Chopin’s “Mazurkas” are a standalone within the Romantic piano literature thanks to a number of factors, such as the presence of echoes of the Polish country music, a mood between nostalgia and remorse (“żal” in Polish), together with a compositional mastery which is perfectly attuned to short forms like the aphorism and the poem. Written between ca. 1814 and the composer’s death year, they received, during his entire lifetime, his deepest inspiration as a Polish musician, becoming a kind of poetic journal of his exile; in no other genre was Chopin so prolific (fifty-seven pieces overall) and full of ideas. After the trauma of the failed Polish insurrection (1831), the first six Mazurkas were published in 1833 in Paris, the city which had welcomed the exiles and listened with participation to the voice of their art (both musical, and, in the case of A. Mickiewicz, literary). Berlioz acutely wrote that Chopin’s performances were interwoven “with a thousand tempo nuances whose secret is known to him only and for which no notation exists. There are incredible details in his Mazurkas, and he found how to make them doubly interesting, by performing them with an extreme degree of sweetness, with a superb piano in which the hammers barely touch the strings”.
Under the generic label of Mazurkas are grouped three different popular dances, “Mazur”, “Kujawiak” and “Oberek”. The “Mazur” (“Mazurek” in the diminutive form) originates from Mazovia; it is sung and danced with skipping steps, and it generally requires a strong accent on the second or third movement (or on both) every four bars, so that the regularity of the beats is modified. It is mostly from this dance that Chopin, a Mazovian by birth himself, derived that peculiar “rhythmical instability” which so surprised his first listeners.
The “Kujawiak”, named after the Kujawy, to the West of Mazovia, has a slower pace than the “Mazur”: it is sung and danced in turn, mostly in the minor mode, and has gliding rather than skipping steps. The “Oberek”, finally, is a purely instrumental dance with a very quick tempo; on the second beat, at the end of each period, it features a fixed accent, which is generally emphasised by the dancers with shouting and thumping of the feet. In most cases, Chopin blends the characteristics of these three dances, and, except for a few cases, it is difficult to univocally establish which one is the model of a particular Mazurka.
Four Mazurkas op. 6. Written between 1830 and 1831 and published in 1833, they came five years after the “Rondo à la mazur” op. 5: the “Mazur”, which had contributed a national touch to the rondo, this most classical of forms, was now becoming the absolute protagonist with its own popular idiom. For these dances, Chopin very freely employs a ternary ABA form, which can be simple or elaborated in various ways, and he frequently aims at neat contrasts between the sections (as happens in No. 2, in C-sharp minor); from the already complex Mazurka No. 1, in F-sharp minor, he moves to No. 4, in E-flat minor, quick as lightning or as an aphorism, and which has the traits of the above-mentioned “Oberek”.
The listener is impressed by Chopin’s already mature mastery of harmony and by his assured use of folkloric modality (as happens in the Lydian Trio of No. 2), by how he explores timbral effects aiming at imitating the string instruments’ open strings (introduction to No. 3, E major) and by how he underpins the irregular metrics (while normally respecting the canonical organization of the musical phrases into four/eight measures) by accenting and lengthening the first, second or third beat. From the observation of the score emerges an almost pedantic abundance in musical indications, as if the composer hoped to preserve on paper the secret of his miraculous performances.
Five Mazurkas op. 7. Written in 1830/1, they were conceived for publication together with the preceding Mazurkas, of which they are the ideal continuation: op. 7 No. 5, in C major, had originally been intended as the conclusion of op. 6, and was later moved to op. 7 in order to avoid a sequence of two short and quick dances. No. 1, in B-flat major, features one of the tunes most loved by Chopin’s contemporaries for its exuberance and grace (Kalkbrenner composed his Variations op. 120 on this theme). In this collection too, Chopin’s compositional genius likes to experiment with daring harmonic solutions (No. 2, in A minor, is given an occasionally plaintive tone by an almost Wagnerian chromaticism and the constant presence of Neapolitan sixths) and formal strategies (in No. 3, F minor, the characteristics of “Mazurek”, “Oberek” and “Kujawiak” are blended). As concerns No. 4, in A-flat major, an autograph manuscript from 1824 survives, with a first version which is substantially identical to the definitive one: thus, this would be one of the first Mazurkas composed by Chopin.
