Let Me Tell You a Story

Or four, or (really) seven.

A Certain Young Man returned a couple of weeks ago from his summer internship in Washington, D. C. bearing gifts, including a recording of Chopin Ballades—plus three Nocturnes—by Nelson Goerner.  The recording was done in Warsaw, under the auspices of the National Chopin Institute there, and he is playing a Pleyel that Chopin owned.  (I’ve heard other recordings of the instrument and am not completely convinced by it, but that really doesn’t matter; I’m not an instrument fetishist—ya got a piano?  play on the piano ya got.)  Goerner is a young (44) Argentinian pianist, competition winner, hotshot with many orchestras, etc.  So, he records the Ballades.

My suspicion is that no genre is as well and thoroughly known to piano students as the Ballades.  Beethoven sonatas, sure, but there are thirty-two of them and some are played far more than others.  Even the five Beethoven piano concertos—well, many of us don’t know No. 2 as well as the others, and certainly not as many people play them.  So this is not exactly unknown repertoire; a large percentage of the studio classes in which we all participated featured at least one of these.  So we’ve all heard them a zillion times, and unfortunately for both us and them we can all hum through them: oh, it’s this bit, now the next bit, now how’s she going to do with the octaves, now where the memory’s tricky, now the coda, God help him, where he had such trouble three weeks ago…  Especially because of Chopin’s melodic and textural invention, we hear them as a succession of familiar, beloved moments, perhaps even feeling them in our own hands as they go by.  When they are analyzed, a good half the time or more people try to find ways for them to somehow be derived from sonata form, which is as wrong as it’s possible to be.  But that’s, among other things, my last book, and I’m not going to recapitulate that; what I’m interested in at the moment is how might freshly approach something called a “Ballade”—a lengthy narrative poem, often with a cataclysmic ending foretold from the outset—which was a new instrumental genre when Chopin published his Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 23.  I think about this a lot because it is almost impossible not to play it “like a pianist,” so: watch what I do with this bit, listen to my lush melody, better believe I can just whale on the octaves, I like to use una corda here, now strap in ’cause the big man is going to nail the coda to the back wall.  So, do I win the competition?  Of course, of course, you will need to hear my Liszt First before you can make that judgment…

My doctorate is specifically in Performance Practices, and I have always considered interpretation to be part of that, and intertwined with it, especially because for whatever reason I always knew that I would never have access to a variety of historical pianos: this one for Schubert and that one for Beethoven and German and French and so on and on.  So I tend to focus on things that can be done on modern instruments in addition to older ones: questions of rubato and inflection and even temperament.  The wide world of interpretation is open to all pianists, whether they’re playing on a real modern instrument or, say, one of Chopin’s Pleyels.

And this is where Nelson Goerner does something I am not used to hearing: he plays these utterly familiar but still narrative works in a completely narrative way.  Each passage emerges from the previous not as if it was being “discovered,” or improvised on the spot—that’s something else—but with the accomplished storyteller’s timing, the narrative “leaping and lingering” (as James Parakilas has put it), and the hairspring exactitude of how to allow the listener to revel in the immediate sensation, or realization, without rushing forward, but how also to pursue the tale, moving forward element by element.  All four Ballades are masterfully realized this way (OK, I disagree with the way he does the closing explosive section of the First Ballade, and the vast majority of pianists agree with him, though that doesn’t make them any the less wrong), and they command a kind of attention that one is not used to giving them, a kind of what’s going to happen next? that is entirely inconsistent with the way we all think of pieces this well known.

That’s four tales: Ballades 1–4, Opp. 23, 38, 47, and 52.  Thing is, though, on this CD each pair of Ballades (1 & 2, 2 & 3, 3 & 4) is separated by a Nocturne, another quintessentially Chopinesque genre—the Nocturnes are idealized opera arias, derived from his love of Italian opera, French Grand Opera, and (yes) even Polish opera.  Goerner plays the arias the same way—I’m really not used to hearing that—as if he is more interested in telling you the Story Of The Aria in this (entirely fictitious) opera.  I felt as if Goerner and I agreed on what they were about; it is nonsense and witchery and humbug and the clearest of all demonstrations that Goerner is Getting It Right if I have that confidence.  So: four long, beautifully recounted stories, and three shorter arias where, mirabile dictu, you understand the language in which they’re sung

Narrative works played narratively.  I can’t emphasize how rare this really is, nor how true to the nineteenth-century aesthetic it is: real performance practices, damn it, every bit as much (or more so) than The Right Instrument, The Right Fingering, The Right Tempo.  I want to use the A-word, Authenticity; performance practices people shy away from it, but I all too rarely am willing to testify to it with Chopin.  Those who know and love the Chopin Ballades and Nocturnes truly need to hear this recording.

(If your library has that Narodowy Instytut Fryderyka Chopina boxed set of Chopin’s complete works, you’re in—these are the Ballades included in that box.)

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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