Classical Notes
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title - Chopin's Waltzes

Frédéric Chopin's Waltzes are among his most fascinating compositions, as they display his unique talent within the stricture of established form.
In this appraisal, we review the composer's significance, the background development of the waltz, and how Chopin transformed it to suit his own creative needs. After considering Chopin's own performing style, we survey how famous pianists have interpreted the Waltzes on record – first some pioneering recordings of individual waltzes, and then some of the most significant sets of the complete waltzes. Finally, we suggest some sources for further information.

For the entire 19th century and much of the 20th the piano was the most popular of all instruments – although lacking others' portability, no respectable home lacked one. Classical Classics Many composers contributed mightily to the art and prominence of the piano, but none as much as Frédéric Chopin. Perhaps the ultimate tribute to his distinction and proof of his influence is the prominence his music holds in the core repertoire of nearly every great pianist and its inclusion in the programs of so many recitals.


Title -- The Wonder of ChopinChopin's impact on those who heard him perform was mesmeric. Thus Franz Liszt, an ardent admirer, Chopin's first biographer, only peer and arguably the most famous pianist of the time: "Such a poetic temperament as Chopin's never existed, nor have I heard such delicacy and refinement of playing." Antoine Marmontel: He "envelopes melodic phrases and ingenious arabesques in a half-tint which has something of both dream and reality." Elizavieta Cheriemietieff: "He has discovered how to give the piano a soul. Every sound goes straight to the heart. Listening to him, one feels suspended somewhere between heaven and earth." Charles Hallé: "There is nothing to remind one that it is a human being who produces this music. It seems to descend from heaven – so pure and spiritual. … You listened to the improvisation of a poem."

Chopin -- pencil drawing by George Sand
Pencil drawing of Chopin
by George Sand (1841)

The accolades hardly dissipated following Chopin's vastly premature death in 1849, in his fortieth year. In his comprehensive Music in Western Civilization Paul Henry Lang, hardly effusive with praise, hails Chopin as "one of the most original and remarkable geniuses in musical history. … Without Chopin the music of the second half of the 19th century is hardly imaginable." In Lang's view, although Chopin's imitators filled the rest of the century, he was inimitable, as his independence transcended the forms of the past to create a higher law of structure based on a fantastic blend of undeniable melody and multi-hued harmony. "His originality is so compelling that perhaps no other composer can be so quickly identified."

Despite the brevity of his life, Chopin's biography did not seem to influence his compositions, whose emotional content are hard to tag to specific events, including his curious nine-year relationship with George Sand; indeed some of his brightest music emerged from his seemingly most depressing periods. Yet, he clearly was influenced by his Polish heritage, which accounted for much of the searching harmonies and quirky dance rhythms of his work. Liszt heard the inspiration of Polish lamentation that "lent to his tones a strange and mysterious poesy, … a sadness concealed beneath a show of gaiety." Chopin also catered to the expectations of the Parisian nobility upon whose patronage he depended for his livelihood after his emigration and settlement there at the mid-point of his life.
Chopin -- photograph in his final year
Daguerrotype of Chopin by Bisson
taken in 1849, his final year
That was just as well. Again Liszt: "Chopin knew he could not strike the masses and had no effect upon the multitudes. They are like a sea of lead – their waves are stirred only by fire" rather than the exquisite subtlety of Chopin's writing and playing.

Yet there was one more facet of crucial significance in Chopin's constitution – his health. Throughout much of his adult life, Chopin suffered from tuberculosis and related ailments that sapped his strength. The only known photograph of Chopin, taken in his final year, shows his deterioration and pain all too well. Liszt likened Chopin's art to drawings with a delicate pencil rather than with a scene-painter's brush, and hailed his expansion of the resources of art by concentrating his inspiration in a lesser space – a particular compliment from a fellow composer who sought to wrest from the piano a spectrum of splashy orchestral effects. That, in turn, raises an intriguing but unanswerable question – did Chopin play with frailty because he chose to or because he had to? More important, should the legion of interpreters who play his music emulate his style or assume that his music contains bolder ideas than the composer himself could realize in his own performances?

Remarkably, Chopin's primary teacher was a violinist so he was almost completely self-taught;. Indeed, he stood apart from any musical movement, largely shunning the music of his contemporaries and citing Bach, Mozart and Bellini as his favorite predecessors. But perhaps it was his lack of formal keyboard training that freed him to disregard convention and to find and explore new techniques that directly served his expressive proclivity. In the process, he reinvented the art of the piano.


Title -- The WaltzChopin was a miniaturist, having written only five large-scale works (two concertos and three sonatas). His compositions included ballades, études, impromptus, mazurkas, nocturnes, polonaises, preludes, scherzos and waltzes. The waltzes are rarely found on lists of his greatest works or of performers' favorites. Yet they afford a unique opportunity to consider the wonder of his art. While most of his other morsels are free-form and deeply personal in conception, the waltzes dwell within prescribed dance forms and their social function. Dances of Old Vienna -- London LP cover Moreover, with only a few exceptions (the Préludes and two sets of Études), his works in a common genre were neither published together nor meant to be heard that way – indeed, the prospect of two hours of unrelieved nocturnes or mazurkas is daunting to all but the most focused listeners (and the trend of bundling them together into complete recordings is far more a marketing ploy than an artistic justification, and would never be heard that way in concert). Yet, the waltzes boast a variety, accessibility and fascination that invite integral performance.

