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Pianos in Paris in the 1830s were big business. The Second Arrondissement studios of Pleyel and Erard manufactured on average 1,000 every month, 300 to 400 men working with every conceivable type of wood and metal to furnish the finest bourgeois homes on the Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré and beyond. However, when Frédéric Chopin and George Sand arrived in the Spanish island of Majorca in 1838 the Pleyel he had ordered from the same Parisian company was held up in customs. With great music raging in his head the composer needed a piano! Chopin had little choice but to buy a simple four-foot-high piano from a local artisan named Juan Bauza, who couldn’t have had any idea of its future symbolic value.

Settling in the freezing abandoned monastery of Valdemossa and already weak from tuberculosis, Chopin loved the rugged terrain of twisted wild trees but was altogether dismissive of the locals and their customs. Those feelings were mutual: it was considered scandalous that the couple were never seen at church. Yet out of this unenviable situation emerged perhaps the greatest masterpiece of piano music, the 24 Preludes.

The story is the starting point of Chopin’s Piano, Paul Kildea’s riveting new book that traces the extraordinary history of Bauza’s instrument and the preludes, the pianos on which they were played and the great interpreters who performed them, from Chopin himself to the present day. This is a powerful assessment of Chopin’s legacy and the extent of his influence.

In 1839 the couple returned to Paris where their life was dominated by Chopin’s debut at the recently inaugurated Salle Pleyel, where he played a selection of preludes. Kildea paints a vivid picture of the events leading up to the concert (Chopin suffered stage fright and wanted to keep it quiet) as well as the private ‘salons’ that formed around the couple during those tumultuous years of their imminent breakup.

Kildea’s research into Chopin’s interpretations and how his style of playing has been adapted (or corrupted) by the likes of Liszt, Thalberg and a slew of Russians beginning with Anton Rubinstein makes fascinating reading. What emerges is a portrait of a genius who remains enigmatic but also very elusive.

Kildea also evaluates how the preludes fared in the hands of its most famous postwar interpreters, at a time when countries fought over the composer’s very identity. Alfred Cortot considered them French and ‘sickly’, as opposed to Rubinstein’s more muscular approach. Then there was Richter, who refused to play the complete cycle and cherry-picked the ones he liked.

ROBERT TURNBULL Read the full review on Agora Classica

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