Book Review of John Rink’s Chopin: The Piano Concertos (1999)

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, 139 p.
with musical examples and appendices. ISBN 0521446600.


Book Review

by Wojciech Bonkowski


Shortly after the publication of Chopin Studies 2 , the volume’s co-editor and renowned Chopin scholar, John Rink, has written a monograph study of Chopin’s Piano Concertos for the Cambridge Music Handbooks series. It is the first such book dedicated to the concertos, which have so far been examined only in articles and books of more general interest. Rink’s study deals with the genesis of these works’ showing their relation to the tradition and genre characteristics; it also gives detailed source information, summarizes critical response to the Concertos and comments on their performances available on disc. However, all this is only an introduction to on analysis of the scores “based on performance-related criteria” (p. IX), which aims at exploring the formal and tonal structure of the works and attempts to uncover the reason for the Concerto’s enormous popularity among both pianists and audiences. The author’s goal is to justify “through late twentieth-century analytical description the enthusiastic reception of the two works in the first half of the nineteenth century” (p. IX-X).

The book’s first chapter, “Contexts,” evaluates the various influences on Chopin while he was composing both concertos, i.e., in 1829-30. The most important of these influences were the “stile brillante” and the appearance of virtuosi pianists on Europe’s musical scene. According to Rink, this fashion had caused a peculiar dichotomy within music composed for solo instrument with orchestra, namely a dichotomy between “serious” art music and popular concert music” (p. 2). Basing his work on classifications by Isabella Amster, Rink elaborated the model of an archetypal virtuoso concerto, the first movement of which can be understood as a schematic alternation between four orchestral tutti and three solo interventions (composed in turn of thematic material interspersed with the so-called Spielepisode) and tonally representing a progression of I – V – I. It is worth noting that the above model has many traits in common with Józef Chomiński’s design known as “two-phase form” and composed of stable thematic units and unstable transitory units. Another influence on Chopin, no less important than the European “stile brillante,” was Warsaw’s musical life in the 1820’s and his studies at the Szkoła Główna Muzyki under the guidance of Józef Elsner. Thanks to his thorough education as a composer, Chopin was able to assimilate heterogeneous influences in his early works, in which his style is distinguished by “beauty of sound, nuance, legato cantabile, suppleness, simplicity and coloristic variety” (p. 7). Rink points out that some novelties in the handling of traditional sonata form in both Concertos and other works of this period (Sonata op. 4, Trio op. 8) can be traced to Elsner’s supervision. “Elsner’s own music reveals an innovative . . . use of the Viennese sonata principle, suggesting that some of the structural anomalies [sic!] in Chopin’s Warsaw-period compositions . . . should be understood as calculated experiments sanctioned by a skilled and knowledgeable teacher” (p. 7-8). There is no arguing that the Concertos Op. 11 and 21 are culminating works of a period of dynamic compositional development and, as such, are a summary of Chopin’s experiments in the field of texture, harmony, and form.

“Creation” is the title of the second chapter of the book, dealing with the genesis of both Concertos, first performances by the composer, the reaction of musical critics, and first editions. Here, Rink discusses the composer’s public appearances as a pianist performing his own Concertos, and – in the “Reception” sub-chapter – offers insights into the (mostly enthusiastic) reaction of the Polish, French and German press. This is followed by a critical evaluation of score sources. While neither Concerto survived in manuscript form, both works were published simultaneously in Paris, London and Leipzig – the Concerto in E minor Concerto appeared as op. 11 in 1833, and the Concerto in F minor was issued in 1836 as Chopin’s op. 21. The publishers did not print full scores, but rather the solo part accompanied by orchestral parts, i.e., performance materials. Various versions of the E minor Concerto do not differ in important details, though they all include errors and alternative readings. The publication history of the F minor Concerto is particularly complicated. Rink creates a “hypothetical stemma” of possible relations between the three original editions and a partial manuscript from the 1830’s consisting of “orchestral parts in an unknown hand, with the solo part . . . added later by Chopin” (p. 14). This manuscript probably served as the basis for the first German edition by Breitkopf & Härtel published in April 1836; the French publisher, Schlesinger, prepared his edition from a manuscript or proof prints corrected by Chopin (this manuscript is now lost). These two editions could have influenced the German edition. Schlesinger’s version appeared in September 1836 and included some corrections made in the meantime to the Breitkopf’s score. The English publisher (Wessel) probably based his May 1836 edition on the German version; it is also possible that the edition referred to the French proofs corrected by Chopin (see Table 1: Rink’s “stemma,” p. 21).

