Fabulous Chopin & Schubert at the Fitzwilliam

Fabulous Chopin & Schubert at the Fitzwilliam

Fabulous Chopin & Schubert at the Fitzwilliam

Composers match the building in temperament

In the classic surroundings of the Fitzwilliam Museum last night it was not hard to imagine the salons of 19th century Paris, where hard-to-please Parisians first appraised the music of Frederic Chopin, the exciting newcomer from Eastern Europe with brio and confidence. Fresh from his native Poland (it must have helped that his father was French) he took the capital by storm and presented his exciting newly written works there – music taken directly from the haunting folk tunes of his native country. Paris was the Mecca for musicians – and artists -- of the early 19th century. 

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Chopin, even though he was a slight frail figure, cut a real dash there -- soon collecting a school of well-heeled pupils to teach -- and made a sexual sensation by his liaison with the cross-dressing aristocrat who went under the name of Georges Sand. She had already carved a swathe through artistic circles with a string of poet lovers, and after she parted from Mallarmé she chopped off her hair in grief and had herself painted by her friend Delacroix in his left bank studio in a dark suit and cravat, an outfit she stuck with throughout the years until old age. Chopin spent ten years with her, his best work behind him. 

The composer would have liked the setting where his works were performed Thursday. When Chopin was making his triumphant conquest of Paris George Basevi's grandiose Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge had just been completed. The ornate room replete with oil paintings of the era suited the recital of Chopin by British concert pianist Joanna MacGregor. Though hidden from sight by the museum's flat floor plan, she filled Chopin’s place with panache, giving his famous Masurkas a thrilling touch.

Part of the 13-29 July Cambridge Summer Music Festival, the evening's first half featured some Impromptus by Schubert – another man of the Fitzwilliam time, whose tragic life was even more short lived than the sad span of Chopin, dying at 32 of untreatable syphilis. It is disturbingly poignant that a composer with the delicacy and elegance of Schubert should come to such a devastatingly painful and desperate end, suffering which compared to poor Chopin’s terminal tuberculosis was even more appalling. The achingly beautiful notes we heard last night from MacGregor were part of the amazingly prolific output of both composers.

In the second half, she played the Bb Sonata from the masterful Schubert, strains of which echo his earlier moving songs of loneliness and desolation, the Wanderer, where in the spirit of Goethe’s romantic hero, the artist, finds himself on a winter journey of song. Last night’s sonata was the last he wrote, succumbing later that year to the full ferocity of the disease. 

Sex or rather sexual repression was at the back of this epidemic of venereal disease. The earlier nineteenth century was a time when social mores prevented any contact between young women and men and young bloods looked among the low life of cities for their sexual pleasures, whilst the women lived lives so restricted that any misdemeanor lost them their precious reputation and condemned them to either spinsterhood and poverty or the life of a courtesan. It was Alexander Dumas who co-wrote La Dame aux Camelias and persuaded the great composer Verdi to encapsulate this appallingly straightened world in La Traviata, arguably one of the greatest operas ever. They all belonged to a beau monde of Parisian elegance, undercut by sordid reality: the sublime music this tension between heroic romance and devastating mortality, comes through Schubert’s complex music again and again.

Around the walls of the Fitzwilliam hangs the new vogue of French impressionism; pictures by Claude Monet, Matisse, Cèzanne are refreshingly free of the strictures of an earlier generation. To come to the concert and in the interval see these brilliant works of art, original paintings of such freedom and beauty, is to realize in another art form, the longing Schubert’s music speaks of.

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