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Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 9, 1920, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting, with soloist Leopold Godowsky
The purest Romantic blood that coursed through Chopin’s veins was a unique and wonderful type that could be labeled ‘P’ for piano. Neither symphony, opera, nor oratorio tempted this man whose energies were dedicated exclusively to creating a whole new world of poetry, expressiveness and technique for the keyboard. For two major works - the piano concertos - he was obliged to write for orchestra, which he managed to do in what must be considered an acceptable rather than a distinctive manner. The concertos were career necessities, for a young pianist-composer was expected to present such calling cards when cultivating a public. Thank heaven he did not try to flaunt that tradition, for the repertoire would be markedly poorer without Chopin’s two beautiful piano concertos.
The F-minor Concerto is, contrary to its numerical indication, the first of the two concertos. Having been published later than the so-called First Concerto, it was given a higher opus number and designation as No. 2. Less sprawling and richer in contrast than the E-minor Concerto, the present work served Chopin well in his early career. He introduced it publicly in his first Warsaw appearance on March 17, 1830, repeating it five days later at a second, quickly organized concert. It also occupied the place of honor on his Parisian debut program February 26, 1832, winning the appreciation of, among others, the city’s remarkably perceptive critic, François-Joseph Fétis, who wrote:
“Here is a young man who, giving way to his natural leanings and taking no model, has found, if not a way of reviving piano music completely, at least some of what has so long been vainly sought, that is to say an abundance of original ideas of which the type is nowhere to be discovered. That is not to say that M. Chopin is gifted with the power of a Beethoven, or that one finds in his music the vitality of conception that is so remarkable in that great man. Beethoven has composed music for the piano, but here I am speaking of music for pianists, and in this realm I find, in the inspirations of M. Chopin, indications of a change of form that may in the future exercise considerable influence on this branch of art.”
How prophetic those words, for M. Chopin’s inspirations profoundly affected not only the course of 19th-century pianism, but, through the inspired use of chromaticism, the course of music itself. The piano as the medium for exquisite lyricism, glowing sonorities, poetic expressiveness, is revealed throughout the F-minor Concerto: In the first movement’s dramatically urgent main theme and its beguilingly fresh second theme, and in the nocturne that is the second movement. Chopin attributed the latter’s romantic nature to his infatuation for Konstantsya Gladkovska, and revealed his boyish tremblings in a middle-section whose agitated piano swoonings over tremolo strings create possibly the most impressive piano-orchestral moment in either concerto.
Franz Liszt was particularly enthusiastic about this second movement, which he found to be “of a perfection almost ideal, its expression now radiant with light, now full of tender pathos.”
In the finale, Chopin tapped a vein of simple freshness, of mazurka infectiousness and good spirits which, in his tubercular maturity, he was hard pressed ever to discover again. Chopin’s art developed as the years went on, but nothing he wrote surpassed this last movement in simple, direct, healthy charm.