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Review by Brad Green:
Wladislaw Szpilman holds the world record for the longest rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor. He didn’t employ an especially slow tempo; he didn’t indulge in any unconventional repeats; but he did take a good deal of time to get to the end. On 23 September 1939, Szpilman was performing the work live on Polish state radio when he was rudely interrupted by the Luftwaffe. It was the last music heard on the country’s airwaves for many years. After the war, the radio station was rebuilt and Szpilman once again sat at its piano, this time playing the Nocturne in its entirety.

Chopin provides the perfect backdrop to a film based on the true and remarkable story of a holocaust survivor. It is one of those happy fortuities where the music is linked literally to the protagonist’s life – Szpilman being the master of a copious Chopin repertoire – and also evokes exactly the right atmosphere. 

The great German composer Robert Schumann once described Chopin’s music as “guns smothered in flowers”. On the surface there is nothing prettier. The Poet of the Piano’s mellifluous, inoffensive melodies have served equally well entertaining the idle Salon society of nineteenth century Paris, and appeasing modern-day jet-setters who bridle at being put on hold. 

Much of Chopin’s work is infused with the lyricism of the romantic age. Keats, Byron and Shelley met their tragically early ends when Chopin was in his mid-teens, but we can hear their aesthetic sensitivity throughout his oeuvre. His nocturnes, of which we are privileged to three on this CD, are much closer to what Shelley called “the hues and harmonies of evening” than the bleak, modern atonality of Bartok’s “night music” string quartets. They have a quiet, pacific quality; yet there is something stronger simmering beneath – as if we are both contemplating the drift of stars and sensing their inherent heat. It is no wonder that Whistler used the term Nocturne for his Studies in Black and Gold, with their fireworks and fire wheels set against a dreamy darkness.

Pianist Janusz Olejniczak performs the nocturnes, ballades, waltz, prelude and polonaise represented here with an assurance that is a more than fitting tribute to Szpilman. Chopin was more or less the father of the modern piano style, using the pedal to sustain harmonic tonalities that are filigreed with slurs, trills and other musical ornamentation. Olejniczak finds just the right balance of delicacy with the grace notes, and conviction with dynamics and phrasing. Cinema is tremendously valuable to classical music when it provides opportunities for such wonderful new releases of traditional repertoire. The sparkling production is quite a contrast to the one scratchy, old recording of Szpilman himself, which nonetheless does make for a touchingly nostalgic finale. 

Between Olejniczak and Szpilman’s interpretations, the pensive, gentle melancholy that undercoats Chopin’s sweetness is echoed in one original cue by Wojciech Kilar. Bass and pizzicato strings, on the down and back beats respectively, maintain a square and constant foundation. A little more tempo and it could be fashioned as a traditional polka; but here a clarinet – its plaintive melody the single, minimalist layer above the basic rhythm – evokes a dance of life in the wider sense. 

Re-inventing great music in the form of a soundtrack not only provides a pretext for shipping it onto the front shelves, it also enhances appreciation by associative context. As the guns went off all over Europe, they were smothered by the florid runs of Chopin in Szpilman’s head. There is, in fact, no one who personifies the irony of the suffering artist more than Chopin. In touch with great beauty and feeling tremendous despair; supported then abandoned by the female writer George Sand; and eventually succumbing to depression and tuberculosis, he once asked: “Why do we live on through this wretched life which only devours us and serves to turn us into corpses?” Perhaps the question was rhetorical; but whether consciously or not, Chopin certainly knew the answer. Just take a listen to his music.

Published March 6, 2003

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TITLE: The Pianist
ID: 399700 103564
FEATURED PERFORMERS: Janusz Olejniczak; Hanna Wolczedska; Wladislaw Szpilman

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