Pianist Jennifer Lim has chosen to feature one of Frédéric Chopin’s most popular works, the Sonata No. 2 in B-fl at minor on her second disc for Green House Music. With all the repertoire choices available to her in the Chopin oeuvre one might wonder why she didn’t just round out her program with more from this most popular of composers for the piano. Her decision to nestle the yin of Chopin’s Sonata into the yang of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s collection of virtuosic and soulful Etudes-Tableaux Opus 33 is easily justifi ed. “Both pieces are close to my heart, and have been for many years” says Ms. Lim. “I have taken them on different tours and have always found the experience of performing them to be immensely satisfying.”
Indeed, these works are also very satisfying for the listener. Perhaps there is something to the winning formula of opposites attracting because on the surface, these two composers and their music would appear to be quite different from each other.
Consider the celebrated pianist, conductor and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). His deadpan expression and businesslike approach at the keyboard earned him the nickname, ‘the puritan of pianists’. Rachmaninoff was the most talented music student in the Moscow boarding school operated by the strict but caring Nicolai Zverov. Of all his students Rachmaninoff was also the most slothful. Lazy bones, as his family called him, had diffi culty rising for his required three hours of early morning piano practice. It was only the jarring sight of master Zverov, unshaven and underwear clad, bearing down on the young Sergei at 6 o’clock every morning that kept Rachmaninoff fully on task. Of course, Rachmaninoff’s genius served him well both at the Zverev School and later at the Moscow Conservatory where he showed an unlimited ability to learn repertoire. He won top honors in both piano and composition and by the time he was nineteen, had composed his famous C-sharp minor Prelude. He conducted opera at the Bolshoi Theatre, and later received offers for prestigious conducting jobs in Boston and elsewhere, all of which he turned down. At 45 he remade himself into a touring pianist when composing alone failed to adequately provide for his family. Eventually, he settled in Hollywood where he continued to add to his catalogue of unapologetically Romantic solo piano pieces, concertos, songs, operas, and choral works. This was at a time when serious concert music had taken wild and unexpected turns via the imaginations of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Bartók.
By contrast, composer, pianist and teacher Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) led a quiet revolution that completely changed the course of music. Focusing almost exclusively on works for the piano he composed startlingly original pieces that remain among the most idiomatic and popular works for that instrument. He was also a dandy who spent countless hours in front of the mirror curling his hair and primping for his daily lessons with the progeny of Polish and French aristocrats. Certainly no lazy bones, he went to bed with wine corks wedged between his fi ngers with the hopes of expanding his reach at the keyboard. By the time he was eight years old, Chopin and his concert appearances were being publicized in the Warsaw newspapers. At twenty-one he arrived in Paris a fully formed pianist and composer. His touch at the piano was characterized by fl awless accuracy, a subtle command of dynamics, and a singing tone. Strangely, despite possessing a technique that was only surpassed by Franz Liszt at that time, Chopin harbored grave doubts about his own abilities. For a time he even considered enlisting in an excessively drawn out regimen of lessons with the pompous German pedagogue, Friedrich Kalkbrenner. He eventually turned down Kalkbrenner’s offer, sparing himself the embarrassment of a completely unnecessary course of professional development. Echoing Chopin’s experience, in a similar episode of self doubt, Rachmaninoff sought treatment for writer’s block early in his career. Scathing reviews of his Symphony No. 1 had plunged Rachmaninoff into a deep funk. Fortunately, he found treatment in a program of hypnotic auto-suggestion prescribed by a Dr. Dahl that lifted him out of his depression and led to the creation of the fabulously popular Piano Concerto No. 2.
As it turns out, there were other similarities between these two seemingly incongruous personalities. Both Chopin and Rachmaninoff composed introspective, melancholic music. Perhaps it was the natural manifestation of their Slavic souls. Maybe they found the gravitational pull of serious subject matter to be just too powerful to ignore. Chopin composed his Funeral March in 1837 during a period of depression following a parting with his fi ancée, Maria Wodzinska. This famous dirge later became the central element in the B-fl at minor Sonata. In fact, all three of Chopin’s sonatas for piano are cast in the minor mode. It‘s worth noting that the majority of Rachmaninoff ’s Etudes-Tableaux are, in fact, also in minor keys. Of those included in Opus 33, the third in C-minor transforms at midpoint, ending in sunny C-major. I wonder if the glimpse of hope offered by that minor to major resolution was just too optimistic an outcome for Rachmaninoff’s liking. He withdrew the piece after the premiere refusing to allow it to be published in his lifetime. Ironically it is precisely that piece that Jennifer Lim singles out as her favorite of the set.
One of the great tragedies of Rachmaninoff ’s life was the death of his sister Yelena. She was an inspiration to her little brother who learned about the music of Tchaikovsky, among others, through her. A favorite song was ‘None But The Lonely Heart’ which Yelena sang while Sergei blissfully accompanied her at the piano. When performing songs like that one, the beauty of Yelena’s voice occasionally caused Sergei to become distracted. When his tempo began to stray ever so slightly from his sister’s, a sharp word or two from Yelena inevitably followed, providing the required course correction. She was the star of the Rachmaninoff family back then, and she assumed mothering duties at least as far as Sergei’s musical education was concerned. Yelena was poised for an exceptional career at the Russian national opera but died just months before her debut.
Chopin had three sisters, one of whom also died too young. The gravestone of Emilia Chopin in Powazki cemetery reads, ‘perished in the fourteenth spring of her life, like a fl ower in which blossomed the beautiful promise of fruit’. Is it possible that such a loss might have fueled Chopin’s continual, and well documented search for a strong feminine presence in his life? It is impossible to know for sure. For a while he found what he needed in the companionship of Baroness Dudevant, otherwise known as George Sand. However, even George Sand, as supportive as she was of Frédéric during their years together, abandoned Chopin in the end.
Jennifer Lim’s attentiveness to these scores and the creative spirits of Messrs. Chopin and Rachmaninoff is evident in every minute of this recording. With her performance there is a clear sense of the musical demands being fully met. Additionally, her nurturing, feminine presence somehow makes the experience of listening to these works complete. This grouping of three, these two composers and this pianist, makes an awful lot of sense to me.
by Michael Juk