Chopin - Ballade in G Minor – Walter Hautzig

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Chopin - Ballade in G minor - Walter Hautzig, piano

Although Frédéric Chopin (1810–1949) achieved fame and fortune throughout Europe as a virtuoso concert pianist and composer, he actually performed in fewer than thirty public concerts. He preferred to play for friends and musical connoisseurs in private environments such as homes or artistic salons. In those informal settings, he would play whatever music he wanted to at that moment rather than performing compositions that had been selected and announced far in advance of a public concert. 

The Chopin pieces on this compact disc represent a musical bouquet; they are not grouped chronologically or by any particular category. The recording, presenting a selection of favorite piano pieces, provides an overview of Chopin’s musical styles. Historically, this diverse collection of pieces actually reflects what might have resulted when Chopin played for friends, shifting from one piece to another, slipping in an occasional special request, sharing unpublished pieces, and presenting his latest version of a new composition-in-progress. 

Frédéric Chopin was born in Poland in 1810 and emigrated to France in 1831. He became a French citizen and died in Paris in 1849 without ever returning to the country of his birth. Chopin, more than any other composer, devoted himself to the piano. Virtually all his compositions included the piano either as a solo instrument or with other musicians. During the early decades of the nineteenth century, piano manufacturers developed many technical improvements. Compared to the wooden-framed pianos of the eighteenth century, the grand piano of Chopin’s time provided pianists with a wider range of pitches, broader range of dynamics, faster repetition of keys, and greater ease in controlling the pedal mechanism. In essence, the piano was able to function as a substitute for an entire orchestra. Yet the piano also served as an ideal instrument to use in small spaces and intimate settings, providing subtlety in controlling layers and durations of sound. Furthermore, through the use of the improved damper mechanism controlled by the right foot, pianists could accumulate and sustain tones through long phrases. Chopin’s withdrawal from the concert stage soon after he settled in Paris coincided with his rise in fame as a composer. Throughout his career, however, most of his income came from teaching piano lessons to wealthy pupils. His technical approach to the piano capitalized on the special acoustical characteristics of the instrument as well as his understanding of the physical characteristics of the human body. Rather than trying to train students’ ten fingers to make identical sounds, Chopin realized that each finger has unique qualities and that the hand can control a great diversity of nuances. His piano music reflects pianistic qualities such as flexibility, grace, proportion, suppleness, ease, flow, and lyricism.

About the Compositions 

Nocturne in C-sharp Minor (Opus Posthumous) [Composed in 1830; published in 1875]

Chopin composed more than twenty piano nocturnes, and he utilized that musical category throughout his adult life. Although the Nocturne in C-sharp Minor was one of Chopin’s earliest pieces, this musical gem was not published until forty-five years later, decades after the composer’s death. This piece, typical of the genre of night music, presents a quiet, poignant melody embellished with expressive trills, gentle scales and other florid ornamentation. The melody, assigned to the pianist’s right hand, reflects Chopin’s love of vocal (especially operatic) music. The left hand’s accompanying material, intense yet placid, creates an underlying rhythmic stability that provides both stability and flexibility, demonstrating Chopin’s characteristic use of rubato.

Valse in D-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 3 [Composed in 1829; published in 1855]

As was the case with nocturnes, Chopin composed waltzes throughout most of his life. Between 1827 and 1848, he composed more than twenty waltzes. Some were energetic and brilliant; others were pensive and naive. At the beginning of this gentle waltz, Chopin provided the descriptive words Moderato, dolce e legato. As with the nocturne on Track 1, the left hand provides a steady accompaniment while the right hand creates melodic lines that seems to evoke a distant time or place. The short piece ends quietly, without flash or flurry. 

Valse in E-flat Major, Op. 18 (Grande Valse Brillante) [Composed in 1831; published in 1834]

In vivid contrast with the first waltz on this compact disc, Chopin’s Op. 18 presents a brilliant and energetic dance. Marked Vivo, the piece has an improvisatory quality as the material unfolds in a series of eight-measure phrases. Throughout the composition, the left hand creates a firm harmonic foundation and an energetic accompaniment while enhancing the lyrical aspects of the piece. 

Ballade in G Minor, Op. 23  [Composed between 1831–35; published in 1836]

This extended piano solo, the first of Chopin’s four ballades, presents a highly dramatic character piece that recalls heroic deeds and knightly love. Although Chopin is not known to have had a specific narrative in mind, the music unfolds as if an adventurous tale were being recounted by a storyteller. The opening Largo, played in octaves, is marked pesante (heavy) and establishes an oppressive, ominous atmosphere. After the brief introduction, a Moderato section assigns a gentle accompanying figure to the left hand under a flowing, lyrical passage in the right hand. The sections that follow present a wide variety of moods and accompanying patterns, dynamic indications ranging from extremely soft to as loud as possible, and pitches that extend over the entire keyboard. The final section of this virtuoso piece creates a mood of passionate fury.

Berceuse in D-flat Major, Op. 57  [Composed in 1843–44; published in 1845]

This gentle lullaby, marked Andante, suggests the steady rocking of an infant’s cradle. Throughout the piece, the left hand provides a steady rhythmic pattern and subtle yet significant modifications of harmony. Above the left hand’s hypnotic accompaniment, the right hand constantly alters the melodic pattern, creating complex figurations and weaving delicate filigree patterns.

Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op. 22 (Grande Polonaise Brillante preceded by an Andante spianato for piano). [The Andante was composed in 1834; The Polonaise was composed in 1830–31; both sections were published in 1836] 

The polonaise was a Polish national dance in triple meter with characteristic rhythmic patterns. The dance, of stately and festive spirit, developed from courtly processions and ceremonies during the sixteenth century. In the nineteenth century, the polonaise became a symbol of Polish nationalism, heroism and chivalry. This recording is for solo piano; with the slight modifications suggested by Chopin, the same piece can be performed by solo pianist with orchestra. The work begins with a quiet introductory section, Andante Spianato. The word spianato refers to something that is leveled (made smooth or even), and the term provides an apt description of the left hand’s gentle G major chord figuration under the lyrical line assigned to the right hand. A sixteen-measure transition introduces the energetic and flamboyant Grande Polonaise Brillante.

Mazurka, in C Major, Op. 24, No. 2   [Composed in 1834–35;  the four mazurkas of Op. 24 were published in 1836]

Like the polonaise, the mazurka was a Polish national dance in triple meter.  It was danced by four or eight couples and utilized a great variety of step patterns. Chopin’s mazurkas often employed modal pitch patterns borrowed from Polish folk music. Although, these miniatures are less difficult technically than many of Chopin’s larger concert pieces, Walter Hautzig’s artistic performance demonstrates the mature musicianship required by this genre. 

Mazurka in D Major, Op. 33, No. 2 [Composed in 1837–38; the four mazurkas of Op. 33 were published in 1838]

This energetic mazurka, marked Vivace, presents a characteristic accent on the third beat of the measure. The contrasting sections alternate between D major and B-flat major, and the final phrase of the dance uses a raised fourth note of the scale (G#), creating a haunting, modal effect.

Ballade in A-flat Major, Op. 47 [Composed in 1840–41; published in 1841]

The third of Chopin’s four ballades is marked Allegretto and notated in 6/8 meter. Chopin’s Ballade is linked to the word ballad in the sense of “a narrative composition in rhythmic verse suitable for singing.” Although the composer does not assign words to this ballade, it is easy to imagine lyrics that describe heroic deeds. In this piece, the Chopin explores the full range of the six-octave piano keyboard. He also exploits a wide range of dynamics, pacing long crescendos and diminuendos over several measures. After returning to the opening thematic material, the piece builds to a great climax and ends with a grand flourish.

Valse in G-flat Major, Op. 70, No. 1 [Composed in 1833; published in 1855] 

The first section, marked Molto vivace, presents a lively, jaunty tune. The contrasting middle section, slower (meno mosso) and more melodic (cantabile), provides a tender, nostalgic duet. The waltz concludes with a return of the first section.

Valse in D-flat Major, Op. 64, No. 1 (“Minute Waltz”) [Composed in 1846–47; published in 1847]

Descriptions of Chopin watching a favorite puppy chase its tail led to the spurious nickname The Minute Waltz. This short waltz, in ABA form, contrasts perpetual motion and pensive lyricism. Although the waltz carries the tempo indication Molto vivace, it was not intended to be played within sixty seconds. Just for the record, Walter Hautzig’s vivacious performance lasts one minute and fifty-five seconds.

Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53 [Composed in 1842; published in 1843]

This proud and majestic polonaise (marked Maestoso), incorporates all sorts of virtuoso challenges including wide leaps, scales spread over several octaves, rapid arpeggio figures,complex chromatic passages, abrupt changes of register, and repeated double octaves. The piece closes with a bombastic flourish, providing Walter Hautzig with a truly grand finale for his grandiose bouquet of beloved piano music by Chopin.

Notes by Barbara English Maris

About The Performer

Writing about Walter Hautzig some years ago, The San Francisco Chronicle called him “An absolute master.” Similar accolades have followed him throughout his long and distinguished career on four continents. Hautzig was born in Vienna where he began his musical studies, which continued at the Jerusalem Conservatory. He has made his home in the United States since the 1940’s when he graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music. His principal teachers included Mieczyslaw Munz, a disciple of Busoni, and Artur Schnabel. 

Walter Hautzig has appeared in countless recitals in some fifty countries and has performed with leading orchestras in New York, Baltimore, Berlin, Zurich, Barcelona, Brussels, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki, Mexico City, Bogota, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Tokyo, Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, Wellington and many others throughout the world. In 1979, he was selected by the State Department to be the first artist from the United States to perform in the Peoples Republic of China after normalization of relations. His three recitals in Beijing were broadcast to the entire country and were heard by approximately nine hundred million people via radio and television. 

Hautzig has been praised for his “cultivated tonal beauty” (Die Welt, Berlin), “radiant sound” (Philadelphia Inquirer), “unforgettable Emperor Concerto” (El Tiempo, Bogota), “performance which impressed for its sheer virile integrity” (Auckland Star), “distinguished pianism” (Baltimore Sun), and for his “musicianship, taste and technical mastery” (Jerusalem Post), and  “natural spontaneity” (Japan Times). HiFi News of London summed up Walter Hautzig’s artistry with these words, “He is a pianist who constantly demands and gets your attention because he is always being creative.”

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Recorded in November 1998 in Kristiansand, Norway, at Sigurd Lie Hall of Agder University College, using a Hamburg Steinway. John Bøe is the recording engineer and editor. Photographs of Walter Hautzig taken by David Hautzig. The cover is from an oil painting of Frédéric Chopin by Ambroz Miroszewski, 1829. John DesMarteau did the graphic design.