Concert review: ‘Divine Fire’ at Bridport Arts Centre

The story of composer Fryderyk Chopin and writer George Sand is one of the most compelling, romantic and passionate, a nine-year love affair which continues to fascinate and grip the imagination. It is a story of creative union and artistic inspiration, of a relationship severed by ugly jealousy and recrimination, and one which ended tragically with the untimely death of Chopin in October 1839.

For many, the relationship between Chopin and Sand is an attraction of opposites: she with her fiery, mercurial, outspoken personality, her penchant for men’s clothes and cigars contrasted with Chopin’s fastidiousness, his delicacy and shyness (particularly in performing in public). Yet during the nine years of their relationship, Chopin produced some of his finest piano music, including the 24 Preludes Op 28 and the B minor Piano Sonata. Despite her reputation for taking up with and then discarding lovers with the casualness one might discard a dirty chemise, Sand gave Chopin love and affection, and a settled home life, divided between Paris and her house at Nohant, that enabled him to compose. She nursed him when he was ill and offered solace and support when he felt his muse had deserted him. Added to this, their circle of friends comprising artists (the painter Eugene Delacroix, amongst others), musicians (Pauline Viardot, Auguste Franchomme), writers and composers (Franz Liszt) provided Chopin and Sand with a supportive and inspirational background against which they could create music and words.

‘Divine fire’ was Sand’s own description of the intensity of her attraction to Chopin, suggesting a love that transcended the purely physical to a more spiritual plane, a meeting of bodies and minds. It is also the title of a words and music presentation conceived and written by actress Susan Porrett with music performed by pianist Viv McLean.

The narrative runs chronologically, picking up the story of Chopin and Sand from their first meeting in Paris (at which Chopin initially found Sand “repulsive”) through their ill-starred winter in Majorca, contentment at Nohant, Chopin’s acclaimed recital at Salle Pleyel to their stormy parting and Chopin’s tragic death. The narrative is interspersed with music, selected by Viv to complement the text, and comprising some of Chopin’s loveliest works. The opening piece, the fleeting Prelude in A, Op 28 No. 7, set the tone for the evening – played with an ethereal delicacy, the last note was no more than a whisper.

The great strength of this format is the subtle interweaving of words and music. Susan’s text brings to life the personalities of Chopin and Sand through letters between them and their friends, and contemporary accounts. The readings set the tone, and the music reflects it, each piece sensitively rendered by Viv with expression and commitment, from the tenderest, most intimate Nocturnes (Op 9, No. 2, Op post. In C sharp minor) to an intensely poignant Mazurka (Op 17 No 4). Two Ballades (A major and G minor) illustrate Chopin’s contrasting textures and moods, while the Scherzo in C sharp minor is a heroic declamation, shot through with a contrasting motif combining a chorale-like figure with sound showers high in the treble register. Viv’s understated, modest delivery always allows the music to speak for itself, while Susan’s words lend greater focus, encouraging us to listen to the music even more attentively.

Viv expressed some concerns about the piano (an Estonia) to me afterwards, but I and several other audience members assured him that the range of sound was absolutely appropriate for the size of the venue (Bridport Arts Centre is a converted chapel, with cinema-style seating for c200), from the sweetest, most lyrical cantabile (in the Nocturnes, Prelude and Mazurka) to the thunderous, dramatic Presto con fuoco coda of the G minor Ballade. At times the music was accompanied by the faint, plaintive wailing of seagulls (Bridport is close to Dorset’s Jurassic coast), which lent even greater pathos to the music and narrative.

The concert closed with a poignant account of Chopin’s death, and an intense and emotional performance of the Polonaise Fantasie in A flat, Op 61, bringing to an end an absorbing, moving and beautifully presented evening of words and music.

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Further reading:

Chopin’s Funeral – Benita Eisler

Chopin: Prince of the Romantics – Adam Zamoyski

Chopin in Paris – Tad Szulc

Chopin’s Letters (Dover)

A Winter in Mallorca – George Sand

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