As part of the composer's 200th birthday celebrations, the second Chopin Forum – the first was in 1999
– was convened by Chopin scholar John Rink, who, with fellow-participants Jim Samson and Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, edits the New Critical Edition of Chopin published by Peters. Other participants were performers and teachers Kenneth Hamilton, Ronan O'Hora, Peter Donahoe and Kevin Kenner, plus piano restorer David Winston. With the possible exception of Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger's very scholarly account of Chopin's first Paris concert in 1832, almost every Forum presentation had a lively general appeal. As one contributor commented, Chopin's music is conceived for the piano in a way that Beethoven's, for example, isn't. By this, I believe, they meant that it originates in keyboard improvisation, working with and not against the instrument's tactile and sonorous qualities, for instance by focussing climaxes in the middle and not the outer registers. Samson's brilliant New Grove essay on Chopin – the distillation of a career's writing and thinking about his music – comments that it uniquely embodies the expressive and technical characteristics of the instrument. But it's also true that his music decisively shapes our view of what pianism involves.
There is a further question of course: "characteristics of which instrument?" This was the topic of the Roundtable "Playing Chopin on the Pianos of his Time", which featured David Winston of the Period Piano Company, who restored the 1839 Pleyel used in the Forum. For him, the restored instrument offers "another way of playing the music"; it is "a kind of recording device that enables us to hear sound from Chopin's time". For John Rink, in contrast, original instruments offer a "key to a world beyond" – beyond our present, he means – helping performers translate Chopin's soundworld convincingly onto the modern piano.
The panel agreed with the late Hans Keller's thought – something like "We can play their instruments, but can't hear with their ears" – without following Charles Rosen's counsel of despair in apparently dismissing our use of early instruments. Chopin was the most colouristic of keyboard composers, and although familiar with Erard pianos – somewhat closer to the modern piano – he favoured the soft-toned Pleyel, and according to Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, was delighted with his instruments. Lizst, in contrast, complained about their lack of robustness, and projection, preferring the louder and therefore heavier instruments that appeared towards the end of his life.
John Rink remarked on the 1839 instrument's idiosyncrasies, and clearly the performer's experience is very different on a Pleyel compared to a modern Steinway. The different zones and voices across the keyboard contrast with Steinway consistency, and there's also a greater homogeneity across different Steinway instruments. Pedalling is very different, in that on a Pleyel the dampers are much lighter and so do not work as efficiently as on modern instruments, and its single-escapement action means that notes cannot repeat rapidly. The challenge of the modern piano is to avoid being too heavy, while with older pianos it's the reverse – to project sufficiently. Pianists of the time had to ornament, otherwise the note would die. As David Winston commented, playing a Pleyel is like driving a car without power-steering – an experience it's increasingly easy to forget – although as Rink commented, the instrument essentially requires a wrist/digital technique. A "Nocturne" aesthetic dominates our idea of Chopin, but as the panel noted, some of his music seems to call for a big sound.
These are intriguing issues that ultimately concern the aesthetics of music – as do other topics addressed by Messrs Rink, Samson and Hamilton. Rink's talk on "Playing (with) the Chopin sources" suggested that changes or ambiguities in Chopin's scores – in one notorious instance, a change in tempo marking from "Vivace" to "Largo" – resulted from a struggle to make an imperfect notation express what he wanted it to, rather than a change in what he wanted. (A problem that composers have always confronted, of course.) Rink wasn't quite prepared to see Chopin as essentially an improviser who lacked the concept of a fixed work, but the panel discussion almost got to that viewpoint in the second Roundtable, "Teaching Chopin".
In failing to advocate "letting a thousand flowers bloom" as far as score-variants were concerned – that is, giving a choice to the performer who might not want to come to any final decision – Rink seemed to disagree with Kevin Kenner, who while arguing that true interpretational originality begins with close attention to the text, was prepared to play different score-variants on different occasions. A judicious compromise was stated by Jim Samson, who argued that increasingly perfectionist late Chopin, at least, does rest on a fixed work-concept – "ornamentation" has become structural, rather than merely decorative and improvised. (He also commented that both Busoni and Stravinsky – and, I'd add, Schoenberg – while disagreeing on the contribution of the performer, hold that he or she must try to
elucidate the composer's Idea; they just disagree on how that Idea can be accessed.)
In his very engaging talk "Confronting Chopin: Arrangements and Derangements by Pianists of the Past", Hamilton argued that our idea of a fixed work-concept has been reinforced by recordings, piano competitions – which require "objective" standards of critical judgment, of which textual correctness is a key element – and the Associated Board. Hamilton is author of the acclaimed After The Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance, which argued that the pursuit of original instruments and performance practices must acknowledge the original audiences that these were created for, or pandered to. His talk aimed to show just how foreign to our own was the concert practice of Chopin's day, with interpolations and improvisations linking pieces in the programme, themselves not always embellished with decorum. In a 1920s recording, Busoni inserted a brief linking passage to establish the new key between Prelude and Nocturne – one of several entertaining examples that Hamilton played, using the Steinway. (David Winston commented afterwards that the modern players seemed to find the Pleyel a little intimidating.)
The roundtable on "Teaching Chopin" considered Liszt's comment, that Chopin was unlucky in his pupils. Unlike Liszt, Chopin mostly taught amateurs, some of them very fine, who did not go on to teach or have concert careers, and so the tradition of Chopin playing was not transmitted as widely as Lizst's. The panel agreed that the more modest notion of transmission is preferable to the idea of a tradition of "grand-pupils", because pupils usually have several teachers, and ideally received teaching suited to their particular needs, and so there cannot be any "true" line of succession which preserves the master's style. O'Hora, Kenner and Hamilton certainly gave the impression of being highly thoughtful and insightful teachers themselves.
Other issues covered included tantalising questions of tuning – Chopin apparently had strong preferences, but we do not know exactly for what – and the Polishness of his music. Eigeldinger's responses were translated very ably by John Rink – who bore an uncanny resemblance to John Malkovich in Disgrace, not in personality I'm sure – and the sessions were chaired with consummate skill by the BBC's Tom Service. The Chopin Forum was a model of its kind, its success built on the selection of a really excellent panel of communicators.
The event had a perfectly-judged "Coda" – a 45-minute recital by Chopin Competition winner Alex Kobrin, just the right length after a day of Chopin discussion. More to the point, although Kobrin was somewhat clinical in manner, he offered highly sensitive classical interpretations of Scherzos op. 39 and 54, Three Nocturnes op. 15, and Polonaise-Fantasy op. 61. This was a modern performance on a modern Steinway – no guitar-like arpeggiation or dislocated rubato, interpolations or linking passages – without sentimentality but strongly felt.
I'm glad to report that the audience listened with rapt attention, and didn't call out for repeats of memorable passages. Kobrin's performances offered a searching, visionary Chopin, who transmuted his classical heritage into a profound inwardness.
~ Andy Hamilton
Published in International Piano, May/June 2010
Purcell Room, South Bank, London