Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, op. 21
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, trombone, timpani, strings
notes by Chris Myers
III. Allegro Vivace
Composed 1829. First performance: March 17, 1830, Warsaw. Frédéric Chopin, piano.
In the early 19th century, it was traditional for soloists to compose their own virtuoso showpieces—works that would best display their mastery of the instrument. As Frédéric Chopin began preparing for his move to Paris from his native Poland, he knew that he needed such pieces at the ready if he was to be taken seriously. The two resulting piano concerti— opus 21 in F minor and opus 11 in E minor— would be the only pieces Chopin ever composed for orchestra. The F minor concerto was actually composed several months before the E minor concerto; the discrepancy in numbering stems from the fact that the E minor concerto was the first to be published.
These two pieces are often dismissed by musicians and audiences as being inferior in construction to the great concerti of Mozart and Beethoven. It’s doubtful that even Chopin would question his awkward handling of instrumentation and orchestration (he certainly showed no further interest in the orchestra). However, it is unfair to compare the structure of these pieces to the grand classical architecture of his predecessors. Chopin gives no indication of attempting to elevate the form to new levels in these works. Rather, these pieces are written in the contemporary stile brillante tradition, in which the point is not to develop a musical idea through dramatic transformation, but to showcase the performer’s skills, stunning the audience with virtuosic displays through the presentation of loosely-connected musical ideas. On these terms, the work is considerably more successful.
Chopin’s affinity for the piano and disinterest in the orchestra is evident right from the beginning of this piece. The first movement is introduced by the orchestra, but it is only with the entrance of the piano soloist that the music really comes alive. Music and themes that earlier sounded almost by-the-numbers now become passionate and inventive. You will find little of the ensemble-soloist dialogue so central to the Mozart-Beethoven concerto model. Throughout the work, the piano is unashamedly the star, and the orchestra serves only to introduce the audience to its brilliance.
The second movement is a heartfelt nocturne of stunning beauty, with the orchestra supporting an effortlessly melodic piano solo that gives us a hint of why Chopin was known to be such a brilliant improviser. Elegant virtuosic figures ornament these melodies, but it is in this movement that one might best understand Martha Argerich’s insistence that “the virtuosity has to be like an understatement.” The instant the pianist has drawn attention to the difficulty and skill, the spell is broken.
The concerto concludes with a quick-paced rondo in which Chopin proudly declares his Polish heritage. The mazurka dance rhythms of his native land are here transformed into a dazzling display of pianistic skill which brings the piece to a fittingly exciting finale.