Legendary Charles Rosen Performs Late Chopin at Chipping Campden Music Festival

Chopin: Charles Rosen, St James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 11.5.2011 (RJ)

Nocturne in B major Op 62, No 1; Nocturne in E major Op 62, No 2
Barcarolle in F sharp minor Op 60
Mazurka in A flat Op 50, No 2; Mazurka in C sharp minor Op 63, No 3
Waltz in C sharp minor Op 64, No 2
Ballade No 4 in F minor Op 52
Sonata in B minor Op 58, No 3

A bent figure assisted by a walking stick shuffled over to the grand piano and sat down on the piano stool with some difficulty. This was an anxious moment, but as soon as Charles Rosen’s fingers touched the keys, to begin the B major Nocturne the anxiety passed and the years seemed to roll away. The maestro’s fingers proved to be every bit as nimble as they were when he made his first Chopin recording sixty years ago.

The clarity of his playing of the first of the nocturnes was impressive, and as he played the second one realised the truth of his assertion that Chopin was influenced by Bach and Bel Canto opera. Its initial melody was reminiscent of Bellini and the various embellishments and key changes made this a complex and stimulating piece.  It was followed by to the delicate, almost hypnotic, Barcarolle in which Rosen’s effortless playing  created “an atmosphere of languourous ease and opulence” to quote Sir Lennox Berkeley’s description on the work.

Rosen has described the mazurkas as Chopin’s finest achievement, so I paid greater attention than usual to the two examples played during the first part of the recital – and also to Chopin’s first essay in this form which was performed as an encore. While not entirely agreeing with his point of view I did find the three mazurkas attractive: the idiosyncratic dance rhythms of the Polish folk dance predominated in the Opus 50, but the melody was more pronounced in its companion. However I found more substance in the Waltz in C sharp minor – a brilliant affair with fast passages contrasted with more sober tempi. There was no exaggeration in Rosen’s playing and he remained faithful to the composer’s concept throughout.

One of the finest of Chopin’s late works is the Ballade No 4 and it is obviously a favourite with Charles Rosen, for he seemed to revel in its melodic invention and rich harmonies. After a haunting, tentative start the music grew in complexity and Rosen’s fingers began to scurry over the keys to create magical and often spectacular effects.

Chopin is not a name the general public associates with sonatas, and perhaps this is why those he composed do not often figure in recitals. But his final sonata is such an extraordinary piece that it deserves to be played regularly by pianists who are sufficiently well equipped to tackle it. Needless to say, Charles Rosen gave a performance of the work which satisfied and impressed in every respect. After a majestic start the first theme flashed by quickly to be replaced by the wonderfully evocative second. The rippling scherzo with its meditative trio was a joy to hear, while the wistful Largo was profound and deeply moving. And then came the energetic, breathtaking Finale of fiendish complexity which Rosen tossed off easily with no apparent signs of exhaustion. Truly this man is a genius whose empathy with Chopin and his music is total.

Londoners have an opportunity to hear a Chopin lecture-recital by Charles Rosen in a few days’ time. I recommend cancelling all previous engagements and heading for the Queen Elizabeth Hall for a unique encounter with this musical legend.

Roger Jones