Notes and Editorial Reviews
Waltzes (20). Nocturne in E?,
Stephen Hough (pn)
HYPERION CDA 67849 (60:22)
Mazurkas: in c?,
Nocturnes: in F,
Youra Guller (pn)
DORON 4012 (61:07)
Since their composition, the piano works of Chopin have been in the active repertoire of virtually every pianist, amateur or professional. No wonder—not only are these works exceedingly beautiful, highly innovative, and extraordinarily well written, but they also range in difficulty from the deceptively simple to the most challengingly virtuosic. While there is no shortage of recordings of virtually any of Chopin’s works, it is always a pleasure to hear artists with the technical assuredness to handle the big compositions—the ballades, the scherzos, the etudes—tackle the less demanding fare as well. Here we have two such pianists, one from the early part of the previous century, the other one of the superstars of today.
The first album, from the English pianist Stephen Hough, collects all of the composer’s waltzes—the published, the unpublished, and the doubtful attributions—into one program. Amazingly, though the genre is limited to just a single type for this entire recital, one hardly gets tired of listening to the many varied ways in which Chopin inhabits this world. Perhaps this is all due to the genius of Chopin, but let us not forget the very fine guide that we have through these gems. Hough easily handles the moderate difficulties in these pieces. His ability to bring out the special qualities that each one of these pieces possesses is what makes this a truly remarkable recital. From the graceful and lively op. 18 to the sparkling clarity and bounciness of the op. 42, Hough always allows the music to breathe; there is never a moment when one couldn’t dance to these pieces with their ever-present lilt. One need just listen to the way that Hough handles the soft
opening of the A-Minor Waltz, op. 34/2: Here the pianist not only sings the yearning left-hand melody, he speaks it. The quirky G?-Major Waltz, op. 70/1, is perhaps my favorite of the collection. There is a sheer joy to the playing here. The recital ends with perhaps the composer’s most famous nocturne, the early one in E?-Major, op. 9/2. At first glance one might wonder why this piece was included, but as the piece proceeds with its gentle umm-pah-pah accompaniment in the left hand, there is little doubt.
Youra Guller is a name that is perhaps less well known nowadays. A pupil of the famous pedagogue Isidore Phillipp and classmate of the Rumanian-born Clara Haskil (a pupil herself of Alfred Cortot) at the Paris Conservatory, Guller brought a typical French clarity, both lucid and warm in tone. Her Chopin is elegant, mysterious, almost distant in a way, yet it is always heartfelt and never overindulgent. She was a modern pianist. One should not listen to her as disengaged; rather one should hear her as intense, penetrating, and focused. Her rendition of the C?-Minor Mazurka, op. 6/2, is one of the most touching performances one could imagine. In just a few notes she captures the pathos of its opening measures. She could also be lighthearted when called for. Her supple and flexible rhythms pay huge dividends in the D-Major Mazurka, op. 33/2, as the true characteristics of the dance form are brought to the fore in the piece’s joyous outlook. The nocturnes find Guller in equally good form, from the theatrical climaxes of the C-Minor Nocturne, op. 48/1, the sparkling runs of the mostly lyrical D?-Major Nocturne, op. 27/2, to the quiet ruminations and dramatic conclusion of the B-Major Nocturne, op. 32/1. When one listens to Guller, regardless of one’s preconceptions, one believes that this is the way Chopin should sound.
If one is looking for truly remarkable Chopin-playing then one should look no further. Hough’s disc is especially appealing as the sound is spacious and warm, as per Hyperion’s normal standards. It is also a pleasure to have all of the waltzes played back-to-back for reference and for listening pleasure. Though Guller’s disc is of a different vintage, and though the sound is a bit less present than Hough’s, the performances more than make up for its dated quality. If one is looking for a comparable yet totally different artist from the other modern-outlook pianists who performed Chopin in the mid 20th century—Artur Rubinstein, Dinu Lipatti, Samson François—one can find that pianist in Guller. In other words: Go out and get them both! These two are not to be missed.
FANFARE: Scott Noriega
Works on This Recording
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