There was a last-minute change in the programming of today’s recital in the Noontime Concerts™ series (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. The program of two early string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven, played by the Cypress String Quartet, was replaced by a solo piano recital by Daniel Glover, the major portion of which consisted on the entirety of Frédéric Chopin’s Opus 28 set of 24 preludes in each of the major and minor keys. Glover preceded his performance of this collection with some brief introductory remarks, noting that Chopin was probably inspired by the preludes and fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. However, while Bach ordered his pieces chromatically, Chopin followed the circle of fifths, in which an increasing number of sharps transformed into a decreasing number of flats.
Nevertheless, The Well-Tempered Clavier was probably conceived as a collection of fugues, each of which was “introduced” by a prelude. Thus, Glover observed that Robert Schumann reacted to Chopin’s Opus 28 by asking, “Preludes to what?” However, this suggests that Schumann may have been unaware that Bach, too, composed “preludes without fugues,” probably intended for the pedagogical purposes of instructing his sons (such as Wilhelm Friedemann).
Still, it is unlikely that Chopin had pedagogy in mind. More likely, Opus 28 was intended as a platform for the display of his own virtuosity, demonstrating that he was equally skilled in all of the major and minor keys. On the other hand, just as the 24 fugues in each of the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier demonstrate the prodigiously wide diversity of how Bach could go about beginning and developing a fugue, so does Chopin’s Opus 28 exhibit an impressive degree of variety across its 24 preludes.
Thus, if one is to play Opus 28 in its entirety as a “closed work” unto itself, my personal opinion is that it should be approached as a journey through the different “elements of style” (to appropriate a phrase from William Strunk, Jr.) exhibited during the course of that journey. Those who have been following this site for some time may recall that András Schiff took precisely this approach when he performed the 30 (“Goldberg”) variations of Bach’s BWV 988. I would then argue that the key features that distinguish the Opus 28 preludes are tempo (particularly the changes between immediately juxtaposed preludes), dynamics, and, most important of all, rhythm.
Each prelude has its own distinctive pulse consistent with the tempo selection, and that pulse then unfolds through one or more rhythmic patterns. (Two contrasting patterns tend to be organized in a ternary form.) Unfortunately, too many pianists tend to approach Chopin’s fastest tempos as being “about” extreme velocity and little else, meaning that any sense of that defining pulse gets lost in the blur. Sadly, Glover turned out to be one of those pianists. While he could plumb the depths of Chopin’s expressive rhythms in the slow preludes with intense impact (even if his dynamics were inclined to exaggerate from time to time), the faster ones tended to come off as hypercharged sprints. This makes for impressive athleticism but tends to short-change the nature of the listening experience. The result was an uneven on-again-off-again account that might impress competition judges but not those listeners expecting a more Schiff-like journey. (By way of a disclaimer, I am willing to acknowledge that there are those who would probably take “Schiff-like” as a euphemism for “overly cerebral!”)
Because this year is the centennial year of the death of Alexander Scriabin, Glover framed his Chopin with three short Scriabin selections. He began with two études, the opening selections from the Opus 2 and Opus 8 collections, the first in C-sharp minor and the second in C-sharp major. He then concluded by taking as an encore the C-sharp minor prelude, the first of the Opus 9 pieces composed to be played by the left hand alone. Here, again, there was some risk that the Allegro tempo of the Opus 8 étude would get the better of him; but in this particular selection he brought out the interplay of rhythmic patterns with greater clarity, although his dynamics might have fared better had they been a bit more subdued.
Scriabin, of course, composed his own set of 24 “preludes without fugues.” These were collected as his Opus 11, and they have the potential to make an engaging complement for Chopin’s Opus 28. However, this would require a concert longer than the duration of a Noontime Concerts™ event. Nevertheless, such a program would be “a consummation/Devoutly to be wished,” one that Glover might consider for a future recital.