Table 1 F Minor Concerto: hypothetical stemma

Finally, a subsidiary source for the analysis of Chopin’s Concertos is provided by testimonies of Chopin’s pupils who, under the composer’s supervision, prepared his works for performance. Of particular significance are copies of the scores bearing Chopin’s performance remarks and corrections, especially those belonging to pupils Camille Dubois and Jane Stirling. In addition, Rink quotes Wilhelm von Lenz who attended a rehearsal of the E minor Concerto played by Chopin’s talented pupil Carl Filtsch, with the composer accompanying on a second piano. Rink draws from all these elements to create a model of the “intended” work, i.e., the Concertos interpreted “in the spirit of the composer” and according to his wishes. “Interpretation” is the book’s third chapter including a critical survey of various types of interpretations of both Concertos. Interestingly, Rink points out in what ways the interpretations of Chopin’s works changed with the course of history. The British scholar sees this change as “a progression from the highly personalized responses common in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, through the ostensibly more rigorous structuralist critiques of this century, to the ‘reconciliatory’ synthesis of the subjective and the objective typical of recent scholarship” (p. 25). Here, he quotes a remark by Jim Samson claiming that both approaches signify a tendency to break the organic relationship between the synchronic (structural) and diachronic procedural) level of the music, and thus speaks of a “drama of separation” of the text and performance. While Chopin’s contemporaries warmly greeted the Concertos’ “freshness,” “abundance of imaginative ideas,” “novelty of form” and raved about the improvisatory character of the piano part, Chopin’s first biographer Frederick Niecks opened a period of rather unfriendly opinions, when the Concertos came to be judged as mere juvenilia unworthy of notice, disclosing a lack of “peculiar qualities (…) requisite for a successful cultivation of larger forms,” “no aptitude for orchestral writing” and proving that Chopin himself was “devoid of sustained and dominating intellectual power” (all quotes from Rink, pp. 26-28).

Editorial interpretations are examined next, in the form of subsequent editions, transcriptions, orchestrations, etc. The editions may also be seen as a scene of the above-mentioned progression from “dispersal of meanings” to the “closure of meaning.” In the final sections of his book, Rink focuses his attention on performances of both Concertos. While it is fairly easy to formulate a criteria for correctness in the case of differing editions of the works (with no manuscripts extant the scores must follow the indications of the original editions and all the known corrections by Chopin), the case of musical performances recorded on disc is more ambiguous, since no objective standard for correctness exists. Rink maintains that “striking a balance between personal conviction and fidelity to the composer is one prerequisite to successful performance” and that “some interpretations do not ‘add up’ (…), they evince little or no understanding of the performance aesthetic necessary for the music to make sense” (p. 39). Rink’s perfect performance should, thus, be based on faithfulness to the score and stylistic authenticity, but in reality very few performances satisfy him. He writes: “the temporal flexibility of Alexander’s Brailowsky’s Op. 11 from 1928 seems arbitrary, (…) massive cadential ritardandos and accelerated virtuosic sections undermine the performance’s logic;” in Josef Hofmann’s interpretation of the “first movement has no raison d’ętre;” Artur Rubinstein “skates over the music and its deeper emotions” whereas Garrick Ohlsson’s is a “saccharine Romance;” Mieczysław Horszowski presents a “drive-through performance;” and Krystian Zimerman “play metallically.” The versions of Lipatti, Argerich and Czerny-Stefańska are judged to be more convincing: in the latter “nothing is overstated, each element instead contributing to an all-embracing emotional trajectory” (all quotes from pp. 40-41). Rink expresses similarly strong opinions about the performances of Op. 21. It is astonishing that Rink – who based this chapter and the appendix (including a “select discography”) on books by Józef Kański and James Methuen-Campbell – does not mention performances by such pianists as Arrau, Cziffra, Gilels, Bachauer, Małcużyński, Cherkassky, Richter, and Pogorelic. The chapter ends with the following conclusion: “this distance from the original impairs virtually all of the recordings (…) included in this survey, few of which evoke “the feeling of Chopin” (…)” (p. 44).

