“I had put Chopin to one side and wasn’t even sure whether I would play him again one day,” says the French pianist David Fray. Chopin’s music had been absent from Fray’s active repertoire for some 15 years before he recorded his new recital album, which comprises seven of the composer’s nocturnes, three mazurkas, a polonaise, a waltz and an impromptu. It takes its place in the catalogue of Erato recordings that Fray, now 35, has been building with care and reflection since 2008, and which also contains music by Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Boulez.
When Fray talks about Chopin – who died in Paris in 1849 aged just 39, having exercised a transformative influence on the piano repertoire – it becomes clear that he sees the composer’s work in archetypally Romantic terms: “For me, Chopin’s music is very fragile, vaporous, perfumed … somewhat intangible. It is so fluid and evanescent – you need to feel that it could just disappear at any moment.
“What makes it so touching is this ephemeral quality – the mazurkas are like something that you write in the sand … You know that it will be washed away, but the memory will remain. His music palpitates with a sense of the unexpected, the inspiration of the moment. If you tried to engrave it into marble, it would die.”
At the same time, Fray is aware of the intellectual and technical challenges posed by Chopin. “His is the music of an individualist … Chopin is an island, something of a closed world. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t want to approach his music too early – I was a little daunted. I’ve always had this idea of breaking out of the yoke imposed by the piano, but with Chopin that is difficult … the piano is at the centre of things.”
The piano was still a relatively new instrument in Chopin’s time and his writing – often typified by long sinuous melodies that evoke the bel canto opera of the early 19th century – tested and expanded its capabilities. “I have always had a passion for transforming the piano into a lyric, singing instrument,” continues Fray, “when it comes to the piano and the idea of control, I feel freer these than I used to, but in Chopin, freedom is like a breeze agitating a leaf. Though the leaf moves freely, it is attached to a stem, which is attached to a branch, which is in turn attached to a trunk.
“I hope that this Chopin recital will be an album of poetry, of song … with a sense of freedom.”
David Fray Plays Chopin is out now.