The Pianist Jeremy Denk on the Joys of Chopin, Our Most Catlike Composer

08.04.17
Jeremy Denk
The New York Times

By JEREMY DENK

A vivid memory from the early 1990s: My piano teacher was giving me hell for not observing some pedal markings in Chopin when he reached for his lighter, to smoke away the aggravation I’d caused. Mid-reach he stopped, suddenly inspired.

“Chopin was sensitive,” he said. “Like a cat.”

This teacher was Gyorgy Sebok, a great Hungarian piano guru with an unpronounceable name, who resembled less a cat than a sort of profound armadillo. As he spoke, he made his sausage-fingered hands walk across his desk, like nimble and graceful paws.

Despite my suspicion of cats, this remark stuck with me, as did an admiration for the subtlety of Chopin down in the foot-operated region of my instrument. He made the foot into a third hand, and brought the lowly pedal — a tool for letting strings ring, for letting the piano resonate like the harp-in-a-closet that it is — to an unimaginable level of refinement.

Mr. Sebok’s point wasn’t just that Chopin was precise about pedal markings — he was borderline obsessive! — but that his whole achievement depended on a catlike understanding of which notes hold on and which let go; on delicate traceries between chords, suspending dangerously on a single note or pair of notes, and then, once a foothold is established, leaping to a new harmony as if it were nothing.

The quintessential Chopin gesture is to mark a bass note staccato (meaning: play short) while instructing you to put down the pedal. Why would you play short and then let the sound linger? Many non-pianists, already prejudiced against Chopin because he didn’t care much for their instrument, think this is wasteful, or fussy — but pianists know. It creates a different timbre, and a different meaning: a release that remains. The foundation, the deepest note, is felt as light, pillowy: a perfect analogue to cat’s paws, the sense of grace and lift from below.

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