Four Mazurkas op. 17. They were published in 1834 and written at different times between 1830 and 1833. Along with the usual musical experimentalism (see the Trio of the joyful Mazurka No. 1 in B-flat major, with its elegant melody in 3/4 accompanied by figures in binary rhythm, or the concluding section of No. 2, in E minor, a “Kujawiak” in which surprising harmonic solutions abound), some influences of French music (as in the harmonization of No. 3, in A-flat major, which can be considered as an evolution of op. 7 No. 4, whose key it shares) and of the Italian belcanto become evident. The memory of folk music is bright in the Trio of No. 2 and in the central section, in the major mode, of No. 4, in A minor: this is probably one of the most fascinating of all the Mazurkas by Chopin, and a justly famous one. Seemingly, a first version of this piece had been written in 1824 in Szafarnia and bore the original title of “The little Jew”: in fact, it had been written after Chopin had witnessed the wedding of two young Jews, accompanied, as was customary, by peasant musicians. Chopin entrusts a touching melody to the right hand, sustained by the left hand’s discreet, but harmonically surprising, chordal accompaniment; the central section, in the major mode, is entirely built on a constant accompaniment of open fifths, while the Coda, taking the form of a “Mazur” on an ostinato pedal of A, is followed by four bars citing the introduction, and is famously interrupted on a suspended chord.
Four Mazurkas op. 24. Published in 1836, they distinguish themselves from the preceding collections due to their more accomplished expressive and formal maturity. A sad and folk-like “Kujawiak” in G minor (No. 1) precedes a brilliant “Oberek” whose key is nearly undefined (Mazurka No. 2, alternating C major with A minor and featuring a memorable section in the Lydian mode). After a short, elegant and dreamy “Mazur” in A-flat major (No. 3), the Mazurka in B-flat minor (No. 4) follows: it is possibly Chopin’s most famous Mazurka, and certainly the first whose complexity justifies the appellation of “poem”. In the composer’s intentions, the central section should have suggested the timbre of a choir; it is a well-known fact that Chopin was never satisfied of how this mysterious and fascinating detail was played (Lenz stated that “one had barely the right to lightly touch the keyboard”). As happened in the preceding piece, also the finale of this Mazurka fades out after a Coda of a rare melodic beauty.
Four Mazurkas Op. 30. Published in 1837, they were dedicated to Princess Czartoryska, Chopin’s favourite pupil. In this collection, the game of contrasts is intensified: one has just to think of the structure of Mazurka No. 1, in C minor (the folkloric character of the outer sections vs. the passionate lyricism of the central part), of the opposition between diatonic and chromatic elements in No. 2 (which formally is in B minor, but which closes in F-sharp minor), or of the alternation between major/forte and minor/piano in No. 3, in D-flat major. As happened in op. 24 No. 4, also for Mazurka op. 30 no. 4, in C-sharp minor, Chopin employs a complex architecture which turns a simple dance into a poem: the popular character of the first two sections is counterbalanced by the passionate and intense central section in B major.
