ANDANTE SPIANATO AND GRAND POLONAISE BRILLANTE, OPUS 22
I think there are, in every classical pianist’s life, certain works—certain pieces—that—even though one knows hundreds of works—are so much FUN to play—works that somehow make your brain feel as if every cell is ALIVE—works that take you so out of yourself that you BECOME the piece you are playing—I think every pianist has at least one of these, if not several.
I suppose the truly great pianists have dozens, scores even.
I don’t know of any other work that makes me feel so alive—giving one that always-fleeting feeling that you were MEANT to play this particular work—as does Chopin’s Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise.
Many pianists will say that something BIOLOGICAL happens to them—to their physical brains—when they play Bach. I’ve always supposed the reason for this is that when one is playing counterpoint—two or more equally important voices occurring at the same time—that the brain is somehow getting a “full” workout—as opposed to the majority of the rest of the piano repertoire which is—let’s face it, regardless of how technically difficult it may be—basically melody and accompaniment, and therefore might be using less of the brain’s capabilities. So—in my theory, anyway—an individual would literally feel physically better after playing Bach.
Whether that is true or not, the description—having a “full” brain workout as a result of playing certain pieces—seems apt for me when it comes to the Andante Spianato and Grand Polonaise—even though it’s not countrapuntal. It just really gets around the keyboard. I feel wonderful while playing it.
The piece itself is actually a hybrid. But more about that a little later…
When Chopin moved from Warsaw to Paris at the age of 20, he knew—so well—that in order to make an impression there—on a music-loving public and on the musical cognoscenti in general—he had to have “the goods” ready to go. Consequently, he went there armed with not one, but four, concerti—the F minor concerto, the E minor concerto, the “La ci darem” Variations, and the Grand Polonaise Brillante in E-flat Major. The two concertos require an orchestra—it can be small, but it is absolutely essential for performance. The variations and the polonaise are nothing but solo piano pieces with scant orchestral accompaniments—the orchestral part is actually superfluous. Presumably, Chopin felt that having this combination of works—two works that required an orchestra and two that technically did not—covered all of his anticipated bases.
It turned out that Chopin need not have been so concerto-heavy for his first months in the big city, Paris. Just months before this—when he was still trying to decide whether it was going to be Vienna or Paris where he tried his luck as a composer–he had the opportunity to play the La ci darem Variations in Vienna, where they had been rapturously received. The reputation of the piece caught the attention of Robert Schumann, who wrote and edited an influential “new” music journal, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. He wrote an article entitled, “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!” about Chopin, thus paving the way for Chopin’s eventual success in Paris.
All of this background is just to say that the Grand Polonaise Brillante in E-flat Major was—eventually—performed in Paris, with Chopin as the soloist, of course. I may have mentioned in a previous post the concerts in Paris at this time that were held by Francois Antoine Habeneck. He was a violinist and conductor who sponsored a series of highly-regarded concerts in Paris that were responsible for bringing new repertoire to the public’s attention. The Beethoven symphonies were first heard in Paris at Habeneck’s Conservatoire Concerts.
So it was that in 1834, Chopin was finally invited to perform his works on one of Habeneck’s concerts. He felt that the Grand Polonaise Brillante was just right for the occasion, but he needed something to emotionally counterbalance its fireworks with some tenderness. The Polonaise had been written in 1830. Just before the Habeneck concert was to take place, Chopin wrote the Andante Spianato to add to the Polonaise as an introduction. “Spianato” means “flowing.” This extraordinarily flowing and calm introduction is a like a Nocturne is 6/8 time. Chopin links these two pieces—two opposite poles of emotional activity—via a brief trumpet-like fanfare (heard in today’s link at 4:45), a stroke of genius.
The Polonaise is among Chopin’s most technically demanding works—rapid thirds, fast simultaneous arpeggios in both hands, extended trills, rapid octaves, and so on. It is a wonderful challenge. Did I mention how good it feels to play?
If you have seen the movie The Pianist—the Academy Award-winning movie starring Adrian Brody as a Holocaust survivor and pianist—you may remember the scene—the concluding scene—in which he plays the Grand Polonaise to a large and prestigious audience.
I’ve chosen Evgeny Kissin’s performance to link to. Kissin’s performance—as his performances always do—makes the entire work seem effortless. It probably was effortless for him.
For those interested, an excerpt of the work—in The Pianist’s final scene, featuring Adrian Brody—can also be found here:
Pics: Chopin, Kissin, Brody.