Chopin: The Great Polonaises - Garrick Ohlsson
The Great Polonaises
Catalogue Number: CDH55382
By the time of Chopin's youth, the polonaise had progressed from a Polish dance of rural popularity to the ballrooms of the aristocracy, and he would have heard many of the countless polonaises turned out by Polish composers when he was growing up. There are examples in classical music as far back as Bach, to say nothing of Beethoven, Schubert, Weber and Hummel. But, though the characteristic rhythm of the dance was used well before Chopin, the polonaise is one of the many musical forms where Chopin raised an existing type of composition to another musical level, in this case providing models for Liszt, Scharwenka and later generations. The works presented here are his mature essays in the genre.
The two polonaises in C sharp minor and E flat minor, Op 26 composed in 1836 are of a completely different order to the nine polonaises written in his teens and not published till after his death. Not only are they written with a new-found maturity but reflect his situation as a Polish exile in Paris. These polonaises are not virtuosic treatments of a dance form but are by turns proud celebrations of his country's past splendours and moving expressions of regret at its fate under the Russian oppressors. The trio of the C sharp minor Polonaise could almost stand by itself as a nocturne, the second part of which is a duet between soprano and bass, the prototype of the étude in C sharp minor, Op 25 No 7. The E flat minor Polonaise is known as the 'Siberian' or 'Revolt'. Its sinister opening section gives way to a reflective trio in B major but ends, in the words of James Huneker, 'in gloom and the impotent clanging of chains'.
The first of the two polonaises Op 40, in A major, the so-called 'Military' Polonaise, is one of Chopin's most popular works. It is, perhaps, the most typical example of his six mature polonaises in terms of its structure, rhythm and character. Here is the composer at his most patriotic yet it is strange that so heroic a work has no coda but simply restates the opening theme before coming to an abrupt conclusion. If this is a portrait of Poland's greatness, then Op 40 No 2 in C minor, composed a year later in 1839, depicts its suffering in music of nobility and high emotion. The Op 40 polonaises are dedicated to Chopin's friend and amanuensis Julian Fontana.
The final two polonaises
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