Chopin: Etude in C minor, Op 25 No 12  [2’32”]

Maurizio Pollini, piano

15 Maurizio Pollini

The Great Pollini Matthias Bothor)

Our next composer isn’t far to find, unless Chopin’s (1810–49) being his near neighbour in the 1840s is one day revealed as another of the legends attaching to Alkan.  Not that it’s going to happen.  The two were indisputably close not just geographically but personally and indeed professionally.  They sometimes performed together, and Alkan inherited many of Chopin’s pupils.  The Polish genius wrote two sets of twelve Etudes (studies) between 1829 and 1836, years during which he settled in Paris and established his reputation as one of the legendary pianists of his or any other day.  Before Chopin the étude was, as the name tells us, essentially didactic, designed to challenge and develop some aspect of instrumental technique.  With his opus 10 and opus 25 this aim isn’t discarded so much as it undergoes an apotheosis appropriate to the Romantic direction music was taking in the hands of other infernally gifted virtuoso composer-performers like Liszt and Paganini, so that no trace of the practice room remains.

Both sets close with sweeping, bravura outpourings in the same key, C minor.  But there’s another connection to be made, since this last study of opus 25 – summed up by Arthur Hedley as “a sombre and stately cantus firmus over which flow great waves of arpeggios” – has been considered a close relative, even to some extent a rewrite, of the first of opus 10.  Listen to the two pieces one after the other and the similarity is plain to hear, though it shouldn’t mislead us into imagining that the two sets form one great cycle.

One of the great modern exponents of the Chopin studies, Maurizio Pollini may have acquired a reputation as an “ice man of the ivories”, as one newspaper headline had it, but he could do impassioned if needed, as this playing from his celebrated DGG recording of both sets demonstrates in ample measure.

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