The polonaises raise an interesting question for me. Was Chopin a Polish composer? I usually say no, he was French with Polish influences. Not a Polish composer. But listening to these polonaises, I am reminded of being a child. I grew up in a small Polish village in Central New York. Was it Polish? Well, almost everyone over the age of 70 was off-the-boat Polish, and everyone else was of Polish heritage. It was an American village with a decidedly Polish lean to it. Not quite one or the other, really. And in these polonaises, I hear the rhythms of some of the polka bands (ugh) that played at festivals and carnivals in the summers, or live bands (much better) for events. And moreso, I hear the colors, harmonies, and voice-leadings that I’ve learned are peculiar to Polish church music. I haven’t heard it in any other denomination or from any other hymnal than from our Polish-Catholic services. But this still isn’t Polish music – it has Polish sounds in it, just as my church and my village have a ton of Polish heritage, but we don’t keep all the Polish traditions all the time, and we’re in America – that’s our basis for functioning. So in a strange way, I can identify with these pieces’ homelessness. I never thought I’d say that.
Rubinstein and Chopin. Yes. This recording is just incredible. He really captures its elegance – the simplicity and sincerity, the outcries of emotion, wow. Never over the top, just little touches of time here and there, and even when he’s pouring his soul out, there seems to be some reservation and dignity.
Whenever I hear this, I think it should be the fifth Ballade. Sure, it’s got practically none of the defining characteristics, but I feel the overall structure and character fit. It reads like a ballade: character development, conflict of themes, it practically has a plot.
It seems to me that Chopin’s biggest talent was as a storyteller. In his shorter character pieces, it was a story of a single image, or emotion – something small and singular, but complete. These larger works are the story of something more complicated – a person, an event. When listening to Chopin, I don’t miss the development I love in so many other composers because he really draws me in with the narrative – a forward movement of an entirely different kind.