Exhibitions Huon Mallalieu
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)