Scholars agree that the waltz is derived from the German Ländler, whose roots lie in a lascivious folk dance. Smoothing the deliberate, uniform hopping and stamping of the gawky Ländler into a graceful, rotating, gliding, stylized form, the waltz took Vienna by storm in the 1770s to mixed reaction. In 1808 Charles Burney decried it as dirty and riotous, cautioning "how uneasy an English mother would be to see her daughter so familiarly treated and still more to witness the obliging manner in which the freedom is returned." Yet in 1816, Thomas Wilson assured the public that the waltz was "a promoter of vigorous health and hilarity of spirits." In any event, it seems clear that the dance was far removed from the staid formality we associate with most socially-approved dances of the time, and its appeal may well have sprung from its call to liberation and vitality.

Mozart, Haydn and many others had been commissioned to write waltzes for royal balls. The elevation of the waltz from rusticity to art was boosted in the 1820s by Joseph Lanner and Johann Strauss, Sr., both contemporaries of Chopin. By the time Chopin arrived in Paris after spending his childhood and teen years in Poland, the waltz was hugely popular.
The basic waltz rhythm
The basic waltz rhythm
Its standard structure comprised an introduction, a half-dozen or so melodies, and a coda that recapped them. Of the two primary national styles that emerged, the French consisted of three complementary dances of increasing vigor, performed with much leaping and springing, while the Viennese held to a single underlying tempo and a constant rotating glide. The distinctive accompaniment invariably finds one chord per three-beat measure, with the bass note on the downbeat and the remainder of the chord on the second and third. It was Carl Maria von Weber who brought the waltz to the concert hall through his 1819 Invitation to the Dance, a compelling ten-minute portrait of a diffident girl swept up in the exhilaration of the waltz amid episodes of more relaxed introspection, and finally left alone to ponder her memories.


Title -- The Chopin Waltzes But it was Chopin who transformed the waltz into something altogether sublime,Les Sylphides -- RCA 45s cover adding refinement, nuance and reflection more suited to aristocracy than the masses and for private sittings than the ballroom. Indeed, Robert Schumann quipped that if Chopin's waltzes were to be danced, at least half the ladies should be countesses. Alec Robinson notes, though, that none of Chopin's waltzes are suitable for dancing at all, but rather are idealized reflections of the ballroom form. He further notes that waltz steps are not even used in the choreography of Les Sylphides, a ballet set to orchestrations of Chopin music featuring three of his waltzes that has been described (in the notes to the Classical Music for People Who Hate Classical Music LP) as: "a moonlit vision of ballerinas who dance delicately in filmy half-length skirts, with garlands in their hair and little wings on their backs."

During his lifetime Chopin published eight waltzes in four groups:

  1. Op. 18 (in E-flat major, written in 1831)
  2. Op. 34, # 1 (A-Flat major, 1835)
  3. Op. 34 # 2 (A minor, 1831)
  4. Op. 34 # 3 (F major, 1838)
  5. Op. 42 (A-flat major, 1840)
  6. Op. 64 # 1 (D-flat major, 1846-7)
  7. Op. 64 # 2 (C-sharp minor, 1846-7)
  8. Op. 64 # 3 (A-flat major, 1846-7)
On his deathbed, Chopin reportedly instructed his publisher Pleyel to destroy all his unpublished work. Etelka Freund plays 12 of the Chopin Waltzes (Plymouth LP cover) Fortunately for posterity, Pleyel didn't. Five more waltzes were issued posthumously in arbitrary sets (and with deceptively late opus numbers) by Julian Fontana in 1855:
  1. Op. 69 # 1 (A-flat major, 1835)
  2. Op. 69 # 2 (A-flat major, 1829)
  3. Op. 70 # 1 (G-flat major, 1835)
  4. Op. 70 # 2 (F minor, 1843)
  5. Op. 70 # 3 (D-flat major, 1829)
The standard canon was completed with the publication in 1868 of a final waltz:
  1. Op. Post. (E minor, 1829)

As a measure of their relative popularity, a 1952 discography by Cyril Clarke (in the Cortot biography) indicates the following available 78s (reflecting the taste of the era when individual waltzes, rather than integral sets, were issued): Waltz #1 – 11 recordings; #2 – 9; #3 – 9; #4 – 9; #5 – 11; #6 – 18; #7 – 25; #8 – 7; #9 – 9; #10 – 4; #11 – 15; #12 – 4; #13 – 9; #14 – 9. The eclectic roster of artists is worth listing, as many are now forgotten: Jacques Abram, Wilhelm Backhaus, Simon Barere, Alfred Cortot, Ania Dorfman, Jean Doyen, Myrtle Eaver, France Ellegard, Orazio Frugani, Robert Frouard, Rudoof Ganz, Walter Gieseking, Jacob Gimpel, Robart Goldsand, Cor de Groot, Mark Hambourg, Vladimir Horowitz, José Iturbi, Maryla Jonas, Louis Kentner, Edward Kilenyi, Raoul Koczalski, Kubka Kollesa,Witold Malcuzynski plays the Chopin Waltzes (Angel LP cover) Leonid Kreutzer, Oscar Levant, Robert Lortat, Nicholas de Magaloff, Bronislaw Malcuzynski, Arturo Michelangeli, Margarita Mirimanowa, William Murdoch, Leo Nadelmann, Vladimir de Pachmann, Ignzcy Paderewski, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Moriz Rosenthal, Artur Rubinstein, Emil von Sauer, Solomon, Willi Stech, Johann Stockmarr, Raymond Trouard, Otakar Vandrovic, Wilfred Worden, Michael van Zadora and Carlo Zecci.

