Fryderyk Chopin called his mazurkas Little Pictures - paintings of the folk dances and the rural heart of his native land. In other words, says pianist Garrick Ohlsson, impressions – not faithful reproductions:
"Mazurkas contain no folk music at all. But they are thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the dance, and its peculiar rhythms… They’re not just, you know, sort of eccentric waltzes.”
Ohlsson should know - he's the only American to have won the Chopin Competition in Warsaw.“People outside of Poland, and I have learned this in Poland, tend to smoothe them over a little bit too much, because these are dances often when there’s a leap on the second beat with a big crash on the third beat. One two THREE! When you actually see it danced, it’s not necessarily subtle."
"They’re really difficult to capture the flavor of and the mood of. As a matter of fact, the great Russian teacher Rosina Levine with whom I studied advised me perhaps not to go to the Chopin Competition, because she said 'the real stumbling block for pianists is the mazurkas, because mostly Poles really get it. Russians, at least we’re Slavs, we sort of get it,' she said. And the farther away you go from the center, you know, that’s one thing… So I was very proud that when I went to the Chopin [Competition], I got the special prize, in addition to the first prize, I got a special prize for Mazurkas, don’t ask me how."
"They… change their moods even faster than most Chopin pieces. They really are emotionally of unbelievable volatility. And they’re evanescent in that way… sometimes you can play a mazurka and think 'whoops, I missed it entirely,' and then you sit down and do it again, and say 'there, I got it.' And there’s not one IT to get, necessarily."