Chopin’s 58 mazurkas, written over the entire span of his life, absorb the Polish national style and allow his impulse for dance and vocal keyboard writing full sway. The essence of the mazurka lies in the national rhythm, 3/8, a subtle alternation of the beat between the first beat of the bar which may linger into the second or third beat. Meyerbeer remained convinced that the beat expressed itself in duple time, while Chopin insisted that three beats underlay each gesture. The melodic kernels divide themselves into ternary forms, harkening to bagpipe music, modal expressions in fifths or augmented fourths, slinky scales in Neapolitan or Lydian harmony, any number of keyboard ornaments, and references to gypsy or klezmer music. The epic C Minor, Op. 56, No. 3 provides an excellent case in point of a harmonic labyrinth that can paint mystery as well as rhythmic life to the national dance. As to the form, the mazurka can absorb its national energies from the Poland or Mazovia: Mazurek, Oberek, Ksebka, Kujuwiak, or Sousedska, much as Dvorak had a full arsenal of national styles for his Slavonic Dances.
Russian virtuoso Evgeni Koroliov (b. 1949) plays the Steinway D-274 with a particularly soft patina, so intimacy is the key. The concentration on dynamics increases our attentiveness to harmonic modulation, as in the rich B-flat Minor, Op. 24, No. 4. Chopin’s capacity to build a knotty harmonic tapestry out of a simple dance comes forth in the F Minor, Op. 63, No. 2. Koroliov’s left hand remains rock-like, fixed in the essential meter, while the right roams freely and indulges in tempo rubato. The agonized A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4, which opens with the soft pedal, extends a melancholy song, bleak and haunted. The mazurkas of the late style, like the C-sharp Minor, Op. 63, No. 3 possess a metric subtlety that defies easy definition, since the pulse slides between beats like refined oil. The early mazurkas, on the other hand, assert themselves with the militant arrogance of self-possessed confidence, as in the two from Op. 7. But then so does the C Minor, Op. 56, No. 2 in C Major, whose stomping dance creates three-hand effects. The posthumous Op. 67, No. 4 in A Minor reveals how much lyric poetry can infiltrate the mazurka form. The B Minor Mazurka, Op. 30, No. 2 exploits incremental repetition in assorted color dynamics, the principle that spare means yield the most startling, varied effects; here, a two-bar falling figure played seven times.
The Op. 41, Op. 50, Op. 56, and Op. 33 mazurkas represent Chopin’s time with Georges Sand in Nohant, so the erotic content may be more palpable. This sultry quality becomes evident in the wonderfully inventive C-sharp Minor, Op. 50, No. 3, which spins out a series of balanced measures that caress and vary the same phrase groups. Koroliov follows the C-sharp Minor with the concerto-like B Major Mazurka, Op. 63, No. 1, whose passing turns bespeak a world of ad libitum ornamentation within a fixed rhythm. The E Minor, Op. 41, No. 2 places us in the same thoughtful world as the “Funeral March” Sonata, exquisitely controlled. The earliest mazurka, Op. 68, No. 2 in A Minor proceeds as cautious but noble dance in Lydian mode whose graceful turns, sotto voce, would be veronicas in an elegant bullfight. Both the G-sharp Minor, Op. 33, No. 1 and the A Minor (“a Emile Gaillard”) are further products of the Georges Sand liaison, subtle and arched tunes, whose piquant effects come as much from ritards and silences as from the modally harmonized chords. Finally, the melancholy F Minor Mazurka, Op. 68, No. 4, published posthumously. Dreamy and painfully nostalgic at once, Koroliov gives it a valedictory affect, the sweet sorrow of a parting that looks forward to future trysts.