The inclusion of an all-Chopin program at the end of a monthly column devoted to the baroque may seem a little odd, but then Frédéric Chopin was a different kind of romantic composer. As the present artist, German pianist Burkard Schliessmann, observes, “Chopin’s own sense of Classical form made him a stranger to the world of phantasmagoria” – the world that absorbed much of the creative energies of composers such as Schumann, Weber, Berlioz and Liszt. In Chopin, by contrast, the feeling often strikes us clearer and at a deeper level because it comes to us through the music itself, without any extra-musical associations. With his aristocratic sense of style and his classical training, Chopin is always precise about what he has to say and was not prone to “wander about,” as other romantics were from time to time.
From the interpreter, Chopin requires the balance and clarity that Burkard Schliessmann brings to these recordings. Even amid the sound and fury of the most tempest-driven passages in such works as Ballade No. 2 in F, Op. 38 and the Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat, Op. 61, powerful chords in the left hand must never be allowed to overpower the poetry, the delicacy, or the poignancy of what the melody is saying.
Nor are Chopin’s lighter passages mere decorative filigree. Even in the briefest of his 24 Preludes, Op. 28, a half-dozen of which are less than a minute’s duration, there is musical substance, and Burkard is keen in bringing it out. Taken as a whole, Opus 28 is among Chopin’s most difficult works to perform as well as we hear it done in the present recording.
These preludes mystified critics and performing artists alike for many years. Robert Schumann, for instance, was perplexed by them: “They are sketches, beginnings of études, or, so to speak, ruins, individual eagle pinions, all disorder and wild confusion.” The bewilderment exists only as long as one persists in viewing them as individual character pieces, rather than as a whole. Chopin was admittedly inspired to write the Preludes by the example of J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, though he did not emulate Bach’s practice of composing preludes in every major and minor key, separated by rising semitones. In keeping with contemporary notions of harmony, his immediate model was probably a now-forgotten work by J. N. Hummel, a set of 24 preludes in all major and minor keys, Op. 67. Here, as Chopin was to observe in his own Op. 28, the chosen key sequence was a circle of fifths, with each major key being followed by its relative minor.
Alexander Brailowsky always said that the technique used to play Chopin’s music should be “fluent, fluid, delicate, airy, and capable of great variety of color.” That is easier said than done. One also has to observe the formal structure of Chopin’s music in order to bring out the poetry, or else all you will have is incontinent rhapsodizing, which is definitely not the impression one gets in Chopin’s music or Schliessmann’s performances of it. In his discussion of Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61, the artist stresses that the maestoso character of this work calls for something that will, in the words of Franz Liszt, “bear the load, maintain equilibrium, and yet remain weightless.” In the last analysis, that is something that is to be perceived intuitively (a quality for which Schliessmann is well-known, by the way) rather than described and notated objectively. As we Americans say, “You either have it, or you don’t.” Burkard certainly has it.