Chopin Piano Sonata no. 2 in Bbm, op. 35

performed by Idil Biret

As I mentioned in last week’s music post, I started my foray into classical music with the goal of familiarizing myself with the piano repertoire. To that end, I started with Chopin. This piece was one of the first large(er) scale works I became familiar with in my listenings. Along with the four ballades and the third sonata, I listened to it at least 100 times before I really moved on to another composer (Schumann’s piano sonatas, Rachmaninoff, etc.).
This piece did not present a musical challenge to me like many of the other pieces I’ve written about here. Rather, it was instantly appealing, although not in the way that will make you tire of it quickly, as with some other pieces I enjoy, but that cannot sustain repeated listenings (Ornstein’s fourth piano sonata, for example, is genius, and appealing, and enjoyable, but there’s something about it that makes it not so great after a listen or twelve).
The difference, then, with this piece, was that each time I heard it, I noticed something else about it. For me, at the time (and even now), I don’t pick up on variations of themes or how they’re treated differently throughout a piece; it can be hard to recognize a motif if it’s been changed just the slightest bit, so I missed some of those connections. The nuance of each movement, especially when a theme comes back toward the end, but is played in a different manner, brings such personality to the piece, but I suppose some of that is performance rather than composition. We’ll get to that later, too.
It’s funny to think that this piece was baffling to critics when it was published in 1839, and some even panned it for its discontinuity or lack of coherence between movements. We will discuss the reasons once we get around to discussing Chopin’s second ballade, but he and Schumann didn’t quite see eye to eye, and Schumann, critic that he was, took the opportunity to remark of Chopin’s second piano sonata that in it, Chopin had  “simply bound together four of his most unruly children.
Be that as it may, even
this disunity seems to bring a certain character to the piece. Let’s have a look at it and then draw some comparisons and similarities between it and Scriabin’s first.
The movement opens strongly, boldly, even darkly, almost ominously, with a D in octaves, marked grave. This ominous, still passage lasts for four bars before we get to a doppio movimento with lots of expression. I’ve found this section to be actually quite sensitive to interpretation. As much as I love Yuja Wang, the recording of hers that I’ve heard of this beginning passage is….. less than sensitive. It leaves no room for the notes to breathe and although it is marked agitato, I feel more comfortable with a sense of flowing natural progress rather than a stressed, almost unnerving tempo. Agitato is different than irritato, even though that’s not a thing. The agitato marking comes as the melody enters in the treble, and there’s a lot of pedal work in this. The sostenuto passage gives us a breather, and it is exactly this kind of music here that is Chopin’s voice, to me. It’s full of rubato (maybe a little too much in Biret’s performance, depending on your taste, but I love it!) and beauty and ornamentation and it just sings. There’s such drama and lyricism in the passage leading up to the stretto marking, and it builds and climbs and soars, and then we have a repeat back to the beginning (except in Biret’s case…. where she skips through that bit, making it an extra minute or two shorter). It appears that, with the repeat of the exposition and the reappearance of the two themes in some form or fashion in the end, that it is in some kind of modified sonata form, as one may expect. What I love about this movement, that stands out to me as Chopin-esque is the amazing timbre from the piano playing so strongly at the high register, singing over low bass. His use of triplet figures over before and after the stretto marking is what gives it that flowy quality. It’s just wonderful. The lyrical theme in this movement is the one that really sticks out with me here, although it ends quite thunderously.
We move then to the scherzo, which is more joking in nature than his four independent scherzi, (op.s 20, 31, 39, and 54), but still heavy in nature. I LOVE the bass line in octaves at the end of the first phrase; it pulls me right along. The chromatic climbing and jumping in octaves and repeated notes are what give this movement (to me) texture and the scherzando-ish nature. It’s almost circus-y in places, without getting carried away. It does romp, though. We play through that theme a few times, and then we reach a gorgeous piu lento section, in contrast to the melodic middle section. The two contrasting sections remind me to quite an extent of the two contrasting themes of the first movement in their expression and emotion. This passage is considerably more peaceful. In the next section, the bass gets more excited with eighth-note figures giving some motion to the lyrical passage. This section repeats once (Biret obeys this time), and ends in some trills before an accellerando marking that builds to the tempo primo. The accellerando is in octaves and you can almost feel the first theme coming back. This movement seems to be in a simple ternary form, and then it’s done.
Here we are… one of the most famous themes in all of classical music. It has been played at funerals (including the composer’s), reorchestrated for use in cartoons, television shows, and recycled time and again, but it’s here that the March Funebre theme began. It is just wonderful. Being so familiar with it and then hearing the original, pure, piano version is like seeing copies of or photographs of the Sistine Chapel or the Mona Lisa or something, and then finally seeing the real thing in all its glory. Hearing this movement still gives me chills when I stop and listen to it. It’s genius. It is regal and heart wrenchingly mournful and pained and hopeless, almost to a fault, but only almost. The solemn ringing of what sounds like church bells in the bass at the beginning is moving enough, with its rich chords (all five fingers are busy here), but it gets even better (worse?) when the treble chimes in, repeating the bass’s original statement. It weeps. There’s such amazing use of all the voices of the piano in each of its registers. It’s tender and dark and it can only go on for so long, and it does. All the material that everyone is so familiar with in this movement is all contained on the first page (of the score that I have). There’s a higher, slightly more hopeful bit before it descends back down to the main theme (rinse and repeat), and then we move to a middle bit that is relatively unknown to anyone who would recognize the middle. It is a tasteful repose from the heavy, downtrodden theme from the beginning. It’s quite gorgeous. It has a couple of repeats in it, and it also is only one page of material, but played through a couple of times, makes up about half of this movement, with only hints and whispers of the sorrow with which it opened. It’s peaceful and relaxing and comforting, but it inevitably returns to the sorrow of the beginning, but this time… somehow different. We’ll address ‘different’ later.
The final movement is almost… an encore for the previous three. It’s a quick 100 seconds of eighth note triplets in cut time marked presto but also sotto voce e legato. Take that, hands. Think of one of his etudes. It’s that kind of busy and difficult. This movement is… slightly hard to make sense of. It’s just movement up and down. It sounds like buzzing and whirring, and then after a while, it’s over. There are a few quotes about this movement. I quote Wikipedia directly:

