Meet the Soloist: Dylan Henderson performs Chopin's Second Piano Concerto

Dylan Henderson

Dylan Henderson, photo by Randy Larcombe

Dylan Henderson, the soloist in our upcoming Lunchtime concert this Friday, enjoys a multi-faceted career as an emerging pianist, writer, musicologist and arts administrator. He holds a first-class honours degree from the University of Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium of Music, as well as a Bachelor of Music from the University of Western Australia. Since 2016 he has studied with Professor Anna Goldsworthy and the esteemed Russian pedagogue Eleonora Sivan.  

In November 2020 Dylan was announced as the winner of the Chopin Study Competition for Young Researchers – a prize offered by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw. His essay ‘A “Narrow-Keyed” Pleyel: The Ergonomics of Chopin’s Interface’ will be published in the next issue of The Chopin Review. Over the coming months, Dylan will finalise his performance-based PhD submission Silver Sounds from a Velvet Hand: Searching for Chopin’s Sound World on Period and Contemporary Pianos, which he has been completing under the supervision of Professor Charles Bodman Rae and Professor Anna Goldsworthy. 

Dylan has written concert reviews and interview features for Limelight and CutCommon, and his annotations have appeared in concert programs presented by Musica Viva, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, City Recital Hall Angel Place (Sydney), Newcastle’s City Hall, and Recitals Australia. He has been the Communications Manager of UKARIA since October 2016. 

Here is Dylan's program note on the concerto that he is going to perform with the Elder Conservatorium Symphony orchestra this Friday:

By the age of nineteen, Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849) was already regarded as a Polish national treasure. His gifts at the keyboard were, by all accounts, preternatural: Józef Elsner (1769–1854), his composition teacher at the Warsaw Lyceum, had proclaimed the young man a ‘musical genius’ with ‘special ability’. The two concertos (in F minor and E minor respectively) were written within a single year (1829–30) and present an almost identical architecture: a march in sonata-allegro form is followed by a Larghetto in the form of an aria, before culminating with a rondo inflected with the rhythms of Polish dance. Although the Concerto in F minor was the second to be published (as Op. 21 in 1836), it was the first to be written, resulting in considerable titular confusion.

The two main themes of the Maestoso are presented first in the orchestral exposition: a lofty, quasi-heroic march (in F minor) is juxtaposed with an intimate, dolce theme (in A flat) amid transitionary tutti passages that eventually subside to a pregnant whisper. The piano makes its entrance in suitably thunderous tones, before a new, complementary theme of Mozartian simplicity is introduced and embellished with airy fioriture. The tension and momentum build before we hear the nocturne-like theme presented in the piano (con anima) without accompaniment. In the development, fragments of the initial theme are heard in the orchestra underneath a series of swirling pianistic waves that escalate the tension over several pages before climaxing in an eviscerating descent of chromatic double thirds. A truncated recapitulation presents the themes one last time, before culminating in a cathartic perfect cadence.

Sometime around the spring of 1829, Chopin became infatuated with the mezzo-soprano Konstancja Gładkowska (1810–1889), but it is not known whether he ever confessed his feelings directly to her (nor whether she reciprocated them). ‘I already, perhaps unfortunately, have my ideal,’ he wrote to this close friend Tytus Wojciechowski (1808–1879) on 3 October, ‘whom I faithfully serve, not having spoken to her for half a year, about whom I dream, with thoughts of whom the Adagio from my Concerto came to be’. Chopin’s famous phrase ‘I say to the piano what I would often have told you’ assumes particularly poignant meaning here, for Konstancja evidently became something of a muse for several of Chopin’s compositions during this period, including the Waltz in D flat, WN 20, and Życzenie, WN 21 (‘A Maiden’s Wish’).

A nocturne with orchestral accompaniment, the Larghetto is the Concerto’s raison d’être and its crowning achievement: it assumes the form of a grand da capo aria worthy of the finest soprani sfogati. The molto con delicatezza cantilena is presented three times and, in accordance with operatic tradition, adorned with variants of ever-increasing sophistication each time. What begins as a series of softly cascading trills as intricate as Venetian lace is later perfumed with 29- and then 40-note fioritura, vented from the keyboard as if sung in a single breath.

The Larghetto is equally notable for its central recitative, the equal of any by Rossini, Mozart or Handel. Octave unisons in the piano are presented in highly irregular rhythmic groupings, bearing all the hallmarks of a transcribed improvisation. The strings enhance the tension in shimmering A-flat-minor tremolandos that swell as the piano traverses the extremes of the dynamic spectrum, from hushed pianissimos to violent con forza and appassionato declamations.

The movement’s nobility of expression immediately captivated the imagination of the Romantics, garnering unanimous praise ever since Karol Kurpiński (1785–1857) conducted the premiere with Chopin himself at the keyboard at Warsaw’s National Theatre on 17 March 1830. ‘I am surprised that the Adagio made such a universal impression’, Chopin wrote to Tytus a few days after; ‘wherever I turn, I hear only about the Adagio’. Maurycy Mochnacki (1803–1834) praised him ‘to the skies’ in The Polish Courier; Liszt would later proclaim the work to be ‘of a perfection almost ideal’, while Schumann opined that all other composers could merely ‘kiss the hem of its garment’ in admiration. The Polish musicologist Tadeusz Andrzej Zieliński (1931–2012) doubted that ‘an equally suggestive, passionate and moving confession of love’ could be found anywhere in the musical literature.

The Allegro vivace finale blends the opulent virtuosity of the stile brillante with Chopin’s Mazovian heritage. The character of the refrain is consistent with that of a kujawiak – a popular folk dance often performed at weddings and village parties. Set in the home key of F minor and marked semplice ma grazioso, the melody exhibits a typical pendulum-like contour (wahadłowy) over a simple harmonic progression alternating between tonic and dominant, lending the music a circular, wistful quality. A brief waltz-like episode scales up and down the keyboard, twirling round and round through a series of neighbouring keys before arriving back in A flat, where the appearance of a new dance is announced by open fifths in the strings, the violins playing col legno (with the wood of the bow). The new character, initially rustic and scherzando, now dreamy and dolcissimo, improvises its way around a static tonic chord, creating tightly coiled momentum that inevitably explodes into pianistic fireworks. The Romantic trope of dreaming is invoked through the Italian term risvegliato (waking up), which mediates the dichotomy between dance and dream.

After a final appearance of the refrain, there is a sudden pivot to the major mode before the Cor de Signal announces the arrival of a swashbuckling coda. Sparkling brillante figurations dance up and down the keyboard in a fiendish display of pianistic bravura. The conclusion is unequivocally triumphant and euphoric, and many have interpreted it as a work of youthful optimism – a happy memory from childhood that stands in defiant opposition to the amoralities of fate.

Inherent in both concertos is a bridge between two formerly incompatible sound worlds – the stile brillante of Viennese pianism and the bel canto tradition of Italian opera. This creates a series of paradoxes that ultimately balance each other out, finding a perfect equilibrium between virtuosity and poetry, between extraversion and introversion, between the public and the private, between dreams and reality, between transience and eternity.

Tagged in Lunchtime Concert, Elder Conservatorium of Music