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Piano Concerto No. 2

About the Work

Frédéric Chopin
Quick Look Composer: Frédéric Chopin
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Hugh Wolff, conductor / Emanuel Ax, piano, plays Chopin Apr. 4 - 6, 2013
© Thomas May

Both of the piano concertos completed by Frédéric Chopin belong to a series of early works intended to help launch the young pianist-composer’s international career. Basically conventional in design, these scores already contain many hints of the unique keyboard poetry for which Chopin’s name has become a signature. When the music world wanted to mark the bicentennial of his birth three years ago, the problem was similar to the one similar to this year’s Verdi and Wagner anniversaries: how to do something out of the ordinary for composers who already have a perennial presence?

Chopin in particular—or, as he was christened, Fryderyck Franciszek Chopin—has remained a beloved figure since he first became famous. While he tends to be identified with a quintessentially Romantic temperament, Chopin undeniably belongs in a league of his own. He evolved a highly nuanced style that draws on astonishingly few influences from other sources.

Even more, no other composer, of any era, has achieved a comparably long-lasting stature and popularity by concentrating, as Chopin did, on a single instrument. His contemporary Franz Liszt considered the piano to represent “the microcosm of music.” For Chopin, the keyboard opened up an entire universe of expression that was, for the most part, sufficient in itself. He exploited the instrument’s resources with unbounded imagination, becoming a virtuoso of self-expression. This goes a long way toward explaining the enduring popularity of this artist. Few composers can match the sense of sheer intimacy we get from Chopin—the sense of confidences imparted, not to a crowd, but to the private world of each listener, one-to-one.

Yet before he left Poland for good, settling in Paris in 1831—where he perfected his unique identity as high priest of the keyboard—Chopin first made his name in that quintessentially public forum, the concert hall. He had already started performing as a child prodigy and, in his late teens, graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory. The budding star then went on to give a series of high-profile concerts in Vienna and Warsaw.

Still, Chopin completed only a small handful of works for piano and orchestra. These essentially date from this youthful period and were necessary calling cards for a pianistcomposer to launch a career. The first of such works became his Opus 2 (completed in 1828): the brilliant Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” (to the famous tune from Don Giovanni by Mozart, one of the idols he permitted in is private pantheon). It provoked Robert Schumann’s much-quoted rave a few years later: “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!” Chopin’s two piano concertos were similarly tailored to showcase his gifts at the keyboard for a concert-going public. At the same time, their distinctively refined sensibility gives a remarkable foretaste of the artist who would mature in his Parisian exile.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor is—despite the official number—the first of Chopin’s pair of concertos, both of which are of the same vintage. As such, it represents his first foray into large-scale form. Chopin gave a semi-private “preview” performance at the family home (with reduced chamber orchestra) two weeks before the public premiere at Warsaw’s National Theater in March 1830. A huge artistic and commercial success, it was soon followed by a repeat performance. Chopin immediately began a fresh concerto, which he introduced that fall as part of his final Warsaw concert. This piece, the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, was published before the F minor Concerto (hence the switcheroo in numbering). It seems that Chopin even planned a third concerto but abandoned it after completing only the first movement. He later published the latter as a work for solo piano, the Allegro de Concert. (A few composers since Chopin’s time have tried their hand at orchestrating the Allegro as a quasi-“Third” Piano Concerto.)

Instead of drawing on the innovative concertos of Mozart or Beethoven (models that may have been unknown to him at the time), Chopin’s frame of reference was a host of now-forgotten post-classical concertos in which the orchestral role is fundamentally secondary. Yet even though his overall design replicates the conventions of the era, Chopin introduces a unique poetic style and attitude into his writing for the solo part. This highly personal slant betrays the inspiration he found in the shape and flexibility of contemporary Italian bel canto opera—above all the melodies of yet another idol, Vincenzo Bellini—and its approach to rhapsodic, long-spun lyricism.

The F minor Concerto treats the piano as more than protagonist: it’s the gravitational center for the music’s flow and development. Chopin’s orchestra thus essentially serves to create the context for the musings of the soloist. The traditional exposition for orchestra alone, at the beginning, introduces a dichotomy that will be explored at length from the keyboard throughout the first movement. On one side we hear the grand rhetorical gestures of a classical concerto, punctuated by maestoso proclamations; on the other is an introspective lyricism (as in the second theme given by the woodwinds). So far, this is all standard issue: the expected contrast of thematic material. But soon the piano co-opts and transforms both elements into its own richly elaborated language. The rest of the movement is filtered through the instrument’s point of view.

The later Chopin is most noticeably prefigured in the radiant Larghetto, set in a serene-sounding A-flat major. The composer himself drew attention to the music as an expression of his hidden love for a young soprano and fellow student at the Warsaw Conservatory, Konstancja Gladkowska. She likewise inspired the Romanze of the Concerto No. 1. “Six months have passed, and I have not yet exchanged a syllable with her of whom I dream every night,” he confessed to a close friend. (Not until the time of his farewell concert in Warsaw did Chopin find the courage to approach her.)

The aforementioned penchant for long skeins of bel canto melody furnishes the vehicle for Chopin’s expression of this love, idealized by all the romance of being kept “secret.” The piano’s tracery, never mere ornament, prolongs the sense of ecstatic caress. A dusky mood of doubt intrudes only briefly in the middle section, with its faint reminiscence of the first movement. Near the end, solo phrases from the bassoon interweave in delicate, intimate counterpoint.

In contrast to the second movement’s otherworldly transport, Chopin grounds and concludes the Concerto with a lively rondo, its main theme a testament to the rhythmic vitality and grace that are also characteristic traits of this composer. Hints of the Polish mazurka remind us of that other great love in Chopin’s life: the unwavering connection he felt to his homeland. Later on, the strings add an unusual coloristic touch by playing col legno (with the wood of the bow), while a sudden shift from minor to major, reinforced by the horn’s signal-like call, clears the way for an animated coda.