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Ask a group of pianists which edition of Chopin’s piano works is the best, and you will probably get little consensus.
Some cling to our old copies of the much-revered Paderewski Editions which have been widely used since their appearance in the mid-twentieth century, while of the more recent urtext editions, the Jan Ekier Polish National Edition comes highly recommended.
Alongside these, the ever-reliable Henle Urtext editions have been popular for many years, and enthusiasts will be pleased to hear that they have just added a new revised edition of the 4 Scherzi, edited by Norbert Müllemann and with fingerings by Hans-Martin Theopold.
Chopin’s four Scherzi appeared as individual concert works between 1835 and 1843. They are often linked to the four Ballades which were published more or less within the same timeframe.
“The Scherzi and Ballades are outstanding examples of Chopin’s striving to fashion autonomous single works in longer musical forms based on the classical canon but which explore new expressive worlds and composition techniques.”
It is unknown whether Chopin himself ever performed these works, but they have nevertheless rightly established themselves at the pinnacle of the recital repertoire, the second Scherzo finding particular popularity. The four pieces each brilliantly exploits the physical dimensions of piano playing, with virtuosity and drama to the forefront. This makes them among Chopin’s most difficult works, and not just for performers.
The word Scherzo literally (in Italian) means jest, and traditionally a Scherzo was a short, playful, vigorous composition. In his Symphonies, Beethoven had begun to imbue the Scherzo with more drama, a tendency which certainly continues apace in all four of Chopin’s works. Only his fourth Scherzo, tellingly in E major, comes close to the cheerful spirit of lightness and élan one finds in Mendelssohn’s Scherzi, for example, Chopin elsewhere pursuing a darker and more dynamic path.
As his contemporary Schumann famously asked of the first Scherzo:
“How is earnestness to dress if jokes go about in dark veils?”
If you are now in the mood to listen to these works, head over to your preferred streaming platform and search for the recordings by Rubinstein, Ashkenazy and Pollini.
The four Scherzi pose significant, even daunting challenges for the music editor.
In his lifetime, first editions were published in France, England and Germany, and it is likely that Chopin himself furnished each of the three publishers with an autograph score. In any case, only two autographs remain, one each for Scherzi 2 and 4.
Compounding problems, Chopin disliked proofreading and often failed to spot errors in first editions. Unsurprisingly, the French, English and German first editions contain numerous differences and misprints. Further adding to the complexity of ascertaining his true intentions, Chopin often annotated the scores of his own students, again sometimes providing conflicting insights.
For the new Henle edition, editor Norbert Müllemann has naturally consulted all of these extant sources, and in his extensive Preface goes into considerable detail explaining the not-insignificant differences which emerged, and justifying his choice of primary source for each of the four works. With German, English and French translations, this Preface consumes 16 pages, making for interesting scholarly reading which certainly adds value to this particular edition.
Furthermore, there is a Critical Commentary at the back of the edition, which includes an extraordinary 28 pages of notes, diagrams and explanations of the editorial procedures followed in bringing us this new critical edition. Both the Preface and Critical Commentary are available for all to download freely from the Henle website here.
Going still further, Müllemann provides detailed footnotes throughout the score itself, too, and these are likely to be for many the first port-of-call when preparing a performance.
Regarding the fingering, Chopin himself wrote very few fingerings in the Scherzi, these being written on his students’ copies of the music. Here they appear in italics, the remainder of the fingering being provided by Hans-Martin Theopold, whose suggestions have previously graced Henle’s editions of the Nocturnes, Waltzes and others.
As for the score itself, as one would expect from Henle this is beautifully engraved and presented on quality cream paper, with an enduring stitched binding. It must also be added that the score is also available as a digital download within the Henle Library app.
Those studying these extraordinary masterpieces will be delighted with Norbert Müllemann’s outstanding new edition for Henle, combining as it does superb scholarship with industry-leading engraving and presentation.
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