Chopin Piano Concerto no. 2, op. 21

Performed by Krystian Zimerman and the Polish Festival Orchestra

I didn’t really feel bad for writing somewhat coldly or dispassionately about the piano sonata; after all, I seemed more positive about it than many of the other writers and critics of the piece who panned it in just about every way possible.
I felt a little bit worse about my even greater disinterest in the piano trio, which, as stated in that article, was referenced by some sources as a key piece in the piano trio repertoire, conflicted by statements to the effect that it has mostly disappeared from programs and performances in the past century. In either case, it just… didn’t do a lot for me.
I feel even worse about really, really disliking his second piano concerto, to a fault. I have not enjoyed listening to the work, but here we go.
It, like Beethoven’s second piano concerto, was written before number 1 but published second, hence the no. 2 and later opus number. It was extremely well-received (at least the latter two movements) at its premiere, more so than the number one, but really… to me the two pieces sound very similar, even from the very opening of this work. They were written within about a year of each other.
Wikipedia has very little to say about the piece.  Maybe there’s a reason.
I wrote (looking back now, somewhat poorly) about the first piano concerto quite a while back around the time that Ingolf Wunder came to Taipei to perform both of these concertos on the same night, number two first (i.e. in the order in which they were composed). I thought I was more familiar with the work than I was, but it was, I don’t want to say unmemorable (even though I don’t really remember it), but it struck me as awfully long and plain. The first, played (and composed) second, which I was far more familiar with, also seemed long when heard live, but kept my interest far more.
I get Chopin’s fascination with Bellini and the whole bel canto thing and Hummel being popular at the time, and I also understand that despite their equally ubiquitous places among Romantic piano repertoire, Chopin is decidedly not Rachmaninoff. This piano concerto just bores me.
This introduction to the piece on the L.A. Philharmonic’s website is fantastically written, and while more positive than I am, gives a very good explanation of the composer’s environment, surroundings and the general climate around the time of composition. One paragraph stands out to me:

His most ambitious works to date, the two piano concertos, were taking shape at this time. And with the first performance of the F-minor Concerto in March of 1830 – the earlier of the two, but second published, therefore its higher opus number – the youthful pianist-composer became the darling of the concert halls and fashionable salons of Warsaw. It was lack of similar response to the hardly dissimilar E-minor Concerto in October of the same year that prompted him to make his final break with Poland.

That is only the beginning, however, of the story surrounding these two works and their composer. You should just read the whole article.
Listen to just the first few minutes of each of the pieces. It sounds like he wrote the same piece on different days… really, this is going to be a hard piece to talk about because I find it utterly boring.
It opens crunchily, with promise of drama and excitement, but quickly turns into a mushy
string introduction that drags on and make the audience really want to hear the piano do something just for a change of scenery, but it’s three minutes of introductory material before we get there, and when the piano enters, it feels like it knows it’s arrived late. Granted, there’s a magical kind of distant, shimmery ethereal quality about its entrance, and it jumps in with an almost cadenza-like passage before it introduces the theme first played by the orchestra, the one that’s almost identical to the first piano concerto.
Compare this entry of our subject in this work (no. 2, composed first) with the same point (introduction of orchestra-introduced material) in the first concerto (composed second). Do you see what I mean? So to me, after these lengthy, mushy orchestral introductions and the presentation of the same material, not only from the few minutes prior, but from the previous concerto, I’m already feeling that we’re in for a very long work. This concerto is about ten minutes shorter than no. 1, thank goodness.
I promise I’m trying to be positive, really.
In the L.A. Philharmonic article linked above, mention is made of the dreamy-eyed Parisian, sentimental, Romantic Chopin, and it is perhaps most obvious in the second movement, yet another place where I wish we could do without the burden of an accompanying orchestra and just put all the writing into the piano. The second movement of the first concerto is also truly beautiful, but this hardly qualifies as a saving grace for the piece. This is music to fall asleep to, music not to have to pay attention, although I will say there are some wonderfully tender and perfectly expressed moments in the second movement, like beautiful, intact seashells among a crunchy beach of shards. If you’re not in a hurry to go anywhere or experience anything, this is a movement to sink into and enjoy. As irritated, perhaps, as I am with this work, the second movement does do some wonderful things. It, more than anything else, points ahead to the wildly successful poet of the piano.
The final movement reminds me a bit of the final movement of the piano trio, op. 8. It’s the most lively of the work, has a distinctly Eastern European (i.e. Polish) flair in its rhythm and how the entire piece is dressed and presented. It’s the most lively, intense, unpolished, genuine expression of the whole concerto. Formalities having been tossed aside, this feels like the most truly Chopin, not Chopin’s take on someone or something else, and while I don’t love it, it is certainly an improvement over the previous two movements.
After having gotten out some of my perhaps unjustified irritation about this piece and having to listen to it, I will say I appreciate it more from a historical standpoint. It was the success of this piece contrasted with the lack of success of the other concerto (the first) that was at least one of the factors that sent Chopin looking elsewhere, and what a wonderful thing for music history that was. What if Chopin had forever remained the Chopin of the piano concertos, continuing to write two of these a year for the next decade?
In any case, I promise I’m not resentful about the work for any reason, and I’m glad to have a better understanding of its significance in the Chopin canon, but it isn’t a thing that thrills me.
That is it for Chopin for now; perhaps this stretch of his works didn’t end on a high note; my favorites were hands down the nocturnes and mazurkas, but it was nice to get to know the other early Chopin works, if for no other purpose than to put the late works into context. But that’s all for now. We’ll get back to the etudes and other early works eventually, but for tomorrow, we move on to another big name in the Romantic composition world, a gentleman born the same year as our dear Chopin. See you tomorrow.


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