The next and fourth chapter is titled “Re-evaluation” and constitutes an analysis of the musical texts. The analysis is both formal and tonal, as well as descriptive of “temporally defined processes like the generation and relaxation of momentum, rhythmic flux, and small- and large-scale gestural impulse, all of which help to transform the structural bedrock into a living musical statement” (p. 45). After discussing the movements of both Concertos in detail, Rink focuses on their relationship with the model of the virtuoso concerto, indicating important modifications of that convention. In the F minor Concerto the modifications stem primarily from “the natural lie of Chopin’s figuration” and “expressive integration” (both from p. 48). The first movement’s formal simplicity, as illustrated by the triple repetition of the basic progression (exposition: I to v; development: to V; recapitulation: back to I), is mirrored by the simplicity of a specific emotional plan in which thematic sections constitute stable narrative units, while typical virtuoso Spielepisode evolve into sections of emotional tension. Climaxes fall on the four tutti, as well as the solo part at the end of all three sections of the sonata form. In this way “an innate equilibrium is recovered from the Mozart piano concerto” (p. 52). In the second movement, the Larghetto, the “ornamental melody” plays a colorful and lyric role in the outer parts, and a dramatic one in the middle section. Despite this movement’s resemblance to its many counterparts in the contemporaneous concertos of the “stile brillante,” Chopin’s genius transforms the conventional gestures into an “exquisite ‘tone poem,’ in which extremes of emotion are expertly juxtaposed” and to which “verbal judgement can hardly do justice” (p. 57). The third movement’s form is more complex, since Chopin combined a “symmetrical ternary form” with a “goal directed structure influenced by the sonata principle” (p. 57); the harmonic progression (F minor – A flat – F minor – F) creates a “formal hybrid uniting the thematic statements and episodes into a single sweep towards the ‘finale’ and coda” (p. 58).

The E minor Concerto shows a further departure from the “stile brillante” model. This is evident in the innovative tonal plan of the Allegro maestoso: its second theme appears in the tonic major (E major) instead of the more common mediant (G major), only to reach the latter in the recapitulation section. This episode (bars 573-621) is seen by Rink as the “expressive goal” of the entire movement, after which comes a final dynamic climax. In this way an original variant of the traditional sonata allegro form is created, in which Chopin “transfers structural weight towards the end” (p. 63). Equally characteristic of Chopin is the technique of juxtaposing extremes, allowing the elaboration of an “all-embracing expressive plan with four main elements: a principle of contrast partly defined by stark dynamic juxtapositions within the orchestral accompaniment (…); a symbiotic relationship between themes and passage work” (…); a sound, if idiosyncratic, key scheme (…); and the critical role of the recitative-like passages at the end of both statements of theme 2″ (p. 73). The second movement – Romance – is, as in Op. 21, a nocturne in ternary form, but in this case the outer sections are built of separate thematic complexes and a “codetta.” Here Chopin once again successfully builds up and relieves tension, using e.g., “successive attempts to achieve melodic closure” (p. 74), highly rhetorical composition in the piano part (jumps of a seventh, melodic figures), and “clouding the harmony before a structural resolution” (p. 77). The Concerto ends with a rondo-krakowiak in E major, the tonal scheme of which (I – IV – I – V – I) evokes Chopin’s other Rondos (Op. 5 and 16). This movement, however, features an interesting variation consisting of a false reprise in E major (bars 280-287). Rink sees this Rondo as “a masterly constructed finale of spellbinding virtuosity completing a cumulative process that spans the four episodes and accrues energy throughout the movement” (p. 80). Integration is achieved on the level of rhythm (through use of three rhythmic cells) and color (“Chopin makes expert use of the orchestra, contrapuntally combining different instrumental timbres” – p. 81). The Rondo is a worthy conclusion to Chopin’s concerto output: although this movement retains both the alternation between theme and display characteristic of the style brillante (…), its underlying structure and unfolding narrative [are] united in expressive purpose” (p. 85).

In the sub-chapter “Coda” Rink argues against the main charges that Niecks brought in against the Concertos. The argument of weakness of form and tonal structure, says Rink, “can be dismissed out of hand: not only is there evidence of genius and inspiration within the structure of the two concertos, but it is equally clear that they work “in time” (…)” (p. 85). As to the lack of integration and development, Rink maintains that many sections of the works in question prove the contrary: “the linking of the four episodes in Op. 11’s Rondo in a single structural crescendo suggests a command of musical development far more significant than the ‘organic’ unity conferred by mere thematische Arbeit” (p. 86). The matter of inept orchestration is “less straightforward” (p. 86): it can be argued that Chopin orchestration does show some weaknesses; Rink mentions the lack of consistent interplay between the soloist and orchestra, the excessive use of strings, and limitations in register. He further admits that “the individual parts often lack flair.” Still, the virtues of the orchestral parts far outnumber their flaws, and – as in the case of the solo part – an appropriate exhibition of performance style could give an “unusually profound effect” (p. 87).

