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Chopin With A Polish Touch

Almost every classical pianist loves Chopin. But Polish pianists have a special bond with the music of their compatriot, whether they're tossing off a jaunty Mazurka or navigating a serious Sonata. To mark the bicentennial of the composer's birth, NPR Music's Tom Huizenga and Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz discuss the appeal of Chopin's music and spin a few great Chopin recordings by Polish pianists from 1917 up to the present.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

1917: Nocturne No. 5 in F sharp major, Op. 15, No. 2

At the dawn of the 20th century, the immensely popular Paderewski was the equivalent of a matinee idol: People stood in long lines to buy tickets to his concerts. But he was not only a great pianist. Two years after this 1917 recording was made, Paderewski became the prime minister of the newly independent Polish republic. At the piano, he wasn't interested in flashy pyrotechnics. Just listen (even through this scratchy recording) to the subtlety and expression he brings to this gorgeous Nocturne, especially in the rhythm.

1923: Polonaise in A major ("Military")

Josef Hofmann has been called a pianist who "had it all," yet few outside the classical music world remember him today. Hofmann's flawless command of the keyboard was not one of sterile perfection. His rich tone sounded natural, and he was endlessly expressive. Hofmann was also a great child prodigy, making his first tour of Europe at age 9. Two years later, he was launched on a U.S. tour, which was halted by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Against Children. Hofmann was also an inventor, holding dozens of patents for everything from shock absorbers to improvements for pianos.

1965: Mazurka in F sharp minor, Op. 59, No. 3

If Chopin is the "poet of the piano," then Artur Rubinstein is the poet of Chopin. Throughout his 80-year career, Rubinstein continually performed and recorded Chopin's music. As for this recording, it illustrates an endlessly fascinating aspect of much of Chopin's music, in that it sounds as if it's being made up on the spot. Chopin was a great improviser, but he meticulously crafted his pieces to sound off-the-cuff. It's particularly evident here, when the opening theme returns (at 2:14) and then seems to meander in various directions.

1987: Ballade for piano No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52

When Krystian Zimerman won the International Chopin Prize in 1975, he didn't launch a Madison Avenue-fueled "fabulous" career. Instead, he got down to business and studied with the great Artur Rubinstein. Zimerman has a strong brain -- both right and left sides. He has vast technical chops and thinks deeply about what he does with the music. In this Ballade, Zimerman traverses the varied landscape with ease, negotiating mysterious harmonies, gorgeous tunes that float by on the wind, and the fiery violence of the final scenes.

2007: Prelude No. 15 in D flat major "Raindrop"

As a 20-year-old in 2005, Rafal Blechacz swept the awards at the International Chopin Competition. He was so far ahead of the pack, the judges didn't even award a second place prize. Blechacz was the first Pole to win since Zimerman in 1975, and afterward, Zimerman sent the young victor a congratulatory letter, telling him he was there to help if needed. Blechacz took him up on the offer, and a new friendship emerged. Although young, Blechacz has a special feel for Chopin -- one we'll enjoy watching as it deepens in the years to come.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.