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Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) was not comfortable in front of large audiences. Because early concert successes endeared the young pianist to the Parisian community of expatriate Polish nobility, by the mid-1830s Chopin could avoid the rigors of concertizing and lived comfortably on fees for lessons for the daughters of the best families of the city. He was a member of elite society.
Consequently, Chopin’s primary performance venue was the salon, intimate gatherings where many of the guests were already known to him. And though his audience was small, his fame was immediate and wide-spread. Of his playing Liszt would write: “Such a poetic temperament as Chopin’s never existed, nor have I heard such delicacy and refinement of playing. The tone, though small, was absolutely beyond criticism.” And conductor and pianist Charles Hallé wrote: “In listening to him, you lost all power of analysis; you did not think for a moment how perfect was his execution of this or that difficulty – you listened, as it were, to the improvisation of a poem, and were under the charm of it as long as it lasted.”
Chopin’s first nocturne was written when he was 17, his last was written in 1846, less than three years before his death. As such the nocturnes form a conspectus of his musical output both as a survey of musical growth and as a display of Chopin’s astonishing variety of emotional expression. During Chopin’s lifetime these were his most popular compositions, dedicated to his socialite students. They remain among his most complex and rewarding works, endlessly revealing, and the four selections on tonight’s program are representative of these riches.
The Two Nocturnes of Op. 32 were published in 1837 and dedicated to the Baroness de Billing. The first of these, in B major, demonstrates the influences of the hugely popular Italian operas of the day as we hear the elaborate vocal figurations associated with the music of Rossini and Bellini – a decorated melody, aria-like and tinged with melancholy. Its companion, in A-flat, floats serenely, less troubled than its partner. An evocation of dance, it was used most famously by Fokine in his ballet Les Sylphides.
The Two Nocturnes of Op. 48, published four years later with a dedication to Miss Laure Duperré, occupy an entirely different musical realm. The first, in C minor, the turgid key of the Haydn Sonata which opened this program, is an epic tale of nobility and tragedy, exploding the notion of the nocturne as a serene bit of “night music.” The second, in F-sharp minor, is as enigmatic and reticent as its partner is declamatory.