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About this Piece

Several of Chopin’s large works came in fours, though not composed consecutively: there are four Impromptus, four Ballades, and the same number of Scherzos. And they are all extraordinary. The B-flat-minor Scherzo, the second of that genre’s four, was composed in 1837 and bears the full imprint of the composer’s unique creative qualities. It is big and brawny, filled with magical harmonic coloration and huge pianistic flair; it is also a little wordy (redundancy is one of the small flaws of each of the Scherzos), but that is a small price to pay for the boldness of spirit portrayed. In the present piece, the very opening gesture informs us that a drama is about to unfold. Following a long-held B-flat, three soft and quick ascending notes lead to a longer note; this is immediately repeated. After a pause, a very loud B-flat is followed by a long-held chord and in turn by four emphatic chords. The opening four notes return (three-longs-and-a-short, a famous enough rhythmic combination by 1837), and they become a kind of key which throughout the piece opens the door to a floodgate of tension and drama, as well as some pulsating Chopin poetics. The extended opening section ends with a set of trills that act as a trajectory throwing the right hand up to the top of the keyboard for a swath of descending notes. Then there are some toss-away ascending and descending single notes that prepare for the first lyric idea.

But there is still tension in this lyricism by way of the melody’s impetuosity and the accompaniment’s wonderfully buoyant cushion that provides a kind of breathless momentum. From this point on the musical incidents accumulate. The modulations are heady, the filigree and the passage work dazzling, and the intensity gripping, the latter particularly as Chopin sets the final pages ablaze with an unbridled passion that is the antithesis of the pale Chopin whose reputation is for some based on moon-drenched nocturnes and tender waltzes. This is brilliant, big-boned Chopin, muscular music handled with structural integrity. It is no wonder that this is the most popular of the Scherzos.

— After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.