YR3 Week4: Chopin - Piano Concerto #1; Matthew and the Atlas



Stereovox Stereophonic Recording, Printed in France // Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) Piano Concerto #1 in E Minor, Op.11

Pianist: Orazio Frugoni // Wiener Volksopernorchester // Conducted by Michael Gielen

  • 1st movement: Allegro maestoso (fast, lively, majestic) 

  • 2nd movement: Romanze — Larghetto (fairly slow tempo)

  • 3rd movement: Rondo — Vivace (fast, lively)

Last night we had retreat. One music loving girl named “Chopin”, played some music on-her accordion. [...] After flag lowering we sat down on the beach and watched the perfect tawny red sun sink slowly out of sight in the West. [...] I am now basking on my bed in the sun during rest hour. It is so perfectly warm and comfortable! [...] I am tanned and perfectly happy. xxxxx Sylvia “” sylvia plath, journal entry on july 5th 1945

this is the fifth consecutive august that i’m wrapping up with this concerto hovering in the various backgrounds i’ve cobbled together into something of a home: and it’s not getting old, in fact i think i’m discovering new instruments in it. this august has been an entire mood. defining that mood however has been a real however stumper; and as i tend to when stumped as such i turn to music for a fast track to where it is i am in that sense. this whole month has been chopin——a reliable emotional vector, to be sure, but altogether too horizontal for the majority of headspaces i spent the month in. by coincidence, Bon Iver released their fourth studio album, and the question was settled. 

‘Song of the Lark’ by Winslow Homer (1876)

‘Song of the Lark’ by Winslow Homer (1876)

when 22, A Million was released in september 2016, it took about five months of casual listening to arrive at its magic, and i’ve been a permanent resident since. with i,i however, that arrival was relatively instantaneous. though most of the songs still feel foreign, i’ve never felt that i understood an album’s covert aesthetic mission as much as i do this one. there is an openness to it that calls me up with an irresistible verticality...who would have believed you if you told them back in 2011 that Bon Iver made an album that you could dance to——back in those clutched an isolated days of justin vernon’s seemingly solitary project? there’s as well a generosity in it that’s infectious. it is evocative not of a material generosity, or some particularly benevolent act, but of a generally diffused generosity of spirit. 

one of the album’s first (audible) line goes by way of: ‘But on a bright fall morning I’m with it / Stood a little while within it...’ (iMi); such bright verticality——except for in flashes of the band’s second album Bon Iver, Bon Iver——is altogether unexpected in the Bon Iver experience. and bringing that luminous quality full circle, i,i closes on a line that captures this peculiar ripeness i feel, and feel for: ‘Well it’s all fine and we’re all fine anyway’ (RABi). those are relatively prosaic words by the often lofty and indecipherable verses of Bon Iver lyrics...yet i find it hard to sing that line without arms flung wide and palmate in open generosity that believes more in the cloistral humidity of a collective than in any isolated and palustral i.

almost half of life, however, is spent in some kind of horizontal position, coincidentally there appears to be just enough chopin to fill that time. his Piano Concerto No. 1 has been my choice of music to pair with the laundromatic humidity of late-august evenings wherein the shiny newness of summer begins to wane into the ‘tawny red sun’ of plath’s rest hour. the concerto’s musical themes are sparse, populated by a few short distinct phrases decorated by long virtuoso passages while the orchestra fills in what’s left of the background and edges like the foliage in a kehinde wiley painting. the dominant theme of the first movement is a twinkling and playfully repeated phrase on the right hand that begins with four short notes, hyphenated by a lingering and deliciously teased inertia between the second and third notes. year after year, the moment my turntable needle touches those four notes, my eyelids can’t help but droop in an automatic somnolence, a cajoling leisure and velleity that lasts till the first violins break the spell at the top of the Rondo.


