The real problem with the Chopin Piano Concertos is the piano

And the conductor…..

I’m not the first person to try to make the case that the most prolific and dynamic moment in music history might have been the generation of composers who followed Beethoven. Most generations might give us two genius composers- Mozart and Haydn or Bach and Handel, but in the second quarter of the 19th century we had Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Weber and Chopin all writing at the height of their powers. Perhaps only in the first quarter of the 20th century have we ever seen another such outpouring of creativity.

Of all those composers, it is the music of Chopin which is least heard and most maligned in the orchestral world. Fair enough- as a self-promoted concert pianist, there was no incentive for him to write symphonies, overtures and operas and all his orchestral music involves the piano.

However, over time, a consensus has evolved that Chopin’s piano concerti are actually something close to bad pieces for the orchestra. So much so that I, idiot that I am, never programmed one until I was asked by the BBC to record the first with Piers Lane for Discovering Music this week.

Granted, these are not virtuoso pieces for the orchestra, and the orchestration is not as perfect as that of Mendlessohn, but whose is? In fact, of that whole generation, including Berlioz, the only major composer whose use of the orchestra doesn’t create huge problems for the conductor is Mendelssohn, and Beethoven is even more problematic than any of them.

This should be no surprise- it was a revolutionary period, and composers were looking for thrilling new ways of using the orchestra, not honing ancient and established techniques of orchestration.

History has compounded this problem. We now play this music in bigger halls with bigger orchestras, heavier horns, louder brass instruments, more resonant timps. Projecting the music content of the music and finding the right balances is a bigger problem than ever, even if modern orchestras make a glorious racket when they play this stuff.

The standard accusation against Chopin is that his orchestration is boring. However, remember, if we only knew Beethoven the orchestrator from his concerti, we might think he was a little boring too. However, I must admit that my impression from attending a few performances of the E Minor concerto over the years was that, indeed, the orchestra writing was pretty beige- lots of soft string chords in the middle register.

Idiot!

When I got out the score, I discovered there was tons of stuff in this piece that I’ve never heard before. In particular, there are some very tasty wind and horn countermelodies that you might never have even sniffed, and the string writing is also more sophisticated than is usually apparent. Chopin cleverly uses pizzicato to add a bit of brilliance to the texture, and uses the double basses very cleverly and with great discretion to vary the color of the whole string section.

The problem is that you never tend to hear this stuff in the hall.

Much of the problem is that we now hear this music played on a piano that is significantly louder and heavier than Chopin’s. Chopin has scored everything with a smaller, softer, less resonant piano in mind than you’ll ever hear it on today. In fact, in most concertos from Beethoven up to, but not including Brahms, there is a big problem, which is that we now have all our woodwind soloists sat 20 feet behind a very heavy, acoustically opaque wall called a piano lid. I’ve only ever heard one live performance of the Emperor concerto where I could hear all the woodwind solos! Also, the bigger piano sound really takes its toll on pizzicato- they die off faster than the piano, where as arco playing sings through as the piano releases. The problem with the bass writing is simpler- most conductors never figure out where their bass section is sat. I’ve watched whole weeks go by as a cellist where all the basses saw of a conductor was their ass, while they gazed lovingly at the first violins.

So- there’s my mission for the week. Balance, baby, balance. The orchestration will never be exciting in its own right like Mahler or Ravel, but I have this crazy idea that if the audience can hear everything Chopin wrote they’ll go home thinking it’s a pretty swell piece. Really, it’s not rocket science…..

Wish me luck

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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3 comments on “The real problem with the Chopin Piano Concertos is the piano”

  1. Zoltan

    I only recently started to dig into piano concertos (hey, I’m young, OK? 🙂 and even I noticed notable differences in recording Balances. when I read about and listened to Zimmerman’s 2nd recording of the Chopin piano concerto’s, a whole new world of details from the orchestra emerged!

    Regarding the balance; We played the GRIEG PIANO CONCERTO, AND ONE OF THE BALANCE ISSUES WAS INDEED THE LOUDNESS OF THE wOODWIND SECTION, WHERE OUR CONDUCTOR INDEED TOLD THEM TO COME OUT MORE BECAUSE THEY HAVE TO PLAY “OVER” THE WALL OF SOUND OF THE PIANO.

    i DON’T WISH YOU LUCK THOUGH, i WISH YOU SUCCESS!

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Zoltan

    Thanks for the note- great to hear from you. I just conducted the grieg a few days ago, and it indeed has some of the same issues, but less so than the chopin, although maybe that’s becaues conductors don’t come to it thinking it’s badly orchestrated, so their attitude to rehearsing it is less complacent. we all expect the orchestra to sound great on the Grieg, so we make it happen….
    KW

  3. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Archivio » UPCOMING Broadcast BBC NOW, BBC Radio 3, April 29, 2007

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