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Classical 101

Chopin Year 2010: The Year of the Waltz

NINE FRIGGIN' AUDIO PIECES, ALL MUSIC     A deluge of classical music recordings washes over my desk in the normal course of things here in my corner. Recently, any number of CDs containing Frédéric Chopin's waltzes have surfaced amidst the flotsam and jetsam of this happy influx of recorded sound, and I've wondered why. It's possible, indeed likely, that artists and record labels are rolling out all manner of Chopiniana to capitalize on the bicentenary of the composer's birth, 1 March 2010. And, given that Chopin's music is gorgeous stuff that has stood the test of time, why shouldn't they? But perhaps a better question: why Chopin's waltzes, specifically? Over the span of his 39 all-too-brief years on our planet, Chopin composed 36 waltzes, though for various reasons only 18 remain available to performers and scholars. In my recent romps through recordings of these dances, I have experienced not just lovely, graceful music that could be (and, in ballet classes everywhere, is) waltzed to, but rather the full range of human emotion and expression - elation, joy, nostalgia, melancholy, sorrow, affirmation. These short works may masquerade as light and airy diversions, but scratch their pretty surfaces and you'll see they offer profound reflections on moving (dancing?) through life. For the depth of expression Chopin achieves in his essays in the genre, I proclaim Chopin Year 2010 The Year of the Waltz. So let's explore Chopin's waltzes by way of some great recordings of them. Chopin's first numbered waltz (though not the first he composed), Op. 18, is bold and affirmative. He composed it when he was 21, flush with the assurance of his talent and young enough still to be certain of his immortality. The repeated-note fanfare at the work's beginning trumpets the arrival of a hero. In Gilmore Artist and noted Chopin interpreter Ingrid Fliter's hands (from her 2009 recording of the complete Chopin waltzes), this waltz is a testament to invincibility: [audio:297-ss-11.mp3] In a similar vein, Chopin's Waltz, Op. 34, No. 1 grabs life by the hand and whisks it to the dance floor. Hear how pianist Martha Argerich calls to mind at once the committed footwork of the mazurka of Chopin's native Poland and the heady breathlessness of the Viennese waltz: [audio:522-bb-15.mp3] But contrast the exuberant footsteps of this waltz with the more timid paddings of its opusmate, Op. 34, No. 2.  This work takes the waltz out of the gilded Viennese ballroom and into the intimate space of our interior landscape.  Claudio Arrau's interpretation of this waltz conveys the inwardness and quiet dignity of the piece more honestly than any other recorded interpretation I know: [audio:886-n-3.mp3] With his waltz Op. 64, No. 2 Chopin presses even more firmly on our humanity. This waltz, one of Chopin's best known works, teaches us that music has memory: it breaks our hearts with its nostalgic yearning for the day when our own dance was free and full of life. Here's the waltz's opening, again performed by Claudio Arrau: [audio:886-n-7.mp3] . . . and now what may well be the most famous phrases in all of Chopin's output, the point in Op. 64, No. 2 when the dancer nearly shakes the doldrums and breaks free into a solo waltz, only to be partnered again by longing for what cannot be regained: [audio:866-n-7-middle.mp3] While Op. 64, No. 2 dwells in the past, Chopin's waltz Op. 69, No. 2 dances straight into the sorrow of the present. Over the course of the waltz, the dancer grabs at happiness, but it is only an illusion. He comes to rest in the quiet solitude of melancholy. Here again is pianist Ingrid Fliter at the waltz's beginning: [audio:297-ss-10.mp3] Chopin balances these heavy scales with his waltz Op. 64, No. 1. This music is joy unbridled, shouted from the rooftops. Here is pianist Alexandre Tharaud (from his 2006 recording of Chopin's complete waltzes, recently re-released): [audio:340-ss-12.mp3] And finally, for our exploration, we come to Chopin's waltz in E minor, KK IVa, No. 15. This waltz traverses the darkness and light that are life. Here pianist Alice Sara Ott, in yet another 2009 recording of Chopin's complete waltzes, dips deeply into the wells of passionate abandon that begin and end the piece: [audio:269-ss-18-opening.mp3] And Ott again with the graceful elegance of the waltz's middle section: [audio:269-ss-18-middle.mp3] In this video Ott explains what she sees as the political significance of playing Chopin's waltzes in Poland. Ott also shares the story of what she calls her "personal farewell waltz:" [youtube RfM7_1shPQg 490 344] We could go on and on like this forever. But in Chopin Year 2010 I hope you'll take a few moments to exlore the world on your own through Chopin's waltzes. And as the song goes, I hope you dance. Happy birthday, Frédéric.