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Frederic Chopin. Program One, “The Eight”

  • Four Ballades
  • Four Scherzi

Vazgen Vartanian in the Great Hall — CHOPIN «8», part one, ballades

Vazgen Vartanian in the Great Hall — CHOPIN «8», part two, scherzi


Dedicated to the 200th anniversary of Chopin's birth, this programme of Vazgen Vartanian stands out in its scope and significance. This is truly a monumental homage to the Polish composer. In it, the genius of Polish music is highlighted but Chopin's genius belongs not only to Poland but to France, where his most prolific years were spent. Here he experienced love, giving him inspiration and where he created his best, most mature works.

Eight pieces - four ballades and four scherzos. There is something magical about this number as if it were a closed circle signifying the milestones that became the foundation of his personality along with the vicissitudes and events of his life. All these works were created in the decade between 1831 and 1842 of the Paris period, which can be considered the apogee of his short life. These were years of passionate infatuation, love and long-term attachments, rebellious feelings, preoccupation with the fate of his homeland and his beloved Polish family, left behind in Poland. This was the time of the blossoming of his soul, the consummation of its depth and greatness. This self-realization of the soul, in its ardent need to manifest itself, consistently yearning for self-expression, sparked in Chopin, a born miniaturist, a poet of small forms, to turn to large-scale genres of instrumental music - ballades, scherzos and sonatas, and to give them a dramatic content which they lacked heretofore.

Chopin's four ballades are four dramatic narratives with a tense contrasting of form, filled with intense emotion. Their “subjects” are complete manifestations of spiritual life and preoccupations, inner portraits of a kind, of the soul of the composer. In each of the ballades, inevitably, collide the principal “raisons d'etre” of his life: love and death, struggle and defeat, the inevitability of death and the ever-present hope of rebirth. It is commonly accepted to link the images of the ballades, especially the first one in G minor, with Chopin's worries concerning the fate of his homeland. The form of these elevated, dramatic heroics inevitably evokes such an interpretation. Nevertheless, the content of the ballades is more widely-embracing than any program concept. In them, fullness and intensity of feeling are expressed, as are boundless freedom of expression and passion.

One of the most enigmatic and mysterious works in this program is the fourth ballade, written by Chopin on the brink of his late period of creativity. This work is very complex, both technically and in content. In it, romantic vehemence of suffering and philosophical depth are combined and masked with reserve. The inner nucleus of the ballade concentrates on traditionally romantic themes- life, love, death, but in spite of all this, there is also great wisdom, inner fixation, even tragedy. It is very difficult to perform, but with exaggeration of feeling, the interpretation can only compromise its artistic meaning. The task of the performer in this work is to elevate philosophical comprehension which, by and large, does not always lead to illumination. In the performance of these ballades, Vazgen Vartanian evokes a feeling of passionate drama, and a feeling of tragic doom can also be felt.

In his four scherzos, Chopin completely transgresses the traditional concept of this genre. In the work of his predecessors - Haydn and Beethoven, the scherzo was an expression of humour, a joke, playfulness. “Scherzo” comes from the Italian “joke” or “prank”, from the verb “scherzare”, i. e., “to joke”. But Chopin's scherzos are extremely serious music - dramatic, even tragic. The jocularity expresses itself in a characteristic form in the sharpness of rhythms and accents and unanticipated inflectional progressions and contrast of registers. The prank turns into sarcasm, a tragic irony of fate and life. It is possible that Chopin, already at that time, understood that life is so short and full of strife that it is similar to a prank. In essence, Chopin's scherzos are contemplations of the tumult of his own life, fatal destiny and the inevitability of death. Therefore, Chopin's scherzos, just as in the ballades, possess features if liberal declamation, even though their structure differs from the ballades by a greater strictness of form.

Such feeling gives rise to a deep dramatization which is indigenous to all the four scherzos but in which the most delicate forms of spirituality can be found.

The performance of all these works, the four ballades and the four scherzos in a cycle and in one program is an incredibly complex creative task demanding very much from the performer. First of all, spiritual and creative maturity, perfect piano technique, inner strength, imparting the power to transmit to the listener not only the uniqueness of each work but also the unseen inner unity are absolute requisites of the artist.

In what is Vazgen Vartanian's performance of these works unique? First of all, it is in the transmission of the very spirit of Chopin's music in which the raging dramatic vehemence and strict setting of artistic form are always subservient to immaculate taste. His brilliant pianism serves simultaneously three goals: to show the spontaneity of raging feelings, to reveal a complex dramaturgy of form and, together with these, to weave a delicate filigree of individual details. Vartanian's performance of Chopin's ballades and scherzos in tense: not for a minute does he let down the soul of the listener, but leads it into the stream of emotional experiences and into the spontaneity of raging feelings. Expression and expressionism, by emphatic contrast of form and concepts, spontaneity and impetuousness of development are the dominant characteristics of his interpretation. Chopin's “canons garnered with roses” here clearly manifest themselves as impulsive, temperamental, abrupt and forceful rhythms in impetuous avalanches of dramatic themes that literally pounce on the listener like a force of Nature... what a far cry this is from the exquisite refinement, by and large, of the static performances of other pianists! Vartanian does otherwise; he uses force, articulation and graphic clarity through which a bold integrity of the created form comes forth.

The most important thing that distinguishes Vartanian's performances of Chopin's forms is the clear feeling of a whole, which manifests itself not at the end of each work but, with surprising rigor, in the very first bars. The boldness and unity of individual form is inseparable from the auto-summation of individual details, themes and phrases. His performance is, first and foremost, dramatic; as a result of this, the whole of the work is an “inner portrait of the soul”, an initially prepared concept, simply owing to the force of musical peculiarities themselves, revealing itself in the consistency of aural discourse. The individual character of each work is intensely transmitted in their execution. Each one is multi-layered in content, unique in the deployment of technical means. Each performance of each work remains inimitable in its essence, deeply impressing itself on the soul of the listener.

Tatyana Razbeglova
Translation: Antonio Gomes

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