A valuable addition to the analysis of Chopin’s contribution to the Concerto form is the book’s fifth chapter, “Chopin’s Third Concerto,” in which Rink deals with the genesis and structure of Allegro de concert in A, op. 46. It is unclear what was this composition originally intended to be. In comparison to other works from this period (1840-41?), the Allegro op. 46 appears to be obsolete, composed in a virtuoso style Chopin had long outgrown. An explanation for this style could lie in the composers’ intention to write a concerto in the style of Liszt for a particularly favoured pupil, Friederika Müller. Rink quotes from a so-far unpublished Chopin letter, dated September 10th, 1841, offering Breitkopf & Härtel an “Allegro maestoso (du 3me Concerto) pour piano seul” for 1000 francs. This letter implies that the Allegro was to be the first part of an intended concerto for piano and orchestra (the Allegro itself was published for solo piano by Breitkopf as Op. 46 in December 1840 and simultaneously by Schlesinger in November of the same year. Wessel’s edition appeared in January 1842). Chopin also told Aleksander Hoffmann: “This is the very first piece I shall play in my first concert upon returning home to a free Warsaw.” Rink is of the opinion that the project of a public performance in which Chopin, long absent from the concert stage, was again to play the part of a virtuoso pianist, asked for certain “stylistic inconsistencies” and was the cause of the work’s retrospective character. Despite this, and the cruel fate of the Allegro among the critics (Niecks: “unsatisfactory, almost indigestible,” p. 93), the Allegro is not devoid of “profound effect when actualised in sound” (p. 95). A virtuoso work meant to be performed in public had to be planned “to satisfy a large audience (…) in a style universally well received” (p. 99), especially if Chopin indeed thought of a triumphal comeback to a “free Warsaw” with this piece. Rink admits that this interpretation is as liberal in its romanticism as other legends concerning the Concertos and other Chopin works. But “such a ‘fiction’ is precisely the sort of narrative performers construct as a guide to their playing (…). To that extent, it may be a legitimate interpretation, sure to be supersede in due course, but for the time being enlightening some aspect of the music’s elusive meaning” (p. 100).

The Cambridge Music Handbooks series is a very valuable undertaking and Rink’s volume on Chopin Piano Concertos gives this idea a full justice. Monograph studies of single works usually provide more information than books of a more general character. This fact gives an unprecedented boost to analysis that can now be extended to an entire work and all of its aspects. We should then be grateful to John Rink for expanding our knowledge of this field. Apart from remarks about the vastly incomplete discography, one critical point can be raised about Rink’s book, concerning the writer’s style of analysis; this criticism touches upon a certain lack of balance between levels of musicological description. In the E minor Concerto, according to Rink, “the music becomes tortured and introspective (…). The second theme’s serenity quickly evaporates, the sombre mood of the opening continually threatening to return. But in bar 275 E major’s sudden arrival (…) dispels these shadows, (…) followed by a increasingly frenetic extension towards the breathtaking dissonances” (all from p. 68), while in the Larghetto of Op. 21 we hear a “sudden flare of passion, surprisingly vehement after the prevailing tranquility. This change of atmosphere anticipates the darker shadows of bar 37ff. (…). The key then shifts to A flat minor in a highly expressive passage (…) [which] leads to a terrific crescendo of dramatic tension” (p. 55). Literary description of musical action as passionate as the music itself sometimes (though not always) prevails in the examination of deep structural relationships and strict analysis. Rink’s interpretation of the Concertos as “live structures in time,” and “performance facts,” stems of course from auditive experience; this experience is subjective, however, and only when closely related to an analysis of the score, can it lead to rigorous scholarly results. In Rink’s work sometimes crosses the line in this regard, and when he speaks of a “‘reconciliatory’ synthesis of the subjective and the objective typical of recent scholarship” (p. 25), one may get the impression that this synthesis has much in common with the “nineteenth-century listener’s tendency poetize, to programmatise, to translate a musical work into a narrative (…), a class of writing about music using metaphor or analogy as its “principal tool,” as it has been so eloquently expressed by Rink himself (p. 25). This weakness is most apparent in the analysis of recordings, when Rink uses a strictly descriptive language to judge which performances are “faithful” to Chopin’s intentions, and which are not. If Rink managed to find an alternative language to such treatment, it would add weight to his stated intention of formulating an interpretation of the Concertos “in the spirit of their creator” (p. 44); then, Rink’s book could be criticised no further.

Note: This review was first published in the Polish Musicological Quarterly, Muzyka vol. 44, no. 1 (1999), p. 130-136. English translation by the author. Reprinted by permission.