Happy Birthday Chopin; Congratulations, Hung-Kuan Chen

Celebrating Fryderyk Chopin’s birthday today with a gripping performance by pianist Hung-Kuan Chen, of the two Op. 62 Nocturnes.   Chen played them in the WGBH Fraser Performance Studio for a special live broadcast marking the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

Hung-Kuan Chen, one of the most respected pianists and teachers in the Boston area, is about to decamp for New York: He was one of three faculty appointments announced by the Juilliard School just a couple of days ago, joining pianist Sergei Babayan and Juilliard Alumnus (and MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner) Stephen Hough on the school’s piano faculty beginning in the Fall of 2014.   Nice line in the press release too:

Hung-Kuan ChenRaised in Germany, Hung-Kuan Chen’s early studies fostered strong roots in Germanic Classicism, which is tempered with the sensibility of Chinese philosophy, earning him a reputation as a dynamic and imaginative artist.”

 

Watch the video to witness some of those sensibilities at play.   These two late Chopin Nocturnes are favorites of mine, for reasons beautifully articulated by pianist Bruce Murray in our Radio Chopin series for WDAV.    Take a couple of minutes and listen to the episode here.

Episode 5: The Inspired Simplicity of Utterance

 

Candles for Chopin: The Longest Birthday

Not that it really matters to anyone outside of the milestone-crazed classical music world, but thought I’d pass on this release from my old colleague Frederick Slutsky of the Chopin Project trying to clear up the confusion about Chopin’s birthday.  Some say it’s today; others maintain it falls on March 1.   How come?

“In 1810, Fryderyk Chopin was born to a French father and Polish mother in Zelazowa Wola, west of the Polish capital Warsaw. The child was named after Fryderyk Skarbek, the eldest son of a Count who had formerly employed his father. They had to seek the Count’s approval to call him Fryderyk so the christening had to wait two months – until April 23 – a delay which, I believe, caused the confusion.”

“Discovered 43 years after Chopin’s death, his baptism register clearly states the composer was born on February 22 and is the strongest evidence cited by those believing this to be the correct date. It is compelling and was an important document in its day but, like many others, I believe it is wrong, containing a simple error, compounded over time.”

“Chopin’s parents always celebrated his birthday on March 1. When accepting membership of the Polish Literary Society of Paris in 1833, Chopin himself gave March 1 as his birthday. Not only that but a letter to him in Paris in 1837, from his mother in Warsaw, began: ‘Dear Fryderyk, the 1st and 5th of March (Saint Fryderyk’s day), are approaching and I am prevented from embracing you.’ That’s good enough for me”.

And according to USC’s Polish Music Newsletter, the debate over the two different dates was good enough for the organizers of the Chopin Bicentennial to make a little publicity hay in the composer’s home country:

“The Longest Birthday” [Najdluzsze Urodziny] celebrated Chopin’s birthday with a continuous concert starting on February 22 and ending on March 1 in Warsaw. This marathon concert was organized by a group of Chopin enthusiasts and was free and open to the public in the Dom Polonii of Wspólnota Polska on Krakowskie Przedmieście.

According to reviewer Gulliver Cragg,  “despite the many Chopin events happening around Warsaw and the world:…for Varsovians, the real delight was the 170-hour musical marathon. An estimated 25,000 people attended – to the astonishment of the organisers – what was originally seen as a fringe event…. You could have heard jazz star Grazyna Auguscik as she improvised over Chopin melodies, or an unknown young pianist playing nocturnes at 3am to curled-up couples and solitary night-owls. Nearly 300 musicians signed up to play at ‘The Longest Birthday’, the idea for which came from the doubt surrounding the composer’s actual date of birth.”

Regardless of the date, here’s a peek inside Chopin’s birthplace, featuring pianist Jan Lisiecki in a very nice reading of the Waltz in C-sharp Minor, Op. 64, No. 2, recorded on New Year’s Day 2010.

PS – the Steinway, as you might imagine, does not date from Chopin’s time.   In fact, Chopin never played a Steinway…the company didn’t even go into business until 1853…four years after his death.

PPS – The Radio Chopin series introduced me to a fascinating “tone poem” about Chopin’s birthplace by the little-known Russian composer Sergei Lyapunov.

Listen below to the story of how his Zhelazova Vola (Żelazowa Wola), Op. 37, came to be:

Lyapunov said he wished to conjure up the “folk and musical atmosphere, surrounding the great musician in his childhood, perceiving his native land’s image in its purity and simplicity.”

