Lara Melda plays Chopin
For her debut recording, BBC Young Musician winner Lara Melda fulfils a long held ambition to set down the musical ideas of Frédéric Chopin, a composer for whom she has had a special affinity since childhood.
Lara writes: “One day I yearn to fulfil a fantasy of playing all 169 works that Chopin wrote for the piano from his short life’s output … for this album I selected Nocturnes and Ballades, starting with the Op.9 Nocturnes, which he began composing at the age of 20, and ending with the fourth Ballade, written twelve years later when he was 32. It has long been my dream to set down these works in a recording.”
Lara Melda won the BBC Young Musician 2010 competition, performing Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No.2 with Vasily Petrenko and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. She made her BBC Proms debut in 2018 with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Andrew Gourlay, and has since given numerous recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall and Cadogan Hall, Hamburg Laeiszhalle, Les Sommets Musicaux in Gstaad, and the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Festival.
Other concerto performances include Britten’s Young Apollo with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Paul Daniel (Barbican), Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and Kirill Karabits (The Sage), Mozart K466 and K242 with the Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon (Kings Place), the Grieg Concerto with English Sinfonia (St John’s Smith Square) and Beethoven 3 in a tour of New Zealand with the National Youth Orchestra of New Zealand.
- Sleeve Notes
Had it not been for the example of John Field, would Chopin ever have written the 21 pieces that he called “nocturnes”? It’s an interesting question. The Irish composer was the first to write a sequence of piano pieces using that title – the first dates from 1812, when Chopin was a two-year-old – and there is no doubt that Chopin used them as a prototype when composing his own nocturnes.
The first three of these were published in 1832, although he had begun them two years earlier when he was just 20. Although clearly indebted to Field’s characteristic vein of dreamy contemplation, there is already in Chopin’s pieces a sharper instinct for memorable melody, and a realization that the modest proportions of the nocturne – they average around five minutes in duration – do not prevent it making a distinctive emotional statement.
The Nocturne in B flat minor (Op.9 No.1) which opens the 1832 set immediately has a clarity and economy of focus which is generally missing in Field’s more relaxed, discursive approach. As early as bar four Chopin probes the opening right-hand melody for deeper content, in a string of shortened notes which are more than merely decoration. As the piece unravels, markings of “appassionato” (“with strong emotion”) and “con forza” (“with force”) serve notice that Chopin’s nocturnes do considerably more than conjure an agreeable late-night ambience – they are more specific and emotionally nuanced than that.
The Nocturne in E flat minor (Op.9 No.2) is often cited as the most popular and Field- like of Chopin’s nocturnes. Yet its sweet, apparently artless lyricism is flecked with unexpected harmonies which gently tweak the listener’s assumption that all is idyllically well in the music. At the piece’s conclusion Chopin gives the right hand an ornate
“cadenza” – a clear reminder that his nocturnes draw heavily on Italian operatic music, as did Field’s before him.
The Nocturne in B major which ends the Op.9 set makes more explicit the dramatic tensions hinted at in its two predecessors. While an element of playfulness animates its outer sections – the marking at the outset is “scherzando” – the mood flips abruptly to “agitato” at the movement’s centre. There a seemingly innocuous, undulating left-hand accompaniment mutates to something shadier and more turbulent, a passing storm-cloud momentarily threatening to become a tempest.
By the time Chopin composed the Nocturne in C sharp minor (Op.27 No.1) four years later, he was entrusting the modestly proportioned format with even darker emotions. The spare textures of its opening, the right-hand melody picked out tentatively above a sepulchral arpeggio-like accompaniment, distils a sense of breath-held expectation, as though waiting for something significant to happen.
That “something” arrives in the piece’s middle section, where the left-hand figurations turn suddenly threatening, and the uneasy temper of the music peaks in a triple-forte marking. We are a long way from the prim and decorously cossetted world of Field – Chopin’s “night music” has, it seems, things that go bump in it, and shadows where murkier feelings linger. By contrast the second piece in the Op.27 set, the Nocturne in D flat major, is predominantly a creation of heart-easing beauty, its right-hand melody conceived in amicable two-part harmony, its modulations delightful rather than disorienting.
With the Nocturne in C minor (Op.48 No.1) we enter something closer to a dark night of the soul. Chopin’s typical rippling accompaniment is abandoned for a solemn march rhythm in the left hand, while the marking on the right-hand melody – “con molto sentimento” (“with much feeling”) – flags up the personal nature of the emotions being communicated in the music.