Although rarely performed, there are many further Chopin waltzes. Those designated as #s 15, 16 and 17 (in E major, A-flat major and E-flat major) predate the 1831 Op. 18. While short, simple and pleasant, they barely hint at the glories to come. Numbers 18 and 19 (in E-flat major and A minor), published only in 1955, present a deeper challenge, as they stem from Chopin's maturity – # 18 is dated 1840 and scholars place # 19 anywhere from 1843 to 1848. Their melodies, if not as compelling as those of the published ones, are characteristic, yet Chopin seemed content to merely state rather than develop them. Some scholars doubt their authenticity, while others suggest that they are merely unfinished. When played in sequence with the familiar 14, all five are a letdown. Robert Stĺhlbrand cites a dozen further Chopin waltzes, including six catalogued by Chopin's sister but lost when her house burned down in 1863.

The first and last published sets form stylistic bookends for the Chopin waltzes.

Before writing his Op. 18,
The opening fanfare for Op. 18
The opening fanfare of Op. 18 -- note the unusual fingering
The opening melody of Op. 18
The opening melody of Op. 18
Chopin wrote home from Vienna, marveling at the "terrific applause" garnered by the Strauss and Lanner waltzes, yet citing them as evidence of the public's "corrupt taste," and claiming that he was unable to play them. Yet, the structure of his own first published waltz, entitled "Grand Valse brilliante," closely adhered to the style he claimed to deplore. Following an opening fanfare (a standard functional device of the time to draw dancers' attention) that coalesces into ľ time, a schematic outline, assigning a letter to each distinct 16-bar melody, would read: A, A, B, A, B, C, C, D, E, F, F, G, F, G, F, H, a bridge to reassert the rhythm, A, B, A (interrupted by two pauses), four bars of bass rhythm, and then a coda combining fragments of B, G and A, followed by A that dissolves into scalar elaborations that lead to cadential chords. A typical performance packs this profusion of music, arguably danceable, into five minutes.

The three waltzes of Op. 64 are far simpler, yet more affecting.
The melody of Op 64/1
The melody of Op 64/2
The melody of Op. 64/3
The opening melodies of the three Op. 64 waltzes
The first, reputed to be a depiction of the scampering of Sands' pet dog, is the shortest and has been nicknamed the "minute waltz," prompting some pianists to attempt the impossible task of cramming it into 60 seconds, perhaps not realizing that the title refers to the French word for tiny, rather than the unit of time. After a four-bar intro, its structure is a mere A-B-A, with a lovely sustained complementary middle section and the return of the opening heralded by a trill. The second, which has been likened to a mazurka, has a set of three themes arrayed as A-B-C-B-A-B, that unify the piece through their interrelationships, and again the central "C" section provides a contemplative change of mood. Perhaps most remarkable is the third, which really has only a single genuine melody that meanders off into a stream-of-consciousness meditation that Charles Stanley aptly describes as having "wondrous shifts in harmonies" and "gliding chromatics," even presenting a counter-melody in the bass as a novel central episode. Together, the Op. 64 waltzes display Chopin at the height of his powers, transforming the most commonplace of all the forms in which he composed into remarkable personal statements even while respecting and preserving their fundamental essence.


Title -- Chopin's Performing Style Perhaps more than with any other composer, Chopin's music is integrally related to his own unique performing style, which scholars and artists have struggled to infer from surviving evidence and the vast range of others' descriptions and interpretations.

At his death, Chopin left a dozen pages intended as a rough draft of a treatise which Sand claimed was intended to cover not only piano playing but an overall theory of music, and which surely would have been both fascinating and illuminating. Yet, the legendary pianist Alfred Cortot, famed as a Chopin interpreter, dismissed the treatise as Chopin's attempt to cash in on his fame and rejected its value: "[T]he manuscripts bear no sign of any personal touch and is of surprising vacuity [with] no logical sequence of ideas [and is] nothing more than a puzzle made up of the most commonplace clichés on the teaching of the elements of music."

Yet Chopin's playing and composing were based on a loose set of three theoretical precepts. The first was his belief that music was a language with a unique structure, grammar and vocabulary, all to be placed in the service of expression. Second was his reverence for singing. He urged his pupils to study singers and to sing themselves, insisting that music be phrased as declamation, conveyed in long breaths to avoid fragmentation yet with natural accents, including crescendos on ascending melodies and decrescendos on falling phrases.
Chopin playing at the home of Prince Radziwill, 1829 (Painting by H. Siemiradzki
Chopin playing at Prince Radziwill's home
– painting by H. Siemiradzki (1829)
According to Mikuli, Chopin analogized notes to syllables, bars to words and phrases to thoughts. Third, Chopin eschewed the standard goal of uniform scalar runs by exploring and respecting the unique physiology and individual attributes of each finger. Thus, to him the fourth finger, bound by a tendon to the third, is inherently the least independent. He held the C Major scale to be the most difficult and unnatural of all, as the long fingers fell more naturally on black keys, and so he would start his pupils on scales of B, F# and D-flat and asserted that the most natural position of the hand was on E-F#-G#-A#-B. Even today, with all the development of technique that has followed, pianists remain in awe of how wonderfully Chopin's music fits the hands and feels natural to play – while other composers forced the piano and its players to express their inner thoughts, Chopin's expression was inseparable from the demands of the keyboard and the human body.