Four Mazurkas op. 33. They were written after the engagement with Maria Wodzinska was broken in 1837-8. The composer’s feelings are aptly expressed in No. 1, a G-sharp minor Mazurka in the form of a “Kujawiak” similar to op. 24/1: the tempo and character indication found at the beginning, “Mesto” (“sad”) is countered by the central section, an appassionato B major. The two central Mazurkas (No. 2 in C major and No. 3 in D major) luminously return to a folk-like simplicity: the first has the pace of a “Mazur”, and it deeply intrigued Meyerbeer, who believed he was listening to a piece in 2/4; the second moves as an “Oberek”, enriched by refined contrasts, both in dynamics and in melody. Chopin said that No. 4, in B minor, was “a Ballad without a Ballad’s name”, and this demonstrates the extraordinary artistic journey that the Mazurka had experienced in his hands. The first section, repeated twice, has a first motif whose melody deliberately avoids the leading-note, lending a slightly modal flavour to the theme, and a second, more rhythmical motif in B-flat major. Similarly, within the central section, in B major, a melody sung in a full voice alternates with episodes of dance. The reprise is preceded by seventeen bars played by the left hand alone: a feeling of expectation and later of mystery is created in this way, and it will find its solution only in the brusque final bars, marked by Chopin with an eloquent “risvegliato” (“waking up”).
The instrument. The piano is a Pleyel of 1853, restored by Marco Barletta in 2012. It is entirely similar to the piano owned by Chopin; it has a mellow and balanced tone in all of its registers, thanks also to the parallel strings which give an extreme clarity to the middle-low register. The hammers have been realized with original materials (various types of leather, of a decreasing hardness, have been layered between the wood core and the external felt) and they are connected to the keyboard through a simple escapement, which allows a more sensitive control of the sound. The soundboard is small, but perfectly suited to the strings’ diameter and to the kind of hammers, giving depth and a surprising projection to the sound.
Album Notes by Emanuele Delucchi
Tranlation by Chiara Bertoglio
TATIANA LARIONOVA: Born in 1979 in Primorskij Krai (URSS) Tatiana Larionova began studying the piano at the age of five. In 1991, she entered the Central Music School in Moscow, where she studied under Professor Yuri Slesarev. After graduating in 1997 with highest rating, Tatiana attended the Moscow State Conservatory where she studied until 2004 under Professor Victor Merzhanov, taking, again with best votes, her doctorate. In 2005 she got a full-scholarship of the International Center for Music, Park University, Missouri where she studied with Professor Stanislav Ioudenitch and attended masterclasses of D. Bashkirov and Fou Ts’ong. Tatiana Larionova is top prize winner of several international piano competitions, including: Web Concert Hall International Competition (USA, 2007); first prize Domenico Cimarosa International Piano Prize (Italy, 2009), first prize, “Palma d’oro” International Piano Competition (Italy, 2010). Tatiana participated in International Piano Festivals, including “Bodensee-Festival” (Germany) and the International European Piano Forum (Berlin, 2001), and she is artist is residence of Col Legno Festival, Lucca, and Tiroler Festspiele Erl. She has performed recitals and concerts in the most important halls in Europe (Russia, Byelorussia, Germany, Poland, France, Austria, Suisse and Italy) and US. In 2001, Tatiana made her orchestral debut performing Mozart Piano Concerto # 23 in the Bolshoi Hall of the Moscow Conservatory with the orchestra of the conservatory conducted by A. Kaluzhnyi with incredible success of public and critic. After this date she performed with many orchestras around the globe. In 2009, Tatiana recorded her debut CD/DVD for Limen Music featuring works by Haydn, Liszt and Rachmaninov and in 2015, Schuncke Piano Music CD for Brilliant Classics. Since 2008 she is playing regularly in duo with Davide Cabassi, and together they are artistic directors of the festival "Primavera di Baggio" in Milan. In 2009, Tatiana won “Milano Donna” prize. This award is dedicated to the women who with their professional activity represents the name of this city in the world.
Frédéric Chopin: (b Żelazowa Wola, nr Warsaw, 1 March 1810; d Paris, 17 Oct 1849). Polish composer and pianist. He combined a gift for melody, an adventurous harmonic sense, an intuitive and inventive understanding of formal design and a brilliant piano technique in composing a major corpus of piano music. One of the leading 19th-century composers who began a career as a pianist, he abandoned concert life early; but his music represents the quintessence of the Romantic piano tradition and embodies more fully than any other composer’s the expressive and technical characteristics of the instrument.