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Length: c. 9 minutes

About this Piece

Chopin visited Robert Schumann in Leipzig in 1836, and of that meeting Schumann wrote to a friend, “I have Chopin’s new Ballade [the G-minor]. It seems to me to be the piece that shows most genius, and I told him that I liked it most of all his works. After thinking a long time he said with great feeling, ‘I’m glad of that because it’s the one I prefer too.’” Their joint choice of a favored Chopin piece was not a difficult selection if they were taking into account only the large-scale works, for, other than the piano-orchestral compositions, most of those were yet to come.

At any rate, the Ballade in G minor represents Chopin at the peak of youthful impetuosity, striking the kind of poetic fire that would certainly have excited the similarly youthful, temperamental, tragically unbalanced Schumann. The two composers were 25 at the time, Chopin being the elder by only some three months. The piece begins with one of the most compelling introductions possible: The hands in single notes an octave apart stride urgently from low bass to high treble for three measures, whisper provocatively for two bars, then, finally in chords, evoke the ultimate anticipation with a superbly placed dissonance that melts into the austerely lyric main theme. In contrast to this rather steely-eyed melody, the second theme, in major, is all nocturnal sweetness, although it eventually attains surprising muscularity and thrust. Entwined with the lyricism, glittering passagework and technical gnarls abound, climaxing in a presto con fuoco coda of demonic difficulty. The no-technical-holds-barred coda was to become the signature of all of Chopin’s Four Ballades except the third. It is difficult to designate one of the three gnarly ones as the most demanding, but the present one might get the vote of many a pianist. —Orrin Howard