Chopin's own playing was distinguished with three traits that transformed piano technique. The first was legato, described by Mikuli as tones melting into each other. In James Huneker's admonition: "If you want to play Chopin, play him in curves." The second was rubato, a special type of rhythmic freedom in which the left (bass) hand kept strict time while the right (melodic) hand played more intuitively. Huneker cautioned: "Without the skeleton, a musical composition is flaccid, shapeless, weak and without character." Liszt likened the effect to wind rippling the leaves of a tree while the trunk remained steady. The third was overall delicacy, in which nuance rose to a level of subtle power, unobscured by pronounced dynamic outbursts. Chopin's favorite piano was a Pleyel, having an easy touch and veiled sonority, which he often brought with him to a recital. Commentators have said that Chopin single-handedly transcended the essentially percussive nature of the piano. Sophie Leo: "He appeared to hardly touch the piano; there was no suggestion of the mechanical."

Chopin had few notable pupils. The most promising, Karl Filtsch, died at age 15. Most of the others were mildly talented girls of society, whose parents paid handsomely for the prestige of his tutelage. Chopin prized spontaneity, forbidding his students to practice more than three hours per day and ordering them not only to dispense with the score but to not even look at the keyboard and even to play in the dark, as only then would one's hearing function with all of its sensitivity.
Chopin at the piano, by Eliza Radziwill
Chopin at the piano
by Eliza Radziwill
Supple fingers, flexible hands and wrists and passive arms and elbows fostered a weightless variety of touch and nuance of tone. Among the traditional rules that Chopin broke through his own playing were using the thumb on black keys, passing fingers over each other, sliding fingers between adjacent notes and changing fingers on a single key like an organist.

Sand wrote that "only at the piano does he really open his heart." Yet, unlike Liszt, Thalberg and the other keyboard giants of his time whose fame derived from constant exposure, Chopin is known to have given only 30 public concerts in his entire life (and in many of those he was but one of several participating artists). He explained: "Concerts are never real music. You have to give up the idea of hearing in them the most beautiful things in art." Rather, Chopin's art blossomed in private, as he gave recitals before the aristocratic and cultural elite. He also played extensively before students and friends. Fontana recalled that Chopin would improvise for hours with "an inexhaustible torrent of precious materials out of which coalesced his finished compositions." Emile Galliard recalled that: "upon finishing a piece, Chopin would often stay sitting at the keyboard in silence, pursuing a dream of his own."

Not only was Chopin revered as a unique stylist, but a persistent theme among commentators is how his music suffered in other hands. Thus Hallé: "Nobody has ever been able to reproduce his works as they sounded under his magical fingers." Hector Berlioz: "His playing is shot through with a thousand nuances of movement of which he alone holds the secret, impossible to convey by instructions. … [A] sense of the unexpected is one of its principal beauties." Mathias: "Nothing remotely resembling his playing has ever been heard since. The instrument Chopin played never existed except beneath Chopin's fingers." Cheriemietieff: "It is a desecration to play his compositions. Nobody [else] understands them."

Yet nearly every great pianist has tried to rise to this daunting challenge. Fortunately, Chopin's supreme and enduring popularity with both artists and audiences has bequeathed us a bounty of recordings stretching back to the dawn of the 78. While intrinsically fascinating, some afford a particular opportunity to infer the composer's own style that his contemporaries deemed such a crucial part of his legacy, while others suggest the glories of scores that invite artists to add their own creative interpretive input.


Title -- Pioneer Recordings The very first Chopin waltz on record by a pianist of renown was cut in April 1903 by Raoul Pugno (1852 – 1914),Raoul Pugno who had studied with Georges Mathias, a Chopin pupil, and was famed as a Mozart specialist. A huge man with a powerful tone that is amply evident in his recording of the funeral march movement of the Chopin Sonata # 2, he was described by Wanda Landowska as having jeu perlé (pearly touch), which he exploited fully in his recording of the Chopin Berceuse. His disc of the Op 34/1 waltz is exquisitely light and airy, with considerable flexibility in both rhythm and dynamics, and boasting breathtaking scalar runs. At barely 2ľ minutes (compared to a typical 4˝) , it's wonderfully fleet and exhilarating without seeming at all forced. (None of the other sides in his first session, which included the waltz, exceeded 2ľ minutes, which may have been the limit of the equipment; when encountering unusually fast tempi in discs of this vintage, one is tempted to suspect mechanical necessity, rather than purely artistic reasons.) Alas, Pugno's 21 sides, including three with his protégé, contralto Maria Gay, were all cut on a defective turntable with severely fluctuating velocity that sours the notes and requires substantial mental adjustment to enjoy. Even so, their vitality and character burst through the limitations of the technology.

Although Alfred Grünfeld (1852 – 1924),Alfred Grunfeld is generally considered the first pianist of note to have made recordings (his first sessions were in 1899), he waxed Chopin waltzes only in 1907 (Op. 34/2), 1911 (Op. 64/2) and 1912 (Post. e minor). Although famed as a Viennese charmer who radiated good humor (Josef Hoffmann said that he "had a velvety touch, but he only played salon music really well"), Grünfeld included much serious long-form music in his extensive recitals (and included a highly credible Bach Gavotte and Wagner Isolde's Liebestod among his 90 recordings, although most were of his own light pieces). Grünfeld was also known as a superb mimic of others' styles and, perhaps ironically, his three Chopin waltzes (as well as two mazurkas and a nocturne), with their generally steady (but by no means rigid) left-hand rhythm and subtly free right-hand phrasing, seem to exemplify the descriptions of Chopin's own notions of rubato far more than Pugno's disc. Admittedly, the three Chopin waltzes Grünfeld recorded are among the least emotionally complex of the series, but their refined elegance and gentle allure seem to evoke the composer's own regal bearing and mild demeanor.