the first movement——which makes up about half of the concerto——opens with the orchestra’s majestic sweep, a lively premonition of the main theme the piano will take up shortly and seemingly never put down. but before then the action remains with orchestra as the second theme is introduced at a more sombre altitude than the first, propelled delicately by woodwinds. the vacillating interplay of fortissimo and pianissimo dynamics make up the rest of the orchestra’s introduction before the piano finally makes it’s jarring entrance with an elaboration of the first theme in sixteenth notes. from hereon the piano dominates the foreground as the orchestra dots the background with intermittent rehashes of the material in that opening sweep. an extended virtuoso passage culminates in the emergence of the orchestra’s spirited rendition of the opening theme; the scenery quietens long enough for the soloist’s tender recollection of the second theme before the movement concludes in the home key with an orchestral tutti. 


the second movement is in Larghetto, subtitled ‘Romanze’ (which describes an especially lyrical procession of music):

The muted strings open with a soft introduction, based on a rising phrase, echoed in the bass, which is reminiscent of the second theme from the first movement. “” robert philip, The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music 

the piano enters with a delicately maneuvering melody; the relatively shorter second movement presents more overlap between orchestra and soloist and features a repetitive phrase on the right hand. at the midway point, as the piano’s figurations excels in complexity, bassoons and flutes variously rise in the distance to add girth to the action, reminiscent of the role played by wind instruments in the Piano Concerto #2 in F minor (which was composed before the Piano Concerto #1)...

This is the passage that approaches closest to the agitation of the F minor concerto’s slow movement. [...] Simple melodic lines, bold octaves, running thirds and sixths in complex patterns, spread chords and rushing scales, are used to create a mental landscape by turns troubled, forceful, sweetly melancholy, and determinedly passionate. “” robert philip, The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music  

the third movement opens with a call and response of the movement’s first theme, between first violins, french horns and bassoons, jolting us out of the lethargy of the Larghetto with a Rondo:

Two years earlier, in 1828, the student Chopin had composed a brilliant Rondo à la Krakowiak for piano and orchestra, and it had been greeted with wild enthusiasm at the second of the concerts at which he introduced his F minor concerto in Warsaw. The Krakowiak is a popular Polish dance, an in this finale of the E minor concerto Chopin evokes its spirit again, teasing the audience by playing on the dance’s traditional syncopations. “” robert philip, The Classical Music Lover’s Companion to Orchestral Music 

a back-and-forth between orchestra and piano leads the soloist into the second theme in A major. after a brief development section, the activity returns to the opening Krawkowiak dance which is overtaken by another prolonged virtuoso passage that leads into the repetition of the second theme and culminates in the delirious sprint to the finish line of the closing virtuoso passage.

(new download, #782: A Memory of You -- Matthew and the Atlas) 

i discovered Matthew and the Atlas via their first full-length studio album, Other Rivers, back in the autumn of 2014. Bon Iver’s latest release reminds me much of Other Rivers, and as much as vernon ascribes i,i as the autumn album of their discography (though i believe Bon Iver, Bon Iver would be the more befitting association), Other River is still my go-to album for getting excited about the crisp and cozy vibrancy of autumn. nothing Matthew and the Atlas has made before or after Rivers has quite lived up to the vividity of it’s autumnal imagery. the lyrics are direct, unequivocal, but ensconced in a soundscape of synthesizers and endlessly looping guitar arpeggios (in the unique style of marissa nadler). the eighth song on the song album, ‘A Memory of You, is the one that took me the longest to warm up to (only five years haha), and is placed right at the bend wherein the mood turns toward the colder, melancholic atmosphere that culminates in the closing ‘Another Way

one of my musical past-times involves searching for hidden bruce springsteen lyrics in the work of modern folk musicians---it’s an often fruitful endeavor. though a bit of a stretch, there’s an instance in A Memory of You, just a couple lines long, that seems to hark back to one of springsteen’s most iconic stanzas, from his ‘Hungry Heart

Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don't make no difference what nobody says
Ain't nobody like to be alone

likewise in the penultimate stanza of ‘A Memory of You’, the same imagery is evoked, but reversed as a question in a letter to a friend from a not-too-distant past:

We're older now, yes, we've grown apart
But it seemed to me it was with you from the start
Yearning to find yourself a home
Now that it's yours, do you still feel alone?

perhaps my springsteen correlation is bullshit, but it’s a great song, anyway.