In symphonies and other large-scale orchestral works, composers stake their claims, craft their legacies and position themselves in the traditions. In symphonies, composers answer explicitly to those who have gone before (meaning, generally, Beethoven) and consciously bequeath their own formal truths to the future. Symphonies (and operas, for those who partake) are flagship, are branding. Chamber works and – especially – solo piano music, on the other hand, are more likely to be the composer’s secret heart-songs and experimental diaries. This is why I so much prefer them. Give me Beethoven’s last few piano sonatas over the Fifth any day, or Brahms’ Op. 118, or Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin before he orchestrated it, when it was a suite of six heartrending solo piano pieces in a delicate French Baroque style, each devoted to the memory of a different friend or composer who had died in World War I.
And give me Chopin over most others. The Polish Romantic master is the only five-star marquee composer I can think of who pretty much skipped the whole orchestral enterprise (but for a couple of piano concerti) and wrote almost exclusively heart-songs for solo piano. I mean, there is Federico Mompou, too; but have you ever heard of him? (Check out Cançons i Danses.) Chopin managed to become one of the most celebrated voices in serious music without spending any time at all, really, in its largest halls or trying his hand at its grandest forms. I think of his music as a kind of undying, worldwide galloping brushfire of tiny salon concerts and intimate loves, joys, fears, fantasies and bad dreams confided to one person at a time: a secret that everyone is in on.
The Bard Music Festival’s immersive two-week program Chopin and His World features a lot of music not by Fryderyk Chopin: contemporaries, fellow Polish nationals, influencers and influences – the whole context. For those who wish to cut right to the chase, however, there is Friday, August 18: Program Seven, “Chopin and the Piano.” Following a 7:30 p.m. pre-concert talk by Jonathan Bellman, seven pianists will confide Chopin at the Fisher Center’s Sosnoff Theater. These pianists are Charlie Albright, Michael Brown, Ran Dank, Danny Driver, Piers Lane, Nimrod David Pfeffer and Anna Polonsky, and the program features samplings of the many forms in which Chopin wrote, some of which he invented. Ticket prices range from $25 to $60.
The Fisher Center is located on the campus of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson. For more information, visit http://fishercenter.bard.edu.