One would be at risk of stating the obvious to say that Frédéric Chopin’s two piano concerti contain highly original, ravishing, and brilliant writing for the composer’s chosen instrument. Musicians have been much less fulsome, however, when it comes to Chopin’s writing for the orchestra in these same concerti. Even some of the greatest pianists have considered the orchestral parts for Chopin’s concerti ineffective, if not downright weak. Other pianists and composers have been guilty of “re-orchestrating” Chopin’s writing, or cut out chunks of the tutti when performing the works.
Chopin wrote his two piano concerti at the outset of his career, and he wrote these works in order to showcase his talents as a composer for the piano, and as a virtuoso pianist. If we really listen carefully and examine the scores for these two concerti, we will discover the beauty and the sensitivity of the orchestral writing.
I content that Chopin knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote the orchestral parts for these concerti.
For a composer who did not know how to write for the orchestra, Chopin certainly did not skim on the orchestral forces. The instrumentation for both concerti are remarkably similar – strings, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, and two trumpets for both concerti, as well as timpani; four horns for the first concerto, and two for the second concerto; a trombone for the first concerto, but bass trombone for the second concerto – rather a large orchestra for an “inexperienced” composer!
What is remarkable, especially in the outer movements of both concerti, is that while the composer marshals his orchestral forces to create some stirring sounds, the orchestral writing is so sensitively written that at no time is the solo piano part ever overwhelmed by the orchestra. This same sensitivity can be found in Anton Dvorak’s justly famous cello concerto, in which the single cello can always be heard along with a similarly large orchestra.
Another aspect of these concerti that catches my ears is the incredible beauty of the writing for the woodwinds, especially in the slow movements. In the slow movement of the first concerto, for instance, the bassoon plays a descending countermelody (first appearing in measure 31) that sets off beautifully the predominantly ascending melody of the piano part.
Yet another interesting orchestral effect can be found in the third movement of the second concerto. When the pianist plays a jaunty unison melody marked scherzando (measure 145), Chopin instructs his string players to play the accompaniment figures col legno (hitting the string with the wood of the bow), an effect that perfectly suits the character of the piano theme.
No one is claiming Chopin to be an orchestrator on par with Ravel or Rimsky-Korsakov, but we need make no apologies for him when it comes to his orchestral writing in these concerti. I find it interesting that no one ever comments upon the orchestral writing in Paganini’s violin concerti, which is much more bombastic, and less sensitively written than Chopin’s piano concerti.
When I listen to pianist Krystian Zimerman’s recordings of the two Chopin concerti, with Carlo Maria Giulini and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I feel that a sympathetic conductor can make these concerti a true collaboration between soloist and orchestra. Perhaps what we need are sensitive podium maestros who can really bring out the beauty of the orchestral writings in this pair of youthful concerti.