Perhaps the closest we can ever hope to come to the genuine Chopin playing style lies in the recordings of Raoul Koczalski (1885 – 1948). While none of Chopin's own pupils lived to record, Koczalski's pedigree was unique among those who followed. Koczalski was Polish and a pupil of Karl Mikuli,Raoul Koczalski Chopin's foremost student who devoted his life to teaching his master's approach to his works. Yet Koczalski was a prodigy of such a high order (he was playing Chopin at age 3 and by age 11 had given his 1000th public concert) that after studying with Mikuli as a child he had no need of any further teachers. Thus, having absorbed Chopin through Mikuli, he remained relatively immune from outside influences. A Chopin specialist, he began recording in the mid-1920s and in 1928 cut two waltzes (Opp. 18 and 34/2) for Polydor. The results are quite surprising. Compared to Grünfeld's record, Koczalski's 34/2 is considerably more wayward in constantly altering the basic pulse and adding embellishments not indicated in the score. His Op. 18 waltz is utterly undanceable, as its sections are so strongly differentiated. His approach exemplifies the comments of many contemporaries who chided Chopin for his extreme rhythmic freedom; thus, Berlioz had claimed that Chopin could not play in time and pushed rhythmic independence much too far, while Hallé recalled that Chopin would hold the first note of each bar so long that his mazurkas, written in ľ time, sounded as if they were phrased in 4/4 – hardly the first time that theoretical writing is trumped and enlivened by the experience of performance. Koczalski also indulges in "breaking the hands," by which the left-hand rhythmic downbeat tends to precede the right-hand melodic note written on the same beat. (Equally fascinating are Koczalski's two vastly different recordings of the Op 9/2 Nocturne, which evoke the composer's own practice of playing his works spontaneously on each occasion.)

Of other Polish pianists the most famous by far was Ignace Jan Paderewski (1869 – 1941). Ignace Paderewski -- RCA Camden LP cover In The Great Pianists, Harold Schonberg notes the extreme disparity between the disparagement of Paderewski by critics and fellow musicians and the ecstatic adulation of the public, who idolized Paderewski, although perhaps more for his forceful personality, determination, statesmanship, patriotism, charisma and physical bearing (not to mention his prodigious halo of hair, at least in his younger days) than for his actual talent. Indeed, Paderewski tied his views on rubato to his Polish roots and essence: "Chopin played from the heart. … Mechanical execution and emotion are incompatible. To play Chopin … with rhythmic rigidity and pious respect for the indicated rate of movement would be … intolerably monotonous. … Chopin's music refuses submission to the metronome as if it were the yoke of some hated government; this music bids us hear, know and realize that our nation, our land, the whole of Poland, feels and moves in tempo rubato." Paderewski's recordings of several waltzes may barely suggest his reputed novel pedal effects and overall mystical impact on audiences, but his delicacy, sensitive pacing, poise, poetic flow and sense of repressed artistic emotion are unmistakable. While a 1912 Op. 34/1 sounds finicky and affected, a 1917 Op. 64/2 is delicately nuanced and a 1928 disc of the Op. 18 waltz, arguably the most pedestrian of the official canon, flows the sections together naturally yet with just enough distinctive character to sustain interest while suggesting an integrated composition rather than a succession of episodes.

Vladimir de Pachmann (1848 – 1933) not only was hailed as the greatest Chopin player of his time, but also claims the distinction of being the only pianist to have made Chopin records who was born during the composer's life (although they overlapped only barely). Vladimir de Pachmann De Pachmann was reputed to be an extremely sensitive artist, but by the time he came to record he was known as the "Chopinzee," as antic eccentricities (weird dress, incessant fussing with the piano stool, lecturing the audience and outrageous interview statements) had all but eclipsed his talent. His records are a mixed bag; some are awfully sloppy, but others display exquisite delicacy and successfully invoke his former wonder. (An especially bizarre curiosity is a riotous take of a Chopin Étude through which he babbles incessantly and after flubbing the ending protests: "Godowsky [his arch-rival] was the author!") De Pachmann did not cut any of the waltzes on disc, but he did perform two in 1906 in the Welte process, a sophisticated piano roll mechanism that replaced punched holes with magnetic markings to reflect not only the notes but their duration and force (along with the pedals), thus replicating a pianist's touch and, when reproduced on a concert grand, adding considerable nuance to the boring (and false) uniformity of the standard system. De Pachmann's waltzes display not only the sheer beauty of tone for which he strove, but also his penchant to distort and over-refine his phrasing. Thus, he uses a dramatically sustained opening upbeat and an extreme concluding deceleration to bracket Op. 64/2 and sustains the trill-like opening figure and adds an extra cadence to the end of Op. 64/1. Indeed, throughout Op. 64/2, he constantly distends pick-up notes to shift the tempo into an amalgam of triple and duple time, yet so smoothly as to create its own compelling, if quirky, internal logic. While these gestures are all lovely and effective, they clearly depart from the score and fall well outside the accepted range of Chopin interpretation. Yet, taken on their own terms, Pachmann's rolls are astoundingly alive with a sense of invention that recalls the composer's own delight in improvisation. The most freewheeling Chopin waltzes ever recorded, they serve both as a tribute to Chopin's genius and as recognition, far more typical of his time than ours, that a musician is not a mere technician but an artist in his own right who can – and should – be a true partner with the composer.

