Sunday, May 24, 2009

Paderewski plays Chopin's Mazurkas

About a month ago I was talking to Dr. Joseph Maneri. We agreed that Chopin was one of the most original composers who ever lived.

Not that that is the only benchmark. Many Brahms pieces sound like Schumann, Schubert, or Beethoven. Bach and Handel imitated everyone. So that is not the only criterion.

However, it's remarkable how little of Chopin sounds like anybody else. A critic once wrote shallowly that the Chopin Nocturne was "a Bellini melody over a John Field bass." Chopin sounds nothing like Bellini or John Field. In fact, Chopin completed both sets of etudes and both concerti by age 20. No other composer, not even Mozart, wrote music that was as original, plentiful, and good by age 20.

But how does one play Chopin? What should his music sound like?

And what about those Mazurkas?

Chopin died in 1849. His last students were dead before pianists started making 78 records. In short, we have no aural evidence of anyone who ever heard Chopin play.

Ten or fifteen years ago, I was on a mission: to figure out how to play Chopin's divine Mazurkas. I bought every recording I could find made by a Polish pianist born before 1900.

I did conclude that only the Poles can play that rhythm. But even among them, there was much variety. Rosenthal's sharp rhythm was more Rosenthalian then Chopinesque. At the opposite end of the spectrum was Arthur Rubinstein, whose rhythm was watered down enough not to offend or confuse the non-Poles.

But then you have Paderewski ...

Pederewski was and is a difficult musician to adjudge. Today the most famous musicians are the ones with the most skillful and aggressive managers. 75 or 100 years ago, the most famous musicians were the greatest by the common consent of their colleagues. Singers agreed that Caruso and Gigli were the greatest. String players agreed that Kreisler and Heifetz were the greatest.

No one agreed about Paderewski.

His pianist-colleagues were unanimous: he stunk. The public was unanimous: he was the greatest pianist in the world. Never the twain did meet.

Was it "A" or "B"? The answer is: "Yes."

That he was the most famous no one questions. Liberace in his prime created nothing like the Paderewski frenzy. Women would rush the stage to touch Paderewski -- and not all of them were paid to do so. In the era between Franz Liszt and Elvis Presley, Paderewski was the world's most hysterically adulated musician (pace Caruso).

Nor does anyone question that Paderewski had his technical defects at the keyboard. He didn't start lessons till age 12. Only by age 24 did he find a great teacher, Leschetitzky. Paderewski tried to compensate by practicing like a fiend -- up to 17 (!) hours a day for certain events. Then one day (so the rumor goes), something in his hand "snapped" during a concert. (A tendon?) He finished the performance anyway. His playing was never the same since.

But forget all that. Forget the hysterical fans. Forget the faulty technique. Just LISTEN.

Listen to Paderewski play Chopin. Who else had that nobility? Or that melting lyricism? Or that golden tone that comes through even the crackly 78s? And who could imbue this music with more patriotism than the future Prime Minister of Poland?

Paderewski was accused of infidelity to the printed score. Yet his Chopin was more Chopinesque than Rosenthal's, Friedman's, Rubinstein's, or that of most any other Pole.

I am grateful that Paderewski recorded much Chopin, including the Mazurkas. His rendering of the Mazurkas in Ab and F# minor from Op. 59 will perhaps never be surpassed.