Hommage to Chopin

“Hommage to Chopin”

a concert by 2013 American Pianists Awards winner Sean Chen

 

In July 2019, 2013 American Pianists Awards winner Sean Chen performed his own “Hommage to Chopin” at the International Keyboard Institute and Festival. Included in the performance at Hunter College on New York's Upper East Side were pieces by Chopin and composers inspired by his work:

  • Chopin-Godowsky: Study No. 45 (after Trois nouvelles étude No. 2)
  • Chopin: Étude Op. 25, No. 7
  • Scriabin: Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9, No. 2
  • Chopin-Godowsky: Study No. 22 (after Étude, Op. 10, No. 12 "Revolutionary")
  • Mompou: Variations on a Theme of Chopin
  • Liszt: 6 Chants Polonais (after Chopin Songs, Op. 74)
  • Rachmaninoff: Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22

Sean calls the first piece “an appetizer” for the program. Studies on Chopin's Études is a set of 53 arrangements of Chopin's études by Leopold Godowsky, a self-taught performer and composer from Vilna, Russian Poland (now the capitol of Lithuania). During the 1890s, he began making arrangements of other composers' music. His Chopin arrangements were produced between 1893 and 1914 and formed the basis of his reputation as an important composer for the piano.

Critic Jed Distler writes, “Any discussion about the most difficult works in the piano repertoire is bound to include Leopold Godowsky's 53 Studies on Chopin's Etudes. To be sure, the pure, unadulterated Chopin Etudes lie within reach of most virtuosos. But one cursory glance at a page from a Godowsky/Chopin concoction might easily intimidate even the most accomplished pianist of the human species. Godowsky operates under the basic premise that whatever elaborate passagework Chopin assigned to the right hand can and should be played by the left. On top of that, he smothers the right hand with lily-gilding countermelodies and serpentine filigree.

Any pianist who has confronted these pieces will tell you that the music is more difficult to play than it sounds. Once you get the notes under your fingers, you have to balance the polyphony and clarify the elaborate textures through voicing, hand balance, and genuine pedaling know-how.”

Announcing this piece, Sean Chen distilled the analysis:

“The challenge with this piece is that Godowsky writes these crazy polyrhythms and you have to manage them all while still bringing out the main melody. It is a lot of fun to try to work out and when you get it, it is a really great felling. I had so much fun learning it!”

Sean’s performances and introductions for each piece follow:

  

Sean describes the next three pieces as “showcasing what Chopin did for the left hand on the piano. I think Chopin was one of the first composers to really treat the left hand as its own voice.

We start with a cello etude which features the left hand in melodic form. Then we have Scriabin’s left-hand nocturne. Scriabin was very influenced by Chopin early on, and this nocturne idea and use of the left hand shows that influence." [Note: Inspiration for this piece also came from necessity: Scriabin severely damaged his right hand in the summer of 1891 by over practicing Franz Liszt's “Réminiscences de Don Juan.”]

"Finally, we have the Godowsky arrangement of the Revolutionary Étude for left hand alone, and it’s a lot of fun to play! He moved it up one half step to C-sharp minor to make it easier to play with the left hand.”

 

“Who here knows who Federico Mompou is? He was a composer born in Barcelona, and he studied in Paris at the conservatory. Some of his most famous pieces are his 'Cançons i Danses' which are songs and dances. They are very nostalgic and you will hear lots of Spanish influences in the Phrygian sounds he makes with use of the open guitar string chords.

This piece is obviously an homage to Chopin. He takes the A-major prelude [Note: Chopin’s Prelude in A major, Op. 28, No. 7] and spins out this lovely set of variations. I like to say it is 'Chopin through rose-tinted glasses.' It is very nostalgic—lots of exploration of harmonies that you could call jazzy. A lot of extended harmonies. It is not the kind of narrative push you will hear later in the Rachmaninoff; rather every variation is its own happy place—it doesn’t want to move on. I really enjoy playing this piece because as a pianist, you can explore so many different colors on the piano and you feel like a magician.”

 

Intermission

 

“Next on the program is a Liszt arrangement of six songs Chopin wrote. He puts it into a cycle form so there is a dramatic or narrative structure to it. Just a little bit about each one: the first one is 'A Maiden’s Wish,' and it is hopeful and not cheerful in a traditional sense, but for a Polish song it is pretty cheerful. Liszt puts it into variation form so there are lots of variations on this program and it works out nicely.

Second song is 'Spring' and it is kind of a melancholic spring—not your 'happy, dancing in the fields spring.' It is very nostalgic and reminiscent—thinking of better times maybe. Then the third piece is called 'The Ring,' and it is about a lover who sees the ring that they gave to someone on a new lover and so they are really bitter about it. It is very bitter music. Then right after that is 'Bacchanal,' which is a party because after you see someone with your ring on you want to go out and party. And then Liszt brings back 'The Ring' to make these two pieces a set. The fifth piece translates to 'My dear friend,' and it is basically a nocturne. It is really pretty, it gets very passionate in the middle, and it is a great standalone piece, too.

The final piece is 'The Homecoming.' The story is about a bridegroom returning home to find that his lover has died. It is very dramatic and tragic. Liszt takes a lot of liberties with this one compared to the original song, but I think it really works well. This piece will bring us key wise into the Rachmaninoff which I will talk about later. I hope you enjoy six polish songs arranged by Liszt.”

"So the Rachmaninoff Chopin Variations is really the ideal Hero’s Journey kind of piece. It is a trope on which many books and movies are based, and I feel like with this piece you really go through that journey. I‘m not going to say anything more except that the last movement, the last variation is the Polonaise one, which makes a very fitting way to end this concert of Chopin-inspired music."

[Note: This piece is a group of 22 variations on Frédéric Chopin's Prelude in C minor (Op. 28, No. 20)]

We hope you enjoyed this concert. For more about Chopin, check out this interview with American Pianists Awards winners Ning An and Peter Miyamoto. For more of the composer's music, visit our media library.

 

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