An intriguing pendent Maryla Jonasto the remarkable Pachmann rolls are two waltzes (Opp. 70/1 and 70/3) recorded in 1946 by his student Maryla Jonas (1911 – 1959). Born and trained in Warsaw, she had a turbulent life – displaced by the Nazis who murdered her family, imprisoned, emigrated to Brazil – after which her career was resumed under Rubinstein's patronage. Perhaps to compensate for the horror of reality through idealizing, she caresses the tender sections of these waltzes with an astounding degree of suppleness and care. While purists could condemn her for letting the musical continuity lapse, her approach is truly unique and highly effective.

Among other legendary pianists of the distant past who recorded individual Chopin waltzes are:

  • Leopold Godowsky (1870 – 1938) – Polish, known as a perfectionist and hailed by peers and connoisseurs alike as a pianist's pianist, Godowsky was reputed to be a phenomenon in private recitals in the comfort of his home, but inhibited in the concert hall and even less moving in the recording studio. He recognized this, writing in a letter in his final year, "Do not judge me by my records!" Indeed, many of his recordings, including three waltzes (Opp. 18 [1922], 42 [1916] and 64/2 [1928]) are bland and even perfunctory compared to the unrestrained probing of his peers, yet they do reflect a fluid precision that sounds quite familiar to modern ears.


  • Josef Hoffman (1876 – 1957) – Hoffman, too, was Polish, famed for his precision, left recordings that barely suggest his prowess, and cut three of the waltzes (Opp. 34/1 [1918], 64/2 [1923] and posth. e-minor [1916]), the last substantially more invigorated than the other two. Moriz Rosenthal plays Chopin -- Biddulph CD cover (More interesting are two late recordings – an unreleased 1935 disc of Op. 42 and an astonishingly fleet Op. 64/1 taken live at his 50th anniversary Carnegie Hall concert.) Both his and Godowsky's records are the first to closely follow the scores, largely shorn of personality yet boasting undeniable integrity, offering subtle inflection rather than intrusive self-esteem. Their value lies as an antidote to the trend of the time, thus suggesting a wide range of interpretive approaches to the romantic repertoire – and paving the way to the modern approach of minimal infusion of a performer's personality.


  • Moriz Rosenthal (1862 – 1946) – Polish and a pupil of Mikuli, but also of Liszt, who stressed a far greater range of emotional involvement than Chopin and his disciples, Rosenthal was known as a thunderer, but had mellowed considerably by the time he made his first recordings at age 65. While we can only infer how he must have sounded in his youth, his 1929 Op. 42 still displays a far greater dynamic range than any of his contemporaries, heightened by insistent accentuation. His 1930 Op. 64/2 goes even further by eschewing Chopin's legato altogether for brittle, staccato phrasing and overt rhythmic hesitation.


  • Emil von Sauer (1862 – 1942) – Another Liszt pupil, Sauer recorded both of Liszt's piano concertos in 1938 with Weingartner in surprisingly lyrical readings that may attest to Liszt's reputed encouragement of his pupils to develop their own artistic personalities rather than demand that they replicate his own. Sergei Rachmaninoff Plays Chopin -- BMG CD cover In any event, Alan Vicat credits Sauer with "the most fluid and flawless technique of all time" and "an urbane personality of utmost refinement," amply reflected in his three Chopin waltz records of Opp. 34/3, 42 and Op. Post. that seem to reflect the composer's own keyboard approach with their patrician aura, yet spiced with peppy tempos and plenty of spirit, energy and radiance.


  • Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) – Remembered nowadays for his deeply romantic compositions, Rachmaninoff brought his creator's mind to deconstruct works to discover their essence. Emphasizing their architecture and musical logic in his playing, he always sought the "point" of each composition – not necessarily its climax, but its mystical core of culmination. Rachmaninoff unabashedly and liberally departed from the score – ranging from expressive gestures to outright recomposition. Yet unlike de Pachmann he was fully serious and his motivation and goal impresses as more intellectual than emotive. Among his recordings were nine of the Chopin waltzes, cut from 1919 to 1930. All are vibrant and revelatory, with constant surprises emerging from a sure sense of discovery and exploration that shares Pachmann's evocation of the composer's reputed playing style suspended between respect for the formal score and an outright joy of spontaneous invention.

Title -- Some Integral SetsThe first complete set of 14 Chopin Waltzes was cut by Alfred Cortot in 1934. Alfred Cortot plays the Chopin Waltzes -- World Records LP cover It is often hailed nowadays as hugely inflected, but such descriptions seem valid only in comparison to more modern "objective" versions rather than to his predecessors. Yet, it's clearly impressive to hear not just a few isolated pieces but the entire cycle played in the style of earlier interpreters. Cortot was deeply devoted to the cause of Chopin and to disseminating his music on record – his writings describe individual pieces in terms of specific and deeply personal narratives, and by the time he recorded the Waltzes he had already issued not only a complete set of the Chopin Études but two full versions of the complete Préludes and Ballades. There was a problem, though – as Bryce Morrison gently noted: "From time to time his heart rather than his fingers are in the right place." As in nearly all his recordings, Cortot's Waltzes are full of wrong notes, some at climactic moments. Yet, the ultimate tribute to Cortot's artistry lies in the fact that he is so revered in spite of flaws that in lesser hands would be fatal. Indeed, they become utterly irrelevant in the midst of such rich readings by one who combined a lifelong study and love of Chopin with vast personal ingenuity.