Radio Chopin 100: Zelazowa Wola, Chopin’s Birthplace

Chopin's Birthplace: Zelezowa Wola, Poland

Chopin’s Birthplace: Zelezowa Wola, Poland

A Winter’s Journey III: The Schubert – Chopin Connection

Revisiting a startling discovery from the Radio Chopin series

Take a listen to Chopin’s A Stranger Here Himself…

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“A stranger I came, A stranger I depart…” These opening lines of “Good Night”, the first song in Franz Schubert’s cycle, Winterreise, or Winter Journey resonated with Chopin. So much so that they spilled over into the manuscript for his Sonata for Cello and Piano.

A dead ringer, so to speak! In Schubert’s song cycle the anti-hero is a dying poet. Themes of banishment, lost love and icy despair pervade. Just as they did in Chopin’s life at the time he composed his Cello Sonata. It was winter. His health was in rapid decline. He was twice exiled: he’d left his native Poland for good, and George Sand had just evicted him from their nest with the publication of an exposé thinly-veiled as a work of fiction.

Which brings us back to the first movement of Chopin’s Cello Sonata. It’s problematic. It puzzled even his closest allies. Was it too intimate? Wasting in his deathbed, Chopin asked to hear it, only to find he could bear no more than the first few measures. He omitted the movement from the sonata’s 1848 premiere. Clearly, it had profound personal significance. Most likely because he turned to—and quoted—Schubert’s song at the time of his separation from George Sand, which she had publicly portrayed as entirely his fault. Was it regret? Or, as in the final stanzas in Schubert’s song, did the ailing Chopin recognize his fate was sealed?

These are the last words spoken
Soon I’ll be out of sight
A simple farewell message
Goodnight, my love, good night.

Jennifer Foster

‘Till The End of Time: Episode 200 of Radio Chopin.

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“So it has come to this: 200 years, 200 stories, and now our year of Chopin celebrations is out of time. And just what have we learned?

To tell this last Chopin story, we’ve recruited Perry Como, who in 1945 scored his first No. 1 hit by crooning “Till the End of Time,” an effective reworking of Chopin’s “Heroic” Polonaise. A song so popular it sold more than two million copies, and inspired two Hollywood films: both the eponymous Till the End of Time, as well as the Chopin biopic A Song to Remember……”

Thanks, everyone.  Thanks, Fryderyk.   It’s been quite a ride.  The complete episode is below!

Episode 200: ‘Till the End of Time

Three-Quarter Pole: Radio Chopin Episode 150….

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Hard to believe we’re three-quarters of the way through Radio Chopin.   Here’s episode 150.  Listen to it here, or read below:

Episode 150: Saved by the Choir

Charles Gounod’s opera, Faust. Act One, Scene One: Faust sits alone, bitter, despondent, reflecting on a life spent in a futile attempt to find the meaning of existence. He resolves to take his own life and is raising a vial of poison to his lips when …outside a joyous peasant chorus stops him.

When you listen to a moment right in the middle of one of Chopin’s most evocative Mazurkas, you hear unisons. Chopin used to fuss at his students over those brief bars. Wilhelm von Lenz writes:

“Nobody ever managed to satisfy him with these unisons, which have to be played very lightly; the chords were an easier matter: but these unisons! ‘They’re women’s voices in the choir,’ [Chopin] would say, and they were never played delicately enough, never simply enough. One was barely allowed to breathe over the keyboard, let alone touch it.”

This has to be a childhood memory. The Mazurka in B-flat minor is redolent with nostalgia from start to finish, and how it ends! If biographer James Huneker hears correctly, Faust’s impulse returns, only this time it’s the whole earth and the scene is set in a sorrowful heaven:

“Sweet melancholy driving before it joy and being routed itself, until the annunciation of the first theme and the dying away of the dance, dancers and the solid globe itself,” he writes, “…as if earth had committed suicide for loss of the sun. The last two bars could have been written only by Chopin. They are ineffable sighs.” – Jennifer Foster

Radio Chopin is Halfway Home! Episode 100…

 

So, for episode 100 of Radio Chopin, we thought we’d visit Chopin’s original home, in the Polish town of Zelazowa Wola.

“Today, trees – and pianos – remain the story of Zelazowa Wola. The park surrounding the manor includes more than 500 species of trees and shrubs. Piano teachers make pilgrimages here to put “Chopin acorns” in the pockets of their promising students. Inside, there are three 19th-century pianos; outside, there’s a modern grand, where every summer, there is a daily Chopin recital, from soloists ranging from greenest amateur to the most established pro.”  Nicely told, Mike McKay!

Episode 100: Zelazowa Wola