A chorale of soft-spoken chords appears to soften the initial mood, but proves an illusion. It is interrupted by thunderous octaves in the bass, disrupting the chorale’s
stately progress and injecting an unquiet, nervous energy which there is no avoiding. When the opening music returns it is, significantly, at double speed – there is no reversion to the mood of the opening paragraph, as there is in most of Chopin’s nocturnes. The emotional turbulence which fuels the piece will simply not allow it.
The companion nocturne in the Op.48 set, the Nocturne in C sharp minor, is also a departure of sorts – its middle section eschews the usual tactic of inserting more intense or animated music, and is marked “much slower”. Chopin himself compared this central episode to an operatic recitative, and imagined two voices in it. ”A tyrant commands”, he said, referring to the two-chord assertion it starts with, “and the other asks for mercy”. A slightly melodramatic characterisation, perhaps? Taken whole, this music seems more loose-limbed and relaxed than its minor-key flanking sections.
If John Field “invented” the piano nocturne, Chopin himself turned inventor in writing the four pieces that he called “ballades”. The term “ballade” was widely used in vocal music and poetry in the early nineteenth century, and typically involved the telling of a story in words, or words with music.
What type of “stories” do Chopin’s four “Ballades” tell? Schumann claimed that Chopin based them on poems by the Polish writer Adam Mickiewicz, but the evidence is sketchy. A strong narrative impulse of some sort certainly appears to drive the Ballade No.1 in G minor (Op.23), written by Chopin at the same period as his early nocturnes. A brief introduction – the initial forte chord calling, as it were, the listener to attention – is followed by an introspective theme which eventually ignites in a cascade of vertiginous right-hand figurations. Via a short, trumpet-like fanfare a second theme emerges, seemingly more sweetly concessive in nature.
The introspective theme returns, but is quickly capped by a progressively more elated statement of the second subject. A swirling dance episode in accelerated waltz time follows, before the music of the piece’s opening makes a momentary reappearance. A
roasting-hot coda – exceedingly difficult for the pianist – leaves nerve-ends raw and pressing questions unanswered as the curtain falls on Chopin’s galvanising pianistic narration.
The G minor Ballade has elements of classical sonata form in its make-up, but is generally much more free and open-ended in structure than the tripartite nocturnes. The music goes, it seems, where Chopin’s “story” leads, not along the pathways which convention suggests that it should follow.
That is certainly true of the Ballade No.2 in F major (Op.38), which juxtaposes one gently rocking, confiding piece of thematic material with a second which is fiery and disruptive, and two keys – F major and A minor – which make unsettling bedfellows. Twice the first theme offers itself up for consideration, twice it is pummelled into submission, before a raging coda reduces the one-sided dialogue to splinters. The quiet music of the opening returns a final time, cowed and in the minor key – the voice of reason and moderation has been weighed in the balance, and found wanting.
The Ballade No.3 in A flat major (Op.47) is, by comparison, a bracingly extroverted composition, with a “story” which seems positively swashbuckling in places. Although distinct structural episodes can be identified – the lolling amble of its opening paragraph, the rippling right-hand counter-subject, the effusive virtuosity fuelling the final climax – the piece has a jostling, freewheeling quality to it, and an exuberant expressiveness which leaves an invigorating, optimistic impression.
The same cannot be said of the Ballade No.4 in F minor (Op.52), whose riveting drama and intensity make it for many the pick of the ballades, and one of Chopin’s finest pieces in any genre. An air of wistfulness and gentle melancholy infuses the opening paragraph, but deeper, less governable emotions soon stir, with dense flurries of notes sent flying across the staves to express them.
- Press Reviews
- Gramophone: “[Melda] has won something of a reputation as a Chopin-player. This recording would seem to endorse that reputation … From the opening bars of the Op 9 No 1 Nocturne, the sound that Melda produces beguiles the ear with beautifully balanced, longbreathed cantabile phrases, played with no idiosyncratic interventions, and in short capturing the essence of what a nocturne should be … All in all, a fine Chopin recital that is a cut above the average.”International Piano: “This recording debut [reveals] a pianist of a maturity well beyond her years … Melda clearly understands the narrational aspect of Chopin. Structurally, too, she comprehends the importance of maintaining tension in the First Ballade’s lyrical contrasts. She encourages us to hear the Nocturnes as micro-Ballades, supported by engineering that does her subtleties full justice. Melda is a major talent.”
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