Over the years, the question of how to play Chopin “correctly” has become a riddle wrapped within an enigma. The usual charge leveled at pianists who play it “wrong” is that they are playing too sentimentally, wallowing in ritardandos and bending rhythms in self-indulgent ways. 

The One Sure Thing . . . Arthur Rubinstein
Most listeners, pianists, and piano pedagogues seem to agree that Arthur Rubinstein’s way of playing Chopin was right. But what does that mean exactly? Fortunately for us, we have his extraordinary recordings and videos, like this one of a mixed group of Chopin Etudes that he performed in the great hall of the Moscow Conservatory in 1964. 

Fortunately, there are videos of several of his master classes that can give us some insights into his views on Chopin. These two show him coaching a young pianist on the Chopin Ballade no. 1 in g minor, op. 23.  

We also have this shorter video of Rubinstein teaching a master class in Israel in 1979. In it, he seems to sum up his approach to Chopin in just a few words . . .
“Make it simple . . . say it inside . . . simply, simply, so it is always right to the heart . . .”

Another Contender:  Mieczyslaw Horszowski
Here’s a video of Mieczyslaw Horszowski playing the Nocturne in Eb Major op. 9 no. 2 and the Etude in f-minor, op. 25 no. 2. Horszowski’s first piano teacher was his mother, who had studied with a pupil of Chopin. People say that means that Horszowski had a direct lineage to Chopin, but I frankly wonder how much such musical genealogies really tell us about stylistic continuity. His approach to Chopin, like Rubinstein’s, is idiomatic, not-too-sentimental, simple, and beautiful.

And Yet Another:  Evgeny Kissin
This guy is another revered player of Chopin, and with good reason. In this video of the Waltz in c#- minor, op.64 no.2, I think we again hear the unsentimental simplicity that Rubinstein was looking for.

And Yet Another:  Lang Lang
People say he is a great Chopin player.  Here’s a video of him playing the Etude in E-Major, op.10 no.3.  He is certainly effusive in his approach, and doesn’t hesitate to slow down or speed up when he feels an impulse to do so.  Is he fulfilling Rubinstein’s mandate to play Chopin “simply . . . simply” or not? I have my doubts but I don’t know – you tell me.

And Still Another: Yundi Li
And here we have a video of Yundi Li playing the “Fantasie Impromptu, Op. 66” – a piece beloved by everyone who has ever heard it, but reportedly disliked by Chopin himself because its popularity outweighed that of many of his other works during his lifetime.  This video is kind of distracting but if you close your eyes you will hear Li’s simple, unaffected performance.

Drawing Clues for Playing Chopin
What are Rubinstein, Horszowski, Kissin and Li doing in the videos above, beyond observing Rubinstein’s call for simplicity? I am not a pianist or a piano teacher, but here is what I notice when I watch and listen.

  • An underlying pulse is always present. That is not to say that these players pick a tempo and stick to it without alteration, but that they never lose touch with an underlying pulse that is like a heartbeat.
  • Yet there are rhythmic alterations in the melodic line that lies over that pulse. I like to visualize this by thinking that there is a circle drawn around each note in the melody, and that good Chopin players make modifications within that space. A note can come early within that circle or be delayed, but the underling pulse that underlies each circle is never lost. Somehow, the modifications that the pianist makes have to feel organic and natural.  (Interestingly, this is a lot like what jazz vocalists do when they “take liberties.”) There is also some leeway to make alterations “up or down” within the circle too, by adding melodic embellishments, like the grace notes, turns and other ornaments that are a hallmark of the style. (Great singers of the music of Bellini engage in similar ornamentation of the melodic line, as many people have observed; as we know, Chopin and Bellini were friends and seemed to expect performers to apply similar “liberties” when performing their music.)
So, What Do You Hear?
I’d welcome any and all comments on this subject. Let me know what you hear when a performance of Chopin sounds just right to you. I’m still trying to figure this out, and I would welcome your ideas. And let’s also continue the studies by listening to performances by Argerich, Michelangeli, and others. After all, we have all the time in the world to figure this out. Right?