Chopin and the piano: A beginner's guide
Frédéric Chopin wrote some of the most famous piano music ever, but where should you start? Our handy guide will show you what to listen out for and what to go for next.
Chopin and the piano go together like peas in a pod. But where do you start with the composer who not only wrote the most famous piano music of all time, but wrote so darn much of it? Well, perhaps it's best to divide the works up. He wrote over 230 pieces for the piano, ranging from solo etudes, polonaises and nocturnes to full-on concertos, so let's take it one section at a time.
Solo piano works
So, the big-hitters here are the Funeral March (the third movement from the Piano Sonata No. 2) and the Minute Waltz (the Waltz in D flat major). The first one, well, you can get the gist of that quite easily. But the second, the Minute Waltz, is a superb intro to Chopin's art. It's clever, nimble and an awful lot of fun for a piece that barely lasts two minutes. For a really good performance, have a look at Daniel Barenboim's below. Barenboim is a renowned Chopin interpreter, and here he makes it sound positively whimsical and effortless, even though it's tricky little piece to rattle off.
While we're on solo piano pieces, there's much to enjoy in Chopin's etudes, of which there are many. A good one to go for is the fiery 'Revolution' etude, Op. 10 no. 12. It's pretty hair-raising stuff, but Chopin wrote it in a politically-induced rage after Poland's failed revolution against Russia in 1831. The Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 9 No. 2 is also recommended. This popular work allows the soloist to really open up and make the most of the beautifully nagging melodies.
Piano and orchestra
Chopin only wrote two piano concertos, which is surprising given his volume of other work for the instrument. But what he lacked in prolificacy, he more than made up for in quality - both of these concertos have much to recommend them. No. 1 (which was actually written after No. 2… don't ask…) has a lengthy intro, but once the piano comes in it's incredible stuff. Watch Martha Argerich tearing up the first movement below:
The second concerto sees the piano take centre stage more than in most similar works. Indeed, critics at the time (including a rather grumpy Hector Berlioz) attacked Chopin for not giving the orchestra anything to do. But try this Arthur Rubinstein recording of the gorgeous second movement: it's all about the piano, but why not?
Aside from the wealth of solo piano work, Chopin also found time to write a few nuggets for strings, where the piano takes a more accompanying role than usual. One of his first published compositions was the Introduction and Polonaise Brillante for cello and piano. Look at this cracking video with James Kreger on the cello, proving that Chopin was completely able to let the piano take a back-seat. Well, for a little while, anyway.