Last Monday, at eight in the evening, the salons of Monsieur Pleyel were splendidly illuminated; carriages constantly brought to the foot of the a staircase covered by carpets and scented with flowers the most elegant women, the most celebrated artists, the richest financiers …a whole aristocracy of birth, fortune, talent, and beauty….
Who was the star attraction in the most fashionable concert hall in Paris? Let’s continue with Franz Liszt’s fevered account:
A grand piano stood open on a platform; people crowded around….for the man they were waiting for, whome they wished to see, hear, admire, applaued, was not merely a skilled virtuoso, a pianist expert in playing notes; he was not merely an artist of great renown; he was all that and more than all that: he was Chopin.
Chopin didn't give concerts too often, owing to his small frame, bad health, delicate piano…and, it’s been suggested, stage fright. But when he did, particularly in his later years, it was a bona-fide Event…anticipated, contemplated, discussed, and dissected.
So what was a Chopin recital like? Well, to begin with, he wasn’t alone on stage. The idea of an entire concert given over to one performer was still a foreign concept. At this 1842 affair, Chopin’s supporting cast included cellist August Franchomme and singer Pauline Viardot. The program was fashionably vague. “A Suite of nocturnes, preludes, and études,” according to the Paris papers. And the piano? Chopin’s favorite: the fast-action, lightly-strung Pleyel...a beautiful sound, but hard to hear in the back row.
Thanks to all the press accounts, pianist Alain Planès managed to research and assemble a fascinating CD. Performed on a meticulously-restored 1836 Pleyel, it replicates not only the night’s program, but also suggests the way Chopin might’ve played: A style freer, faster, and more varied than the printed page suggests. In the words of one eyewitness: “a miracle of good taste.” - Jennifer Foster