Frédéric François Chopin (01.03.1810 – 17.10.1849) was a Polish piano virtuoso and composer of the Romantic era. Before his death at the age of 39, Chopin wrote some of the instrument’s most intimate, memorable works. All of his compositions include the piano. Most are for solo piano, though he also wrote two piano concertos, a few chamber pieces, and nineteen songs set to Polish lyrics. His piano writing was technically demanding and took the instrument to new limits. As a performer he played with a high degree of nuance and sensitivity.
Chopin wrote mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, polonaises, études, impromptus, scherzos, preludes and sonatas for the piano and he is credited with the introduction of the instrumental ballade.
Some composers, unlike Mozart and Beethoven, though perfectly competent at the keyboard, were somewhat inept at composing for the orchestra. Some would say that Chopin was one such. Certainly Chopin showed little enthusiasm for composing for the orchestra and both of his piano concertos were written during his youth before he left Poland.
Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 was in fact the second of the concertos to be written but it happened to be published first. Listening to this deeply expansive and expressive work, one could be forgiven for thinking that this was the work of a composer who has reached full emotional and musical maturity. In fact it was first performed on 11 October 1830, in Warsaw, with the twenty year old composer as soloist, during one of his “farewell” concerts before leaving Poland. This concerto is best known for its lyrical middle movement; the Romanze, but it also contains many melodic delights in the two outer movements. It’s unashamedly heart-on-your-sleeve stuff, with the rich sounds of the piano accompanied by some gloriously rich string accompaniment.
There are a number of fine versions of this concerto available, frequently coupled with Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21. Daniel Barenboim’s live recording with the Staatskapelle Berlin and conductor Andris Nelsons is a particular favourite. But it is Martha Argerich to whom we turn for our top recommendation; again in a live recording. Her 1998 account, captured in the wonderful acoustic of L’Église de St. Eustache, Montréal, with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and conductor Charles Dutoit is the one to go for rather than her 1968 version which lacks the wit, spontaneity and allure of the later version.