Notes and Editorial Reviews
A film by Gérald Caillat
Celebrating the 200th birthday of Fryderyk Chopin, this major co-production not only tells the story of the composer's brief life but brings together some of the world's greatest pianists playing excerpts from some of his best-known works. It includes appearances by Arthur Rubinstein, rare footage of Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman and Evgeny Kissin in their early days, as well as Garrick Ohlsson (winner of the 1970 Chopin International Competition) who also provides his own perceptive observations on Chopin's genius. The bonus disc features Ohlsson with Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic in complete performances
of both of Chopin's piano concertos.
Bonus Garrick Ohlsson playing Chopin, Warsas Philharmonic, Antoni Wit
REGION CODE NTSC: 0
PICTURE FORMAT: NTSC 16:9
SOUND FORMATS: PCM-STEREO, DD 5.1
DISC FORMAT: DVD5+DVD9
THE ART OF CHOPIN
Garrick Ohlsson, Evgeny Kissin, Krystian Zimmerman, Ivo Pogorelich, Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Sviatoslav Richter, Bella Davidovich, Yuja Wang, Murray Perahia, Piotr Anderszewski, Arthur Rubinstein (pn)
IDÉALE AUDIENCE 3078948 (2 DVDs: film, 53:00; concert, 97:00
Text and Translation)
Piano Concertos: Nos. 1, 2
Garrick Ohlsson (pn); Antoni Wit, cond; Warsaw PO. Live: 8/29/2009
Fresh off the production line (the concert was given August 29, 2009, and I’m reviewing the disc on August 21, 2010) is this tasteful and interesting film-concert combination honoring the life and music of Frédéric Chopin. Not being a Chopin maven, despite liking a great deal of his music, I was unaware that he was born to parents who had once been well-to-do but had fallen on hard times, nor that he was encouraged to write operas and symphonies but refused to do so. I also learned one of the causes of the TB that killed him, an extended stay in Majorca with George Sand where the air was continually damp and dank and his room, by Chopin’s own description, like a tomb. Surely someone could have bought him a train ticket to Nice or somewhere else where the fresh air would have done him good, but Chopin, like so many musical geniuses, was a stubborn guy, and he did what he was going to do no matter what.
Despite a plethora of performance clips, only three of these pianists give their views on Chopin’s music and what it means to them (Kissin, Davidovich, and Wang), excepting Garrick Ohlsson, who acts as host and guide throughout the film. I’ve always kind of liked Ohlsson—never considered him to really be one of the top-notch pianists of his time, as Pollini, Rubinstein, Richter, and Perahia quite clearly are—but very good, a solid, fine performer you’d not be disappointed by if you heard him live. Judging by this 2009 concert of the Chopin concertos, I’d say that if anything he’s gotten even better with time. I’d now put him in the same category as Stephen Kovacevich, another outstanding yet underrated American pianist.
While watching and listening to the performance clips, juxtaposed excellently by director Gerald Caillat, it came to me why I don’t like the playing of Kissin, Argerich, or Horowitz (represented here only by very early silent footage playing one of the Chopin etudes), while I do like such similarly dynamic pianists as Rubinstein, Richter, and Cziffra (not shown here). It’s not so much a matter of attack as it is musical flow. Rubinstein, Richter, Cziffra, even Perahia at times, certainly attack the keyboard with gusto; we tend to forget that even the “prince of pianists,” Dinu Lipatti, played with a very sharp attack at times; but they know how to connect their phrases, to make them flow. (Richter sometimes went overboard, but only on occasion; most of the time, he kept the music flowing.) The disconnectedness of phrasing, regardless of how stunning their technique is, always keeps me from appreciating Kissin and Argerich more than others do. But perhaps those who wonder what I’m talking about will actually hear this as they listen to those pianists in context with others who keep it flowing. Yuja Wang, a name unknown to me, certainly plays with gusto, as does American pianist Anne-Marie McDermott (not represented here), but again, flow is the keyword.
As Ohlsson, Wang, and Kissin point out, the deceptive quality of Chopin’s music is its gorgeous melodies and lyrical flow, which mask technical demands as difficult or more so than those of Liszt. (One item conveniently left out of this biopic was that Chopin chided Liszt constantly, publicly as well as privately, for the overcomplicated quality of his music.) Ohlsson even goes so far as to demonstrate exactly what he means in the fingering of two of the etudes, showing how Chopin insisted that one play a light, feathery melody with the three weakest fingers of the hand because the thumb and forefinger are playing counterpoint. Of the performance clips, the earliest (with sound) is Davidovich’s, which looks as if it is from the late 1940s.
The concert performance is typical of the genre, meaning not terribly interesting to watch but great to listen to. You do get a few fleeting close-ups of Ohlsson’s fingering during the two concertos, and you also get to watch Wit, one of the true unsung masters of conducting, on the podium, but to me, watching a concert you’re not really at is only a one-time thrill, especially when the camera is panning all over the place in order to make it “interesting.” (How would the cameraman know what
consider interesting or, better yet, what
consider interesting? I doubt if it’s the same thing as what the cameraman thought was cool to look at.) Wit’s podium gestures are a little broader than Nikisch, Strauss, Toscanini, Szell, Böhm, and Reiner, but not as broad as Mehta, Rattle, or Gatti. Overall, a good buy if you enjoy Chopin.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Work(s) by Frédéric Chopin
Evgeni Kissin (Piano),
Martha Argerich (Piano),
Garrick Ohlsson (Piano),
Krystian Zimerman (Piano),
Artur Rubinstein (Piano)
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