Chopin (1810 _1849) embodied the spirit of his era (and his Polish homeland) with singular imagination and lyrical brilliance. Schumann described his music as "cannons buried in flowers": a sonic garden filled with strange and exquisite flora, imbued with a mysterious potency. Music lovers found it irresistible from the start. "He was immediately popular," says pianist Garrick Ohlsson, "and published all over Europe. In the second half of the 19th century, when the Germans issued collections of the canonic composers, Chopin was one of the only non-Germans to be included."
Now, as the 200th anniversary of his birth nears, Chopin is as popular as ever. And Lincoln Center is celebrating the occasion with a series of recitals by Mr. Ohlsson, along with showing four films, presented in collaboration with the Film Society of Lincoln Center. The pianist was winner of the 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw, and 15 years ago he traversed the entirety of that composer's repertoire in a series of concerts here and around the world.
The first two concerts this season, on February 3 and March 21 (with two more to follow next fall), explore the fullness of a composer who, explains Mr. Ohlsson, is often misunderstood as a "sort of sickly creator of delicate piano works: a salon composer who dipped his pen in perfume to write nocturnes for lovesick Contessas. Yes, his music has a ravishing surface beauty," continues the pianist, "yet there is depth, drama and mastery within. For all the improvisatory quality: and his music does sound spontaneous, as if it fell from the heavens: he worked like a tortured soul to capture just the right spirit in every piece. He was very concerned with musical structure."
A successful Chopin interpreter must walk a fine line between these disparate qualities. "Chopin stands at the very cusp of Classicism and Romanticism," observes Ohlsson. "If you don't have a strong sense of the structure, it comes out as magic and moonlight, but you'll get sick of it quickly. If you only have the structure and miss the magic, it becomes unbearably awful."
Part of the extraordinary appeal of Chopin's art, the pianist reminds us, is that he was the first exotic outsider, bringing a particularly Polish sensibility: filled with both elegance and melancholy: to Parisian sophisticates. Indeed, Chopin left Poland at a time of national mourning. Many of its cultural leaders had fled in the wake of the failed 1830 "November uprising" in Warsaw against Russian domination. And, like Chopin, most of them: such as poets Juliusz Sl‹wacki and Adam Mickiewicz, both national treasures: headed to Paris.
Who could blame them? Francis Herv_'s How to Enjoy Paris had extolled the virtues of the city: "The merry dance, the sprightly air of those who pass, the dazzling lights, the company, two or three deep, who line the way, seated on chairs, under gay canopies reading, drinking, smoking, and laughing..." Paris was quickly supplanting Vienna as the artistic capital of the world, and the town was filled with celebrities, from poet Heinrich Heine, painter Eugene Delacroix, and writers Victor Hugo and Honor_ de Balzac to virtuoso pianists like Franz Liszt, Sigmund Thalberg, and Friderich Kalkbrenner.
Chopin's performances in Paris were astounding successes, though he quickly learned that the large concert hall was not for him: he was no Liszt, and played best in intimate surroundings. Berlioz described Chopin's sound as softness in the extreme, "so that one is tempted to go close to the instrument and put one's ear to it as if at a concert of sylphs or elves." But what he lacked in ferocity, Chopin more than made up for in poetic refinement. "The tone, though small," reported Liszt, who admired the delicacy of Chopin's playing, "was...perfect in the extreme." In order to produce that "perfection" of sound, he developed an entirely new technique at the keyboard. Composer Stephen Heller said that Chopin's "slim hands" would "suddenly expand and cover a third of the keyboard like a serpent opening its mouth to swallow a rabbit whole."
For Garrick Ohlsson: whose large frame and fiery virtuosity offer a stark contrast to eyewitness accounts of the fragile Chopin in performance: playing at the volume of a whisper is not necessary for capturing the composer's intent. "When he writes forte or fortissimo," he says, "I don't think they were metaphors. He meant them. He loved the way Liszt played his Etudes, for example. And we pianists today grew up on Rubinstein, Horowitz, and Rachmaninoff: that wasn't small-scaled playing!"
And though the music offers difficulties galore, the technical lessons of Chopin have become fundamental training for every artist who followed. "There had been an ideal, coming from the harpsichord and clavichord traditions, of evenness of all the fingers," explains Mr. Ohlsson. "Chopin said that to insist on the equality of the fingers was to fly in the face of nature. He understood how the hand really works."
Of course, the most important quality to bring out in this music, he says, is that of singing. That's a challenge on an instrument constructed of hammers and levers, but, suggests the pianist, "what Chopin creates is the evocation of singing, rather than singing itself, just as he didn't really write Mazurkas and Waltzes: he wrote poems about them. That is, the music is not pure dance, it is about the feeling of dance." No wonder we are still entranced.
The film series, offered on February 6 and 10, presents a number of rarities, says Christian Labrande, who regularly presents "Music on Film" at the Louvre in Paris. "There are Chopin performances by Rubinstein, Michelangeli, Pollini, Argerich, Cortot, and Zimerman," he reports. "But there is also a strange film made in the 20s: a silent film shot at the Paris Opera, of pianists playing Chopin in slow motion. It was an attempt to unveil the secrets of piano playing by examining how pianists moved their fingers while playing a Chopin Etude. We are showing it as a curiosity." Also on the program is the Hollywood biopic A Song to Remember, starring Paul Muni, Merle Oberon, and Cornel Wilde, with a soundtrack performed by Jos_ Iturbi.
It's an exciting lineup of musical and visual treats, in recognition of the composer whose works still manage to cast a spell, even after 200 years.
Visit Lincoln Center for tickets and info.
Stuart Isacoff is on the faculty of the Purchase College (SUNY) Conservatory of Music, and the author of Temperament: How Music Became A Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization.