“Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!” declared Robert Schumann. It is indisputable that Chopin was a genius. He had his own voice, a recognizable way or style of writing which was a sign of his exceptionality. He wrote music that has remained current and interesting to audiences in the 21st century. I have yet to find a pianist who dislikes playing Chopin. His music has such an innate bond with the piano; it resonates with audiences worldwide. There is always something left to discover in the catalogue. No doubt I will continue to perform and learn about Chopin and his music throughout my life as a musician.

Jan Lisiecki
© Christoph Köstlin | Deutsche Grammophon

One of the most remarkable aspects of Chopin’s music is its immediacy – how captivating it is for audiences. He had a unique ability to create phrases, even beyond those spectacular and famous melodies he is known for, with interesting harmonies, creating drama and a sense of movement. Most of all, Chopin and the piano are one. The way he uses the colour palette of this instrument, the way his music lies in the hands; I cannot imagine a more natural way of playing the piano. Chopin would always urge his students “chantez, chantez” (sing, sing). Somehow he was able to actually make the piano “sing”. 

Schumann described Chopin’s works as “cannons buried in flowers”.  Contained in Chopin’s music are painful moments, suffering, longing and much drama. Similarly to Mozart, the external impression may be one of pure beauty, elegance, exuberance or joy but, deep down, there is something else entirely, a sort of imprecise discomfort, a certain malaise. The contrast between these two facets makes Chopin's music very grounded and approachable, since every individual can relate to these juxtapositions.

Although one can hear other composers who influenced him, Chopin created his own musical language, which is not found elsewhere, a category of its own. This is one of the reasons one can immediately say “this is Chopin!” upon hearing just a short fragment of music. There are many things that go into his unique sound. For one, the texture of his writing – the undulating lines in the right hand, with an underlying harmonic base in the left. The music calls for rubato and, while this is a question of interpretation, Chopin’s application is unique. Most frequently, the pianist is required to maintain an overall pulse by a steady left hand, the right hand has freedom. It’s like bel canto. Chopin’s music is often like an opera without words written for the piano – drama, recitative, breathing, imaginary turns and leaps – a new world created, and mastered, by Chopin.

There are endless references to native Polish music in Chopin's compositions, most frequently through dance elements such as the krakowiak, mazurka, waltz. Even in his concertos or nocturnes, there is dance. Of course, he also uses Polish melodies, sometimes only implicitly, such as in his Scherzo no. 1, in which one can find Lulajże Jezuniu, a traditional Polish Christmas carol. 

Chopin also invented – or reinvented – numerous musical forms. When one thinks of the nocturne, it is most definitely Chopin who first comes to mind. His etudes are not strict studies, but musical shorts with a technical aspect. His concertos are – for better or worse – piano sonatas with orchestral colour palettes.

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin
© Louis-Auguste Bisson

Chopin was idolized by Parisian high society yet, unlike Franz Liszt, I don’t believe he helped propagate the idea of the “virtuoso”. While he did the usual tour cycles as a young man, in his later years he performed very rarely and mostly at small salon gatherings. His music is dreamy, elegant and humble, which did not lend itself to showcase performances. Chopin was a more reserved character than Liszt, which may be the reason why he preferred the intimacy of a salon recital. He only gave around thirty public concerts in his lifetime. Did he try to avoid the limelight, or is his music better suited in a small salon?

On a 19th-century instrument, his music was most definitely better suited to small spaces. Much of the beauty of his writing lies in the details, which would be lost entirely on a Pleyel or Érard in a large hall. However, I strongly believe that Chopin would have loved what modern pianos offer. We have the privilege of playing Chopin’s music in large concert halls, with an enormous possibility of sounds in great, acoustically-engineered halls. I will concede that Chopin’s music is very intimate by nature, but then it is up to us, as performers, to recreate that intimacy, even in a large hall. In my experience, this is entirely possible and allows Chopin’s music to live up to its potential.

His two concertos are masterpieces, a statement most musicians and audiences will agree with, even while simultaneously decrying his orchestrations. They are magical compositions for the piano, which use the orchestra to add colours to the score, colours which the pianist cannot himself produce. I’d like to believe that Chopin had a somewhat utopian vision of what an orchestra would sound like, perhaps shaped by his experiences performing in small salons where it was unlikely that such details would be lost. He wrote stunning melodies and solos for the bassoon and French horn, among others, and when performing in a large hall, with a modern piano at the helm, it is of paramount importance to let those details emerge. In fact, I believe these are the greatest challenges posed by these concertos – finding the right balance. More often than not, these works require a light touch, a delicacy and reserve; only then do the details emerge.

While Liszt was the landmark virtuoso composer of challenging scores, Chopin did not let the pianist off easily either. Beyond the obvious challenge of “hitting every note”, we have the added complexity that in Chopin, every note is a part of a whole, has meaning, value, line. No passage can be disregarded as frivolous, as a virtuosic embellishment. Performing long, fast, intricate passages with elegance is the most demanding aspect. Chopin said: “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played vast quantities of notes – and more notes! – it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art."