I wrote recently about the the danger that virtuosity can make us neglect the virtues of simplicity, and even neglect the music itself. That is true not only of a simple masterpiece like the prelude I was talking about, but also of technically difficult pieces — such as the Chopin ballades.
In everything Chopin writes, no matter how complex and virtuosic, that powerful simplicity is there at the core. Although he wrote some very difficult and impressive stuff, the ultimate effect of his music, I feel, should never really be to impress. But that’s exactly what the pianists we usually hear are striving to do: impress the contest judges, the critics, the public. The world we classical performers live in gives us very little room not to play big show pieces, or make everything we play into one.
Chopin’s third ballade suffers particularly from this problem. The ballades are all difficult, but it’s the easiest of them (sort of like the shortest Himalaya). It seems as though all the star performers I’ve heard end up trying to make it as hard as the others by plowing through it with virtuosic flare, and thus trivializing it.
What wonderful music it is that gets plowed under when that happens! I could spend the whole next month talking about this piece, about how Chopin plays with the sense of return, about his use of dissonance as an architectural device, about all those wonderful melodies … but for now, I’ll just leave you with this one thought to perhaps open a mental door: The melody that opens the piece is the stepping-off point for all that follows in the next two and a half minutes, but then it disappears, and the music goes somewhere else entirely. Listen for it. The experience of wanting that melody to return, and it not returning and not returning and then — that’s the force that shapes the piece.
So this is my current take on the other, non-virtuosic side of Chopin’s third ballade. I actually recorded this several weeks ago, but found that listening back to the recording and hearing all the little nuances I could play slightly differently, all the little things I want to fix, all the different options in all the takes I’d already done, sent me into a tailspin of endless revision from which there would have been no return save in the back of a van wearing a straight jacket. (I mean me wearing the straight jacket, not the van.) So I give myself a little breather until I could make it through the process of editing, mastering, and posting the piece with my sanity (such as it is) intact.
Gosh, I sure play this piece differently than when I was 21 — more differently than I’d remembered. Better? Heck if I know; it’s too late at night to decide stuff like that. Don’s version is also quite different. And in a few years, I’ll probably play it yet another new way. It’s a cheerful thought: I take great comfort in knowing that it’s not possible for me to ever exhaust the interpretive possibilities of Chopin.