Chopin Overkill

By now, every music-lover must have noticed that 2010 is the bicentenary of Frédéric Chopin. He is everywhere, being celebrated, discussed in conference, recorded and performed complete and being made into everything from an intimate journal to a national symbol. 

It’s a scrum out there. Unlike Mahler, who can be lionised only with the aid of a vast orchestra, any solitary pianist with working fingers can play Chopin and call the concert an anniversary event. Consequently, performers and audiences have been gorging on Chopin as if on unlimited chocolate cake. 

Since Chopin’s birthday is subject to dispute and may be on either 22 February or 1 March, the Southbank Centre celebrated both, scoring a tremendous coup by booking two of the world’s most famous Chopin pianists, Krystian Zimerman and Maurizio Pollini, respectively for those dates. Murray Perahia took the Barbican by storm. Alexandre Tharaud — whose latest CD of Chopin, Journal Intime, is exquisite — was due to do likewise at the Wigmore, but cancelled due to illness. Off the beaten track, the Chopin Society (of which I’m a great fan) programmed a series of recitals in some of the venues associated with his visit to London in 1848. Piers Lane’s wonderful recital of the complete Nocturnes by candlelight in St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden, will stay with me for a long time.

That’s just the beginning. And perhaps inevitably, the situation has quickly begun to backfire. Martino Tirimo at Kings Place and Artur Pizarro at St John’s Smith Square have each been tackling Chopin’s complete solo piano works, which is no mean feat, but these excellent artists ended up in the shadows, utterly overlooked while critics flocked to glitzier events. “Yundi” — the artist formerly known as Yundi Li — and the Russian pianist-comet Yevgeny Sudbin brought still more Chopin later in March. So if serious overkill was starting to set in, it was hardly surprising. The Canadian pianist Louis Lortie has perhaps fared best, having got in last autumn with a splendid concert and recording of the complete Etudes, early enough to avoid anniversary blues. 

Much of the impetus for the celebrations has come from Poland. Chopin is one of the country’s prime exports and for them, Chopin Year means Poland Year. In the UK, the Polish Cultural Centre has published a booklet listing virtually every Chopin event in Britain this year and a glossy illustrated guide to Chopin’s Poland. They even produced a calendar giving a different quote about Chopin each day: it runs from 23 February to the end of the year, and the quotes are effectively upside-down. There’s something rather endearing about this. 

I’d have expected more new biographies and academic studies, but they are few and far between. Publishing is in a dire, recession-hit state and classical music books are a tough field. One notable volume has come my way, though: Adam Zamoyski’s Chopin: Prince of the Romantics (Harper) — a complete reworking of his earlier biography of Chopin. To write a book once is a labour of love, but to write it twice deserves a medal for perseverance. Zamoyski’s style is excellent, drawing us in almost imperceptibly. Primarily an historian rather than a musician, he targets his book towards the general reader and listener fascinated by the composer’s life and times. The book helps to prove that biographies of musicians belong in the bookshop and library with those of artists, writers and politicians — not just in the concealed inch that UK bookshops allocate to classical music books, if they stock any at all.

As for the record labels, complete Chopin sets — reissues by the kilo — have appeared. Deutsche Grammophon’s box is impressive and well presented, featuring quality recordings led by Zimerman and Pollini. EMI’s is a mixed bag, but contains some rare gems — such as the recordings of Ronald Smith — that will make pianophiles smile. Decca and Hyperion both offer sets of the complete solo piano music with Vladimir Ashkenazy and Garrick Ohlsson respectively.

But there’s a limit to the number of recordings and concerts any one music-lover can stomach of the same music during any one year. Every time an anniversary rolls round it’s the same: frantic celebration leading to equally frantic fatigue. Shouldn’t we have learned from experience?

Maybe it’s time for some joined-up thinking. It doesn’t look as if many of the venues, record companies and managers involved have been co-ordinating their plans. Indeed, they are more likely to keep them secret. But when there’s a significant anniversary, everyone wants to do something-a little co-ordination could be to everyone’s advantage. By competing instead of collaborating, record companies shoot themselves in the feet. Most music-lovers only want one complete Chopin set, if they want any, and extreme pianophiles are limited in number. Decca and DG are doing a joint website for the occasion, but they’re part of the same team. Why couldn’t the bosses of EMI and DG, for example, get together and plan that one would do complete Chopin, while the other would do, for instance, the complete piano and chamber music of Schumann, whose bicentenary is also this year? Wouldn’t both benefit, since sales would be less diluted? 

And yet, the degree of 2010’s Chopin Fever does prove that this composer means more to us than we might have realised. He is a top favourite for vast swathes of the listening public. His unique language, infused with Polish national dances, shades of Italian opera, Bachian counterpoint and Mozartian balance in almost equal measures, speaks straight to the spirit. In his hands, the piano is more satisfying than an orchestra, an ideal instrument at the service of someone who knows how to bring out its best. 

Without Chopin’s influence, moreover, 20th-century French and Russian music would never have sounded as they do: Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Debussy, Fauré and more learned lessons from his works that nobody else could have taught them. 

The diminutive, TB-ridden Chopin may seem an unlikely figure, perhaps, to hold in his hands the seeds of early 20th-century’s finest music — but if this anniversary allows us to recognise at last the full importance of his place in the history of Western musical development, then maybe it’s worth the overkill.

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