This is one of the last pieces that Chopin played in public. The excellent notes from the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s website sets the stage:
When in 1846 Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) completed the Barcarolle, the last work of its relatively large size to come from his pen, he was already laid low by the fatal illness that three years later would take his life. He must have had deep affection for the piece, for he included it on the program of a concert he gave in Paris, February 16, 1848, his last appearance in his loved adopted city. Reports of the event tell of this physically depleted man unable to play much above the level of pianissimo even in the Barcarolle’s most expansive sections, a depressing experience for his many friends in the audience.The Barcarolle is the single work of its type in his catalog, which is not surprising considering the limitations imposed by the necessity to maintain a “boat” accompaniment and to invent suitably artless – gondoliere – melodies. In light of these specific guidelines, Chopin has created a composition of remarkable continuity and diversity having, in this temperate context, unexpected dramatic intensity in a soaring climax. (Sudden storm on the Venice canal?) Read more of the notes here.
The Vancouver Chopin Society also has an interesting perspective of the performance challenges of this piece, along with some recording recommendations:
“…It has been the despair of many fine artists, being difficult to interpret successfully. It is easy to sound affected, as does [Claudio] Arrau, or nervous, as does [Vladimir] Horowitz, or too plain, as did [Walter] Gieseking. Chopin must have been its ideal interpreter… The Barcarolle displays Chopin’s ornamental genius in full bloom. Ravel wrote, “Chopin was not content merely to revolutionize piano technique. His figurations are inspired. Through his brilliant passages one perceives profound, enchanting harmonies. Always there is the hidden meaning which is translated into poetry of intense despair. . . . The Barcarolle is the synthesis of the expressive and sumptuous art of this great Slav.”