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March 1, 2010

Bicentennial salute to Frederic Chopin

Although Frederic Chopin was probably born in February, he always said his birthday was March 1, so that's good enough for me. And since March 1, 2010, happens to be the 200th anniversary of his arrival in the world, it's a good opportunity to pause for a moment and lift a hearty glass in his memory.

Chopin didn't just write a remarkable quantity and quality of piano music; he gave the piano its soul. The instrument became something richer because of his refined lyricism, his poetic temperament, with its strain of bittersweetness running so often just beneath the surface.

I think Chopin's music provides one of the toughest challenges for would-be keyboard artists, because it requires so much more than digital virtuosity, even more than a good sense of expressive nuance. It demands a kind of honesty and openness that cannot be faked. It requires, I think, a certain vulnerability.

Stick to the notes, so as to appease middle-of-the-road competition juries or strict constructionist critics, and it's just a case of going through Chopin-esque motions. Open up to the full range of human emotions, using flexibile rhythms and subtle gradations of tone as your own personality dictates, and it becomes a matter of living Chopin's music. That's what I like to hear.

I've got a long list of favorite Chopin interpreters, and I may bore you with several of them periodically during this Chopin bicentennial. (Please let me know your favorites, too.) For the actual birthday, I decided to choose only one artist to demonstrate Chopin's creative genius, Krystian Zimerman, who shares the same Polish heritage as the composer and who has a truly individualistic style always makes me imagine that this is how Chopin must have played. One more cool thing about Zimerman. Spookily, he even looks like Chopin in some of these videos:

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:56 AM | | Comments (3)


I agree. It is almost like seeing Chopin himself play. His style reminds me of Evgeny Kissin who is my favorite interpreter of Chopin. If you haven't already seen it, check out the YouTube video of the young genius playing the Chopin Mazurka in C minor in 1986.

Hats off, gentlemen: a genius. And keep those hats off for 171 hours:

France24 - Marathon 171-hour concert marks Chopin's birthday

Hey, looks like Nelson Freire's recorded the Nocturnes for Decca (ahem, Universal, or whatever they're calling themselves nowadays) -- after having heard Nelson here last year, I can honestly say I'm looking forward to his traversal of some my absolute-favourite music! :^)

My "big guy" (or gal) in Chopin happens to be "the" big guy, Garrick Ohlsson, at least in recordings. However, I love how Chopin's music responds to so many different touches. Needless to say, the Chopin discs I've ripped to my computer occupy a great deal of hard-disk space!

I just started listening today to an advance copy of Nelson's Nocturnes, and what I've heard so far is fabulous. I, too, rank Garrick way up high, too, when it comes to Chopin. And that's just for contemporaries. Don't even get me started on the golden oldies. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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