On the page they look like nothing. ‘Ruins’, Schumann called Chopin’s twenty-four Preludes. Some are so short, so superficially easy, that they’ve become a staple of ‘Classics for Beginners’ books. It took me years to realise how great these pieces were, so effectively had I butchered them as a child, turning the most delicate ones into odes to teenage angst. With a bit of distance, however, and a good performance, their genius suddenly hits you, as in Cortot’s feverish recordings. In the Frenchman’s hands, mawkish scraps became vivid Polaroids.
Chopin composed the majority of the Preludes in the winter months of 1838–9, during his stay as a consumptive in a deserted monastery on the island of Majorca with his cigar-chomping lover George Sand. Here Paul Kildea’s book begins, amid great warm blasts of ‘African sunshine’, cypresses and