Chopin in Concert - The Avid Dislike of Public Performance
When you consider that any professional pianist today would hope to have a minimum of 30 engagements a year - and a busy one perhaps more than 100 - it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Chopin gave only 30 public concerts in the whole of his career. Even then, few of them were completely successful and many were shared with other artists. Chopin was that strange anomaly: the pianist who actively dislikes performing in public.
He made most of his money from composing and teaching, reserving the intimate surroundings of the salon and the houses of friends as his preferred venues for playing. Not for him the lengthy tours throughout the length and breadth of Europe, nor the barnstorming, rabble-rousing concerts of some of his contemporaries (Liszt, for instance, Thalberg, Herz and Kalkbrenner), nor their fabulous earnings. Yet he was, paradoxically, held in the same (arguably even greater) esteem as any of them. When the reputation of an artist is built on the success of his public concerts, how did Chopin manage to win such universal acclaim?
"An absence, the decline of a dinner invitation, an unintentional coldness," wrote Proust, "can accomplish more than all the cosmetics and beautiful dresses in the world." The aristocratic milieu in which he moved kept him jealously to itself. "[Chopin] was reimbursed by a kind of spiritual mortgage secured by the devotion of a worldly élite who were the more inclined to extol his virtues when they could regard him as a discovery to be kept for their own private delectation." That was how Alfred Cortot put it (In Search of Chopin, 1951) before quoting the remark of one of the regular visitors to "the happy musical gatherings that resulted from this mutual understanding: 'One does not merely love him; one loves oneself in him'."
But rarity value and exclusivity can only partly explain Chopin's exalted reputation. There must surely have been something very special indeed about his playing - and there is overwhelming evidence that this was so. Many of his (not always uncritical) friends felt moved to record their impressions. The young Karl Halle enthused in 1836 that the experience was "beyond all words. The few senses I had have quite left me... There is nothing to remind one that it is a human being who produces this music. It seems to descend from heaven - so pure, and clear, and spiritual. I feel a thrill each time I think of it." Over half a century later, and now known to the world as Sir Charles Hallé, he wrote "I can confidently assert that nobody has ever been able to reproduce [his works] as they sounded under his magical fingers. In listening to him you lost all power of analysis." Here is Ferdinand Hiller (1811-85), no mean pianist himself, confessing that Chopin's playing "will remain impressed on my soul until I draw my last breath... At the piano he abandoned himself more completely than any other musician I ever heard... All material considerations vanished - it was like the light of a wonderful meteor, bewitching us all the more with its unfathomable mystery." And Berlioz: "As interpreter and composer, Chopin is an artist apart, bearing no resemblance to any other musician I know." And Liszt: "Such a poetic temperament as Chopin's never existed, nor have I ever heard such delicacy and refinement of playing. The tone, though small, was absolutely beyond criticism, and although his execution was not forcible, nor by any means fitted to the concert room, still it was perfect in the extreme."
Chopin's physique (he was 1.7m in height and weighed only 45kg) and frail health meant he could never match the power and endurance of his friend Liszt ("I should like to steal from him the way to play my own Etudes," he wrote to Hiller). From his earliest concerts, reviewers praised his musicianship but regretted that the piano was too soft-toned, that he could not be heard over the orchestra or that his effects were lost in a large hall. Combine this with what the French call le trac - after one of his final appearances in Warsaw he wrote to a friend, "You cannot believe what a martyrdom it is for me during the three days before I play in public" - and it comes as no surprise to read his later admission to Liszt that "I am not the right person to give concerts. The public intimidates me. I feel asphyxiated by the breath of the people in the audience, paralysed by their curious stares and dumb before that sea of unknown faces."
Chopin gave his first concert on 24 February 1818 in Warsaw playing a concerto by Adalbert Gyrowetz. His last was in London's Guildhall on 16 November 1848 when he played a couple of his Etudes at a fancy dress ball in aid of "the Funds of the Literary Association of the Friends of Poland". He was suffering from a wracking cough, neuralgia and dropsy. It barely classified as a concert, but this final appearance by one of the greatest pianists in history went by almost unnoticed.
This article comes from the Chopin Express gazette published for the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and Gramophone magazine.