Brahms wrote Ballades, so did Liszt, Schumann, and Loewe. So did many others. But it was Fredric Chopin who perfected the template in his four great Ballades for the piano.
Inspired by all the thoughts that lodged into his mind and the emotions that inhabited his heart, Chopin sat at first at the keyboard in his modest lodgings shortly after moving to Paris in the 21st year of his all too brief life, there to write the at moments delicate, at others tempestuous G minor Ballade No. 1.
After his relationship with Maria Wodzińska ended catastrophically, young Fredric Chopin took up with the much older than him Georges Sand in another at first idyllic, then fraught liaison. His Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op. 38 reflected the joys and pangs of that love affair, with its initially melancholy barcarolle in 6/8 time repeatedly interrupted by massive chordal outbursts, as if to remind the listener that not all is fair in love’s wars.
The impetuousness of the F major Ballade gives way to the Ballade No. 3 in A♭ major, Op. 47 and the Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52, both works imprinted by the same alternating serenity and turmoil that were an intrinsic part of Chopin’s emotional life.
From 1835 to 1842 Chopin composed the four Ballades, setting to music the imagery that the term connotates: a dance-like musical narrative adhering to no pre-conceived format. Some claim that it was the poetry of the great Polish literary giant Adam Mickiewicz, a poet inspired in turn by heroic and fantastical tales, what moved Chopin to compose his Ballades. More likely than not it was the ups and downs of his amorous relationships that infused these compositions with their vacillations between intense ardor and the languor that follows love making.
Dror Biran has recorded the four ballades of Chopin for the enterprising label Centaur Records, and the take-away is nothing short of impressive. Past Biran’s flawless technique that seemingly knows no insurmountable obstacles, the invaluable Israeli-born pianist infuses into his interpretations of these four masterpieces a perfect balance between a cool brain and a warm heart, mining now the delicacy of the music, now the abrupt changes of tempo and dynamics in a set of memorable performances.
The Centaur recording, available on several platforms, is impeccably engineered, and, added to his patrician playing, makes Dror Biran’s CD deserving of a special place in the libraries of all collectors of great music for the piano.
For those readers who reside in Cincinnati: Dror Biran will be performing a program of Tchaikovsky and Debussy piano trios with cellist Paul York and violinist Geoff Herd at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 11 in the Robert J. Werner Recital Hall of the College Conservatory of Music.
Rafael de Acha (c) 2022