Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Venetian Love Songs - Barcarolles by Chopin and Szymanowska (Vol. 6, No. 2)

First there was Venice,..

The Grand Canal in Venice from Palazzo Flangini to Campo San Marcuola, 
Canaletto, about 1738. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

... and then there was the most exquisite of love's songs, permeated with the lilting motion of the gondolas on the canals in Venice: Chopin's Barcarolle...


In the introduction to Chopin's Op. 60 (in F-sharp Major, composed in 1845-6), Prof. Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski calls it "a work that intoxicates with the beauty of its sound and thrills with its seethingly ardent expression."  As the case should be for a piece both searing and soaring, the Barcarolle evoked a whole range of nearly ecstatic descriptions from typically rather somber scholars. Tomaszewski himself wrote:

Musicologist Hugo Leichtentritt called it "a work of bewildering beauty;" Marceli Szulc heard in the music "a duet between a couple of lovers – threatened for a moment by death." Writer Andre Gide was attunted to its "languor in excessive joy." A fellow composer, Maurice Ravel found it to be “the synthesis of the expressive and sumptuous art of this great Slav.”

Chopin was well aware of the barcarolle as a genre, primarily from the operas of Rossini (Guillaume Tell, and Daniel Auber (Fra Diavolo), but also from its rendition by Mendelssohn in his Songs without Words. Yet, his take is thoroughly different and completely modern, especially in its seemingly pointless wondering, loss of continuity, and suspensions of musical narrative at the end of the central section.  This is one of the most sublime moments in all pianistic repertoire. It occurs deep in the piece, where the score is marked with "dolce sfogato" - a rare Italian expression, "sweet like a breeze" - that has not been known to grace the pages of other compositions. He reaches the boundaries of atonality in this prophetic moment of timelessness.

The overall formal scheme is traditional for a nocturne: ABA' song-form, with the main sections in F-sharp Major and the central episode in A Major and a prominent 12/8 lilt. This is music overflowing with light - reflections, waves, interference, brief, passing shadows and a myriad of stars scattered on the water at midnight...

The Fryderyk Chopin National Institute in Poland (NIFC) selected a recording by Tatiana Shebanova, that fully modernizes the Barcarolle, emphasizing is modernist discontinuities, interruptions and irruptions, while sustaining an overall tone of  melancholy mixed with passion.

There are many other interpretations of this sublime piece of music. Five are gathered in one YouTube post by a music lover, Ashish Xiangyi Kumar: Pollini, Zimerman, Kissin, Argerich.... (I wish he skipped Horowitz...). Over 40 minutes of otherworldly romanticism. A perfect gift for St. Valentine's Day, especially for musicians: the recording is accompanied by the score.

As Kumar writes, placing the recordings in a chronological order:

00:00 -- Pollini (Warm and lyrical. He has a reputation for technicality and coldness that is not deserved.)
08:37 -- Zimerman (Hushed and worshipful, occasionally rising to majesty)
17:30 -- Kissin (Tender and surprisingly meditative)
26:23 -- Horowitz (Scriabinesque, aching, enigmatic, some nice voicing)
35:21 -- Argerich (Intimate, and as you would expect, relatively free and occasionally tempestuous.)

Listen for yourself. And let the music take you to the breathtakingly beautiful and melancholy canal-streets of Venice - that Chopin never visited himself... Here's the gift of

As an encore, let us turn to another Barcarolle, far less known and much smaller in size:

Maria Szymanowska wrote her Barcarolle as a farewell gift to the poet Adam Mickiewicz on the day of his departure from St. Petersburg, in May of 1829.  He left for Paris, banished from his temporary residence in Russia, destined for exile until his death 25 years later. She gave him recommendation letters to famous poets and influential nobility that earlier delighted with her performances.

The work has never been published and was preserved only in manuscript. Elisabeth Zapolska-Chapelle, President of the Société Maria Szymanowska, Paris, France, provided a copy of the sheet music of this unknown composition to pianist Slawomir Dobrzanski, a Szymanowska specialist. This is a live recording from October 11, 2014, his concert in Paris.

Szymanowska's Barcarolle is just a violet, compared with the glorious bouquet of velvety red roses blossoming in Chopin's... still both are welcome in the perennial world of Valentines:

Na gorze roze
Na dole fijolki
Kochajmy sie
Jak dwa aniolki!

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