Cortot was also one of the most important teachers of his time, and the next important complete set was by one of his students, Dinu Lipatti (1917 – 1950). Of all the legions of Chopin interpreters on record, Lipatti perhaps could identify the closest with the composer – for years before his own vastly premature death at age 33, his strength was sapped by leukemia. Lipatti left us two sets of the Waltzes, both from his final months, when he briefly rallied through then-experimental cortisone treatments – a July 1950 studio set (laboriously recorded over the course of a week, issued on Columbia) and a September 16 concert (his last) at Besançon, France (EMI). Dinu Lipatti plays the Chopin Waltzes -- Columbia LP cover Although they are remarkably similar, the poignant circumstances of the recital lend it a special aura of transcendancy, as Lipatti distilled into this final public appearance the summation of all that he felt as an artist, infused with an intensely human struggle of the spirit to overcome his physical frailty. A Rumanian who shared Chopin's native feel for rubato, Lipatti's conception is fundamentally intellectual, thoroughly-considered, dignified and finely-honed, yet with sufficient vitality to avoid any sense of routine.

The Lipatti set raises the fascinating question of presentation. Cortot's 78s finessed the issue by presenting each waltz on a separate side (except for four short ones that were paired, presumably for technical rather than esthetic reasons). But with the advent of the LP, the order of the waltzes became significant, as all 14 would be split onto only two sides, and thus present a continuous program in a fixed progression. The vast majority of integral recordings proceed in the order of publication, which, although it has become a familiar sequence, neither strictly comports with the chronology of composition nor makes much musical sense. After all, Chopin published two of his waltzes (Opp. 18 and 42) individually, and the others (Opp. 34 and 64) as sets of three, with no apparent intention that they should all ever be played together, much less in that order. The remaining six waltzes that Chopin deemed unworthy of publication tend to wrap up the series with slackening inspiration. Lipatti, though, took the opportunity to perform and record the waltzes in a more pleasing order, with a more logical flow of mood and key, so as to culminate with the two most brilliant pieces (Opp. 18 and 34/1). (At Besançon, though, he ran out of energy and could not play the latter, substituting a Bach chorale as the final summation of his artistic life.) It is both curious and disappointing that in recording the Waltzes more pianists haven't followed Lipatti's personal and creative lead.

Perhaps the most famous Chopin player of his time was Arthur Rubinstein (1887 – 1983),Artur Rubinstein plays the Chopin Waltzes -- RCA LP cover whose life was not only long but filled with "life and love and art and all the other wonderful things in the world," as he once put it. This joy and contentment informed his music and led in part to his compulsion to defend his temperate and judicious approach to Chopin. As he saw it, in reaction to the 19th Century image of Chopin as effete, sickly and neurotic, 20th Century performers compensated with self-indulgent, ego-driven mannerism, from which Rubinstein rescued his compatriot with self-effacing, natural sincerity to restore Chopin's nobility and inherent power. Indeed, his two complete sets of the waltzes (1953 and 1963, both RCA), each recorded in a single day, breathe with an air of relaxed elegance that emphasizes the aristocratic life to which Chopin catered while attenuating the undercurrent of angst, leaving instead a haunting wistfulness. In a sense, Rubinstein presents Chopin with a priceless gift – transmuting his waltzes into symbols of the kind of aristocratic life Chopin craved but never attained. Rhythms within each section tend to be far more strict than in other versions, with subtle gradations mostly reserved to prepare for transitions and more striking changes of mood. We should note, though, that despite the similarity of his two comfortable studio sets, there was another side to Rubinstein's art, as displayed in recordings of individual waltzes. Among his very first records are the Opp. 34/1 (1928) and 64/2 (1930) waltzes which he plays with far more dazzle and impulse – indeed, so much more as to place Rubinstein perilously closer to the personality-driven interpreters he claimed to have rebelled against. And in a 1964 Moscow recital – one of his very few live recordings – he plays the Opp. 34/1 and 34/2 waltzes both faster and with considerably deeper molding of individual phrases.

Some other sets that merit particular interest:

  • Edward Kilenyi (1910 – 2000) – Edward Kilenyi plays the Chopin Waltzes -- Remington 10 According to the 1952 Clarke discography noted above, the only other complete set of Chopin Waltzes as of that year beyond Cortot's was a set of Columbia 78s by Edward Kilenyi. Philadelphia-born and Hungarian-trained, Kilenyi was deeply admired by such disparate conductors as Beecham and Mengelberg, although he had only brief American and European careers before devoting himself to teaching in Florida for nearly thirty years. I've never come across his 78s, but a later edition for the pioneering independent Remington label reveals a fascinating approach in which each LP side seems to reflect a competing side of the composer's personality. The first is a throw-back to the headstrong interpretations of earlier eras – Op. 18 sets the pace by bristling with lumpy rhythm, as if Chopin were bridling against social use of his waltzes for actual dancing or contented toe-tapping to the expected regular accents, and Op. 34 # 1 tosses off its scalar runs with indifference to grace or ornamentation. While the entire first side is too swift for sentiment, the second is downright tender, turning from Chopin's defiance to reflect his growing introspection. Remington included the Kilenyi recording as part of its well-intentioned Music Plus series, following each side's performance with a fatuous lecture by Sigmund Spaeth that dwells upon the use of the waltz melodies in pop culture.


