert is a little misleading, however. There were only three hundred (very expensive) tickets available, so Chopin knew that the hall would be exclusively occupied by the beautiful Parisian societyincluding many of those society ladies who the next year would consider it their duty to faint in Chopins room as he lay dying. The organizers made sure that only Chopins closest friends would be in his eye-line as he played, on a stage bedecked with flowers. Chopins contributions to the evening were a Mozart trio with the violinist Delphin Alard and Franchomme, several solosand the second, third and fourth movements of the cello sonata.

So why was the opening movement omitted? Well, the officialand probably correctexplanation was that when Fra

Key Product Details

  • Artist: Steven Isserlis
  • Genre: Classical

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