The Chopin Concertos

2011

Staatskapelle Berlin

Andris Nelsons

Music about Music

 “It’s one of the greatest adventures in music that we play the same pieces again and again – and that, despite their constant repetition, they sound different every time.” For Daniel Barenboim, the essence of classical music lies in the art of interpretation at different points in time. “Repetition and uniqueness – this is the dialectic secret of our art.”
 

Whether a work tells us about freedom, about death or about love – that for Barenboim is of secondary importance: he has no wish to verify music with words. For him, every piece is primarily nothing else but music, notes from the interplay of which an inner world is born. But this can only be achieved if the performers comprehend the structure of a work, its harmonic, melodic and rhythmic design, its internal relationships, its consciously created contrasts and tensions.
 

For Barenboim, even Chopin’s piano concertos are initially nothing more. They are notes that create their own specific form, a form that pianist, orchestra and conductor need to fathom. Only as a result of this approach will the work’s musical emotions be unlocked and a freedom be found in the perception of the work that only those artists can permit themselves who do not predetermine the content of a composition but in playing follow the laws inherent in it.
 

“Let’s take the Second Concerto in F minor,” Barenboim explains. “The end of the first tutti passage is a very important moment, for after the solo instrument has stated the individual themes, these are now embellished by means of various ornaments and decorations. The thematic material isn’t simply repeated in unaltered form – as is the case with the piano concertos of Beethoven, Mozart or Brahms – but is already varied here. With the entry of the orchestra, it’s very important, therefore, to present this thematic material in a very clear and obvious way – in other words, without any major rhythmic liberties . . . When the piano states the second subject, this too is a commentary on what has already taken place in the orchestra. There is no literal repeat of the thematic material and no intensification of the emotional mood. The orchestra has to make a ‘statement’ that can then be commented on and elaborated by the solo instrument.”
 

For Barenboim, freedom in music invariably means freedom within the bounds of musical form. For the interpreter it is an indication and also a germ cell, out of which ordered sound only then comes into being. To understand Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto simply as a great hymn to love is therefore, in his opinion, to reduce it, even if the then nineteen- year-old composer wrote his F minor Concerto as if in a frenzy for the opera singer Konstancja Gładkowska, his first great love. “Head, heart and belly, that’s our trinity. It’s always a question of reconciling logos, reason and emotion.”
 

This was also the case when Barenboim recorded Chopin’s piano concertos with the Berlin Staatskapelle under Andris Nelsons at the Ruhr Piano Festival. Barenboim has been the Staats­kapelle’s principal conductor for many years and has turned it into one of the leading orchestras internationally. The musicians have worked together on the fundamental principles of interpreta­tion and defined the parameters of their interpretative freedom. For them, the orchestra in Chopin’s piano concertos is not just a decorative adjunct against the backdrop of which the virtuoso fills out the platform. Quite the opposite, in fact: Barenboim, Nelsons and the Staats­kapelle come together to produce an intensive musical dialogue.
 

“In Chopin’s concertos, there are many different elements,” says Barenboim. “It’s clear that the tutti passages and large sections of the accompaniment give the orchestra little chance to shine. And so one has to find another way to achieve this. And that’s not so easy because often neither the soloist nor the orchestra nor its conductor has any idea of what a ‘symphonic’ Chopin should sound like since he wrote no symphonies or other orchestral works. There are many interesting details in the orchestral accompaniment, above all in the bassoon parts, which are sometimes invested with an almost exaggerated importance in comparison to the other instruments. All the musicians – soloist, conductor and orchestral players – must pay great attention to the challenge of bringing out these little details.” 

In other words, sound or sonority is not just a question of colour for Barenboim but is also a matter of dynamic weight. What feelings are inherent to this sound is left to the audience to decide. A piece of music, Barenboim explains, requires an alert audience. “Only those listeners who follow a concert with interest and understanding have a chance to enter into a world that we musicians create for a mere moment in time. The listeners can reside in that world with their thoughts until the very last note dies away.” 
 

Axel Brüggemann 
 3/2011 
 

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