James Huneker, in his introduction to the American version of Mikuli edition of the Sonatas, quotes Chopin as saying, “The left hand unisono with the right hand are gossiping after the March.” Arthur Rubinstein is said to have remarked that the fourth movement is the “wind howling around the gravestones.”

I would agree that the movement is that kind of wispy, fickle, vain, almost evanescent sort of feeling, and then it’s gone.

And that’s the second piano sonata. In a very large nutshell. Also, there are some references to Beethoven sonatas in this piece, but I’m not familiar enough with the sonatas to comment on it. Suffice it to say that Chopin gave a few nods to his predecessor here.

And now here are my thoughts on it.
Or just… my thoughts on Chopin in general, to some degree or other. While the first sonata is almost…. classical in nature, and is one of the least-played and recorded of Chopin’s works, this one is quite typical, to me, of his style, and the thing that makes it truly unique and difficult, aside from being technically challenging to begin with (second and fourth movements, for example) is presenting a logical interpretation. While it’s only one instrument, and not as ‘complicated’ as a whole orchestra, there is still such nuance to a piece like this beyond just dynamics and tempo. Pedaling, voicing, stops, rubato, and so much more all work together to create one coherent expression, and it must be logical. As long as one sticks to what’s written in the score, everything else aside from that can’t really be considered wrong per se, but it may not make sense within the larger scope of the piece. Even the tiniest articulation and balance and voicing should express this understanding, this logic of the performance. I admit, I am probably just too used to Biret’s recording here to be able to accept any other, (as may be the case with the first ballade, although I do LOVE Zimerman’s Chopin), but I enjoy her rich rubato and emotion that others may find excessive. The tempos are balanced, and everything seems like it is in its proper place, not only phrase by phrase, or movement for movement, but even for the performance as a whole. Other performers (who shall remain nameless), while no doubt technically capable if not stunning, lack a certain coherence,in my opinion. Something may stand out too much from the emotional landscape being painted. Perhaps the contrast between phrases or sections is too great, or I don’t find a reason or logic for doing things one way instead of another. Perhaps it feels unnecessary or even inappropriate. It’s honestly, again, most likely because I have become accustomed to this specific recording. I haven’t listened to any recordings of Zimerman playing this piece, but would like to say the reasons I enjoy their Chopin recordings are because of deep, heavily romantic, balanced, well-rounded, informed performances they offer.
I particularly do not care for faster interpretations of the third movement. Biret here is just on the edge of being too fast for me, while Argerich’s marchers seem in a hurry to get the whole thing over with. I appreciate Wang’s less energetic pace here, but I can see how it can become torpid and lifeless if it gets too slow.
I thoroughly enjoy listening to the master classes held by Ohlsson and Perahia. They both possess a depth of knowledge, in Ohlsson’s case especially of Chopin, that is fascinating and exciting. Something that I seem to recall them both emphasizing in Chopin’s case (well, not JUST Chopin; Perahia was specifically teaching the opening of the first movement) is that the repeats or recapitulation or return of a phrase should never be exactly the same as the first time around. That’s boring. For example, the return of the funeral march theme after the lyrical interlude feels a bit more hurried and intense than the first time around. It’s a small difference, but it holds the listener’s interest (or mine) and shows a talent and artistry in interpretation, not just playing. It makes me enjoy the structure and progress of the piece more, and it feels deeper and more impressive.
Like I said earlier, this was one of the first pieces I really came to know and really get familiar with, and although it holds a place in the repertoire for being slightly…. overplayed (especially the funeral march), it was kind of part of my introduction to the world of serious classical music with regards to style, interpretation, structure, and many other aspects of music that I looked for in this piece. So while it may not be one of Chopin’s more enduring pieces, it is a special one for me. Although it counts enough as a ‘large-scale’ work, it seems every time I listen to it, the time flies by and it’s over.
Lastly, let’s compare a bit to Scriabin. I almost forgot that whole train of thought. While the two pieces are definitely distinct and different, I can see in many ways how Scriabin could have been influenced by this piece and its expression. While Chopin here is never outright angry or morbid or violent like Scriabin was, there are passages (like the beginning of the first movement or parts of the scherzo) that border on that kind of strength of emotion. Chopin has more balance and isn’t as relentless as Scriabin is in his (not even melancholy but) downright despair and negativity in the piece. There is more contrast between themes in the movements, and that creates more of a question as to what one should take away from the piece, while Scriabin’s is straightforwardly dark and gloomy from beginning to end.
Both pieces have funeral marches, but Chopin’s is tempered by a beautiful lyrical interlude. Scriabin gives us no such hope. Chopin’s scherzo only borders on the dark and ominous, while almost every expression of Scriabin’s is unquestionably so. Chopin was clearly a genius, and this is only one of his more well-known pieces, and this is my attempt at expressing my thoughts toward it. It’s a classic.
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