Chopin: Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise, Fantasie, Berceuse, Barcarolle

(Booklet text of the CD "Portrait Erik Reischl, Volume 2")

The indication "spianato" is is not well known even amongst musicians. It comes from the Italian "spianare" and means to smooth over or flatten. So we are dealing with a broad Andante. That is surprising, as despite the calm accompanying figures there is a wide selection of expressional forms and exciting episodes. However the excitement is in a reduced, soft and calm way. If we translate "spianato" with "simple" or "plain" we are getting closer to the meaning, especially if we look at how the work evolved. The Polonaise was composed in 1830 or 1831 at a time when Chopin (he was only 20 years old) was celebrating his success as a virtuoso all over Europe. The introductory Andante was composed and added later in 1834 when Chopin had finally settled in Paris. Whereas the Polonaise is devised entirely for its vitality, brillance, drama and virtuosity - and therefore does not have the depth of later works - the expressiveness of the Andante takes on a maturity, yes, even wisdom. So both pieces are very contrasting in nature and yet they blend surprisingly well to a whole.

Chopin's opus 22 in the original form is actually for piano and orchestra whereby the piano introduction is played as a solo. The piece was premiered in this form in Paris on 26 April 1835 with Chopin himself at the piano. The orchestral accompaniment is so sketchy and even become obsolete, so the work has established itself as a piano solo with the pianist taking over the few orchestral insertions.

In the following year Chopin met Aurora Dupin, better known as an author under the name of George Sand and spent more than ten years with her. It was a time influenced by passion but also by great conflict and humiliation. The Fantasie in f minor, op. 49 was composed in 1841 and it almost seems like a resumee of this period of upheaval.

Although I feel that the specific autobiographical references which are made pertaining to this work are exaggerated, each part however does have its individual mood and does reveal the author's complex and mature personality. Hardly any other work by Chopin combine the very differing forms of expression so compactly as is demonstrated here. The harmonic concept is exceptional: the work begins with a funeral march in f minor and moves through restless, doubting and at times stormy passages in A flat major and G flat major, then moves into proud, heroic and march-like sections. It continues into a quiet choral-like middle section in B major (Lento sostenuto), a very distant key and finally returns after another outburst, not to the expected key of f minor, but to the parallel key of A flat major.

After 1841 Chopin regularly spent the summer months at George Sand's country house in Nohant. For the most part these stays were restful and peaceful. He wrote to a friend, "I feel rested and relaxed just like a pampered child." It may have been this feeling which inspired the magical Berceuse, op. 57 in the summer of 1843. Another reason was a visit to the house by the singer Pauline Viardot with her small daughter. The peacefulness is expressed particularly through harmony and feeling. The single tact rocking accompaniment of the left hand is carried throughout the entire piece. A four tact melody develops over this and is varied 14 times (which is why at first publishers called it "variations"). The truly "sleepy" tonic-dominant swing is changed only slightly in the harmonics towards the end and finally fades in a tender pianissimo.

The Barcarolle, op.60 has a similar lilting accompaniment, however here the accompaniment and its rhythm are dictated by the genre, a boat song of the Venetian gondoliers. The first impression is that the work has a relaxed and pleasant sound (the theme is made up of thirds and sixths) and is optimistic. Only after a closer look is it obvious how frequently the melodic lines fall away, that the ascending lines seldom reach a true climax and a very mysterious and almost somber tone colour is used in the middle section. A key has hardly been established before it is modulated in another direction after just a few tacts . In 1846 when the Barcarolle was written (notes had already been made in the summer of 1845) it was a year of several disappointments for Chopin. His relationship with George Sand was nearing its end, his health had been deteriorating increasingly and he fell into periods of melancholy and depression. From this point of view, despite its brilliance and poetry, this work seems to be the final rising of a man who has long seen himself in the shadow of death.

(Erik Reischl, Translation Elisabeth Ann Krüger)