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In 1839 Chopin wrote to a friend “I have four new mazurkas…they seem good to me, as younger children do to parents growing old.” (The composer was all of 29 years old at the time and had already written 25 pieces in the Polish dance form.) They rightly seemed good to daddy, but one wonders if the first one, in C-sharp minor, seemed the best. This is one of the most extended of the mazurkas. It begins simply enough, its rather plaintive main theme presented in single notes. After repetitions and departures from it, this theme is given a grandiose treatment in octave chords, beginning a coda that ends very quietly on a version of a rhythmic pattern heard earlier. A small tone poem in dance form.

The remainder of the set doesn’t quite live up to the standard of the first, but of course Chopin is Chopin, so quality is guaranteed. No. 2 in E minor has a neurotic edge that asks for sympathy, but its health improves with the turn to major. The main theme’s last appearance, in the inner voice, is defiantly optimistic, though the very end is quietly submissive, and exotic by way of the flatted second note of the E-minor key – F-natural instead of F-sharp. The third mazurka, in B major, seems a little flat footed and wanting in the grace of dance. Sometimes Chopin is less than Chopin. The A-flat major No. 4 finds the dance grace, though it’s more waltz than mazurka, which is not a bad thing. And breaking off the repeat of the second theme at the very end is a welcome bit of unexpected wit.

– After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.