The Chopin Blog: Majorca and beyond

Pianist Warren Mailley-Smith sets out on a Chopin marathon…

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Pianist Warren Mailley-Smith is about to set out on a mission to perform all of Chopin's solo piano works in concert… and from memory. In a series of exclusive blogs for BBC Music Magazine, he will be describing the experience as he goes along.

 

This month marks the final stage in a five-year journey for me. In September I will begin my series of Chopin’s complete works for solo piano, with roughly one concert per month until next July. This has certainly involved a lot of work, but it has also been very rewarding. Any project involving 211 separate works for performance from memory requires a good deal of care and planning, particularly when one is also co-promoting each of the 11 concerts in the series. However, when the composer involved is as well-loved and universally played as Chopin, this requires an extra level of immersion and preparation.  

After nearly seven months without a day off from practising, my lovely wife and I decided to spend a week in the Mediterranean at the start of August for a brief opportunity to step back from the many notes swirling round my head, reflect in the sunshine, rest the fingers for a few days and make a pilgrimage to Chopin and George Sand’s Majorcan retreat in Valldemossa.  

Many years of listening, practising, studying the works of a composer and reading many books on his life and times has brought me to a point at which it is hard to imagine such music not ever existing. Certain great composers like Bach and Beethoven carry such importance that they begin to assume near-superhuman status in the hearts and minds of contemporary mortals. Many, myself included, hold Chopin in the same category. To find myself standing in exactly the same room where the composer actually resided (albeit for only a matter of a few months), looking out on exactly the same view, with my hands placed on the very same piano keys on which he completed a number of his most important masterpieces is quite a humbling, not to mention inspiring, experience.

Getty ImagesAn original manuscript by Chopin (Getty Images)

The current owners of the Valldemossa Chopin museum are directly connected by family line to Madam Canut, the wife of the Marjorcan banker who facilitated the financing of George Sand and Chopin’s Majorcan sojourn. The Canuts in fact purchased the Pleyel piano from Chopin to enable their departure from the island and the piano stayed in the Canut household until 1932. It was then transported back to the old Monastry in Valldemossa (confirmed by serial number records), which had been purchased for the purposes of renovation into a privately owned museum.  

It was fascinating to hear this history directly from the museum’s owners and I was blown away to gain their permission to touch the keys and play some notes on it. What an incredible revelation that was! Although the piano was played extensively whilst it was still resident in Palma, unfortunately it is no longer in full performing condition. However the basic action is still intact and allows an appreciation of the depth and extreme sensitivity of touch. This hints at the subtlety of touch and tone so famously characterised by Chopin’s own playing.

The view from ‘Cell 4’ of the old Monastery in Valldemossa and its beautifully dressed garden walls is breathtaking, allowing one to take in a full ten-mile vista from this high point in the mountains, as far as Palma and the faint outline of the sea beyond. It is immediately apparent how Sand and Chopin were still able to find extreme beauty in their surroundings despite the great hardships and strains they found themselves under while there. 

I return home feeling both refreshed, inspired and excited to lay my hands on my own piano again to work on my final preparations for the launch of my series on Friday 4 September at St John’s Smith Square.

 

 

For information and tickets, please visit the SJSS website.

 

 

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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