  • Alexander Brailowsky (1896 – 1976) – Alexander Brailowski plays the Chopin Waltzes -- RCA LP cover A Chopin specialist, Brailowsky proved his devotion by giving the first full Chopin cycle in history in Paris in 1924, reportedly using Chopin's own piano for a portion. His 1950s RCA mono LP is a bit sharper than his 1960 Columbia stereo remake. Played in the grand manner, it's crisp and lively, with pronounced ornamentation. Yet, after the opening Op. 18, a curious mannerism emerges, by which Brailowsky elongates the first beats, especially in the first and third measures of a four-bar phrase. At first it adds a nice lilt to the otherwise repetitive pulse (and could be intended to emulate Chopin's own style that led some to comment that his triple time lapsed into duple) but after a while it becomes tiresome and loses any expressive purpose. Brailowsky alters the order of the waltzes, but only slightly, presenting them as 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 10 on side one and 6, 7 ,8, 5, 11, 12, 13, 14 on side two.


  • In light of all the disparaging 19th century twaddle about Chopin being effeminate Ingrid Haebler(not intended as a compliment, and rather absurd in light of his well-known passionate long-term affair with George Sand, who had many lovers before him), it's interesting to hear how famous female pianists treated the Waltzes. Frankly, there doesn't seem to be any particular "womanly" style. Indeed, perhaps in order to quash the chauvinistic view, if not turn expectations on their head, Ingrid Haebler (b. 1929) offers a downright "masculine" account (Vox LP, 1960) with huge muscular strength, strong dynamics and massive climaxes. Nothing delicate or reserved there! Yet she carefully shapes her phrasing with swells in the middle, as Chopin reportedly wanted, and a pliable pulse in deference to his sense of rubato. However, she concludes her cycle with relatively detached renditions of the first three unpublished waltzes, an anti-climax, both musically and emotionally, to her bold vision. (Her 1969 Philips remake is disappointingly tender, cordial and altogether more conventional.)


  • Geza Anda (1921 – 1976) shared Chopin's reverence of singing as the ideal for piano technique;Geza Anda plays the Chopin Waltzes -- Parnass LP cover Wilhelm Furtwängler called him the troubadour of the keyboard. His final recording was a 1975 set of the Waltzes. The standard sequence generally evolves from youthful optimism and vigor to more pensive nostalgia, as if the composer were increasingly viewing society and life from afar. Anda tempers and decelerates the earlier numbers to create a more uniform mood of wistful contemplation throughout. Most remarkable is the impact of taming the dynamics and adding a minute or so to the usual pace of Op. 34/1, arguably the most exhilarating Chopin Waltz, which Lipatti used as the thrilling conclusion of his reordered cycle. In Anda's hands, the result is altogether autumnal and retrospective, suggesting a depth barely evident from typical renditions. Anda's set paves the way for Ravel's 1920 La Valse, a multifaceted piece that both crystallizes and challenges the waltz as the vehicle for blissful abandon. It also raises the question of why and for whom Chopin really wrote his Waltzes – the nominal purpose of pleasing his society patrons, or as a means by which he submerged his own feelings of melancholy within an outwardly carefree vessel. Thus does Anda invest the most nominally insubstantial form in which Chopin composed with a profound weight and interior dimension that invokes the extreme effort by which Chopin infused his work with repressed emotion.


Title -- Sources Of the dozens of books written about Chopin, most give short shrift to the waltzes, but perhaps that's a tribute to their degree of accessibility that requires no elucidation. The most fascinating is the biography published the year after Chopin's death by Franz Liszt (tr: Edward Waters, Free Press of Glencoe, 1963). Even when stripped of the vastly expanded material added three decades later by Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, who used the nominal subject as a pretext for asserting and expounding upon her Polish nationalism, it generally dwells on thinly researched reflections on society and, in Waters' words, is more a testimonial than a biography. Yet, taken on its own terms, it presents a fine portrait of the man and his art as seen through the eyes of a contemporary peer. Another enthralling take by a fellow artist is Alfred Cortot's In Search of Chopin (tr: Cyril and Rene Clarke, Abelard Press, 1952), with separate chapters devoted to Chopin's portraits, hands, teaching, concerts, correspondence and personality, all filtered through the lens of one of his foremost advocates and interpreters.

The source that I found most helpful was Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger's Chopin – Pianist and Teacher, as Seen By His Pupils (Cambridge University Press, 1986), which analyzes reliable accounts (ie: sans Sands) to examine Chopin's performing style, technique and specific works, even comparing fingerings and accent markings on surviving pupils' scores. Also valuable were James Huneker's Chopin – The Man and His Music (Scribner, 1900), a trained pianist's impressionistic labor of love, and the information on Chopin's personal style in Reginald Gray's Famous Pianists and Their Technique (Robert B. Luce, Inc., 1974). My description of the development of the waltz is primarily from the articles by Percy Scholes in the Oxford Companion to Music (Oxford University, 1959) and Mosco Carner in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1951 edition). Other useful material is from Harold Schonberg's The Great Pianists (Simon & Shuster, 1963) and Paul Henry Lang's Music in Western Civilization (Norton, 1941).

Peter Gutmann

Copyright 2009 by Peter Gutmann


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