A Brief Look at Chopin’s Ballade in F minor, Op. 52

Beth Levin

[May 2003.]

The Ballade comes in on a cloud, builds to a lightning storm keeping its center — the power of ppa melody spoken once, again, a third time, renewing truth with three tolls of a bell.

As if from nowhere, octave G’s open into a simple melody, scalar, serene, floating. Such an introduction converts pavement to sky for the listener who begins a walk through Chopin’s Fourth Ballade.

After a brief fermata, an accented C like a toy trumpet heralds the main theme in mezza voce. This melody in F-minor and 6/8 time is a sad yet lilting dance accompanied by chords that by virtue of their own voice-leading support and interact with the theme. The opening C is tied over the bar line, propelling the melody out of its framework, an inspired effect. As in poetry, the music intensifies, here by the addition of 16th notes in measure 24, an embellishment at the core of the ballade that sets up a pattern of expansion and enduring emotion.

Measure 37 begins the first of several transitional sections, the opening G’s here transforming to G-flats, B-flat chords dissolving into G-flat major (its relative major). The moment’s intimacy is subtle but deep. It transports us to a dream state. In so much of Chopin, sound tells the story. A combination of legato and utter quiet evokes an eloquent beauty, not of words but of feeling. The transitional material is important because it allows the theme to reenter, newly clothed each time, allowing sections, neither separate nor disjointed, to evolve into a unity.

At measure 58 the first variation of the theme occurs. A middle voice of 16th notes thickens the texture, a bit like a Bach three-part invention pushing a two-part invention to another dimension. As in Bach, the voices are clear as they build in momentum. Bass chords are dense and often rolled. At measure 68, the chords break into falling octaves, broadening to a climax at ff. Another ascent reaches a second climactic moment at measure 76, falling by lovely turns to measure 80. The nigh-physical rhythm of measures 72-80, this building up of sequences, has the performer riding the music’s ferocity. The challenge here is to hold onto the reins.

Measures 80 to 100 offer a respite. The performer presents the music in an expansive manner knowing that peace cannot last. Measure 100 begins on an accented D tied across the bar, which copies and reinforces the opening C of the theme. What follows is older material (from the introduction and first theme) newly presented in swirls of 16th notes. Sequences rise and suspend in air before falling and beginning again. The effect is balletic. At measure 108 the 16ths are expressed in intervals of a sixth while the bass line produces counterpoint. Bach inspired Chopin, who in the ballade executes an elegant portrayal of the master’s fugal writing. Quick trills in the bass add to the dancing color. The section arrives at a climax at measure 125 in a forceful statement of introductory material, now in A-flat major. When, a few bars later, the music melts into A major, the listener is reminded of the opening’s delicacy which entered as if on a slow exhale.

Falling scales in pp, the emergence of A from A-flat, arpeggios of elfin notes — these are a few of the elements that cinch an exquisite moment in sound.

Measure 135 marks a fugal transition to the final renewal of the first theme. Again the performer’s sense of what came before and what is yet to come is crucial. The timing must be just right in order to keep the threads from unraveling, to keep things whole — to keep the story intact.

At measure 152, a flowing, arpeggiated bass line supports and frees the melody. The music pours forth, embellished by fast notes in groups of ten, eight and seven. We experience a rush of sound and motion. The performer must convey this abandon without falling over the edge. She walks a line between the wild and barely tamed. Melody gives way to arpeggios in both hands at measure 191. The tornado is overwhelming. Staunch chords interrupt the sweep at measure 196 and again at measure 198 and continue a dramatic course to fff, climactic and crazed at measure 202. Three angry chords recall the opening G’s, formerly calm’s epitome, now the essence of unbridled force.

The lion briefly reverts to a lamb in five velvet chords — sweet, pp — which mark the final transition before all hell breaks loose.

The coda of the ballade, firmly in F minor, is a frenetic dance, an explosion, a finale of unleashed power and conviction. Sforzandi, running scales in thirds, sharp dotted rhythms, a relentless bass line, a spectacular dissonance at measure 223 — these are a few of the elements that produce the score’s drama but may not explain the effect on a listener. It is unforgettable. The marking accel. sin’ al fine does not allow time for performer or listener to breathe as the mad rush of notes hurls us into four final F-minor chords.

[ArkivMusic (http://www.arkivmusic.com/), a well-stocked mail order service, shows 109 versions of Chopin’s Fourth Ballade. Friedrich Gulda’s fleet 1954 account (in his second “Great Pianists” set) is an antidote for the swooning one often hears, and Pollini offers comparable control in a less extreme format (9:55 to Gulda’s 8:35). I’d call Moravec’s 1966 reading the standard, but that dull word can’t begin to nail its excitement. (A 2002 recital has just surfaced on Vox.) DG’s twofer, Sviatoslav Richter — In Memoriam, includes his 11-17-62 Venice performance, and is also treasurable for five WTC Book I entries, Debussy’s Estampes and three Préludes, seven Rachmaninov Preludes and three Visions fugitives. Not to be missed unless one has invested in the big “bricks.” W.M.]

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