Ex­hi­bi­tions Huon Mal­lalieu

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

Chopin wrote dur­ing that Ma­jor­can win­ter. I have noth­ing against the many flights of lit­er­ary fancy the Préludes have in­spired – Delacroix telling Baude­laire that the F sharp mi­nor pre­lude re­sem­bled ‘a bril­liant bird fly­ing over the hor­rors of an abyss’ – but these are only fan­cies. The Préludes were imag­ined from within; first im­pro­vised by an imag­i­na­tion in freefall, then com­mit­ted to pa­per in a process that was as painful as it was coun­ter­in­tu­itive.

And it’s here that the subti­tle of Kildea’s book, A Jour­ney through Ro­man­ti­cism, comes bril­liantly into play, as he traces how im­pro­vi­sa­tion would give way to ‘in­ter­pre­ta­tion’ when pow­er­house per­form­ers took cen­tre stage, play­ing pre­fab­ri­cated, copy­right­clad show­pieces on ever more pow­er­ful pi­anos. Here is Turner’s world of Rain, Steam and Speed, what the poet Heine called the tri­umph of mech­a­nism over spirit.

But what of Chopin in per­for­mance? On this, Kildea is both selec­tive and doc­tri­naire, treat­ing such pi­anists as he chooses to men­tion in largely per­sonal or po­lit­i­cal terms. Revered record­ings of the Préludes by Cor­tot, a no­to­ri­ous wartime col­lab­o­ra­tor, get in­creas­ingly short shrift dur­ing the book’s Nazi-dom­i­nated clos­ing pages.

Ar­rau’s epic 1973 stu­dio record­ing of the Préludes is now on Decca Orig­i­nals; though if, like Eliot’s Har­vard host­ess, you think Chopin’s soul should be res­ur­rected ‘only among friends’, you might use­fully con­sider the great Por­tuguese pi­anist Maria João Pires’s rather more con­fid­ing way with these as­tound­ing works.

An imag­i­na­tion in freefall: Frédéric Chopin por­trayed by Delacroix (1838)

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