Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Nocturne - The Romantic Life of Frederic Chopin

Lucy Parham - photography by © Sven Arnstein
Lucy Parham © Sven Arnstein
Pianist Lucy Parham's programme Nocturne - The Romantic Life of Frederic Chopin interviews spoken narration with Chopin's piano music to create a picture of Chopin and his relationship with George Sand. Parham was joined by actors Juliet Stevenson and Samuel West at Middle Temple Hall on 3 December 2013 for a performance of Nocturne as part of Temple Song 2013. 

Whilst George Sand has left a comprehensive written record of her relationship with Chopin, the composer's own surviving letters are by no means as revealing and Parham has compiled the narration from a variety of sources, often contemporaries reminiscing about Chopin and about his piano playing.

The narration was roughly chronological, starting with Chopin's arrival in Paris in 1831. Whilst generally West played Chopin and Stevenson played George Sand, both slipped into other characters and provided linking narrations. We heard fascinating descriptions of Chopin's playing from such contemporaries as Sir Charles Halle, as well as the discussion between Liszt about the merits of performing in concerts and why Chopin preferred not to. The first half concluded with Chopin's first meeting with Sand, Liszt's warning to Chopin about her behaviour to her lovers, and Sand's pursuit of Chopin.


The best documented episode in their relationship was their disastrous trip to Majorca, there were problems with accommodation, lack of a piano, with the locals, with an imported piano being impounded, with the weather and Chopin's illness (which may have been cystic fibrosis rather than tuberculosis). We not only have Sand's descriptions but also Chopin's in letters to his sister, which provided a fine counterpoint. Sand and Chopin's later relationship is based heavily on Sand's reminiscences and as she was a novelist, you wonder whether she was re-writing history. We also heard  reminiscences from their friend, the painter Delacroix. And finally, the description of Chopin's final moments from Sand's daughter Solange.

Frederic Chopin by Bisson in 1849
Frederic Chopin by Bisson in 1849
What gave the narration depth was the fact that it was interwoven with Parham's playing of Chopin's music, so that we would intercut from a description of Chopin's own playing to one of the composer's pieces, or interweave music with Sand talking about how Chopin spent most of the day composing. The result formed an interesting narrative and did help illuminate the music.

Parham's choice of pieces was not historical, she didn't necessary play them in their position in the historical narrative, instead choosing to reflect the emotional tenor of the story, though I think the selection could probably have done with including a little more of Chopin's sturm und drang. Each half finished with a substantial piece, one of the Ballades.

She started with an atmospheric and melancholy performance of the Nocturne in C minor, Op.48 No.1 in which she displayed a nice flexibility and lightness of touch in the right hand combined with a strong bass, plus some spectacular passagework in the octave runs. A crisp account of the Polonaise in A Op.40 no.1 followed, so rhythmic that you felt you could dance to it, but still flexible. The Waltz in C sharp minor Op.64 No.2 was taken at a nice speed, but with a lovely flexible rubato, it was very affecting and certainly not languid.  The Etude in A flat Op.25 No.1 was elegant and flowing, with a lovely rippling effect in the right hand, it is not called the Aeolian Harp for nothing. The Mazurka in D Op.33 No.2 was nicely exuberant, but you still felt you could dance to it. The first half finished with the Ballade No. 3 in A flat, Op.47, which started in a deceptively simple manner, with a light and relaxed lilting rhythm, but then Parham developed some stunning power, though the performance perhaps lacked the edge of danger which I think the work needs.

George Sand
George Sand
Part two started with the Mazurka in A minor Op.67 No.4, elegant and supple, with lovely flexibility in the right-hand passagework. The Prelude in D flat Op.28, the 'raindrop prelude' was poetic but nicely moving as well, especially as it came straight after George Sand's description of the life in Majorca, where the rain reputedly inspired it. The Prelude in G minor Op..28 was stormy and passionate. The Waltz in C sharp minor Op.64 No.1 was called the 'petit chien' in France, referring to another story which cropped up in Sand's reminiscences. The Nocturne in D flat Op.27 No.2 was poetic and evocative, with Parham's performance growing in intensity as the piece developed. Finally, Ballade No.4 in F minor Op.52 which Parham started in a poetically understated and rather haunting way. As with all of Parham's playing of Chopin, the work was fluid and flowing, as it developed textures thickened and then miraculously thinned, fingerwork was dazzling at times. Parham's performances combined poetry and strength in just the right combination needed to bring out Chopin's music.

It has to be admitted that Middle Temple Hall is not quite ideal for spoken word, as at any given time the actors were facing only three quarters of their audience, but Stevenson and West were richly dramatic in the way they evoked the various personalities and characters. They were very admirable in the way that they slipped in and out of different characters. Whilst looking nothing like George Sand, Stevenson evoked something of her intelligence and fascination, and West was brilliant as the mercurial (and temperamental) Chopin.

Starting on 19 January 2014, Lucy Parham has a series of Sunday matinees at St. John's Smith Square in which she will be performing all four of her composer programmes, on Chopin, Liszt, Debussy and Robert and Clara Schumann.

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