Notes and Editorial Reviews
A real bargain and one-stop Chopin collection of consistently high quality.
It has been a while since I paid a great deal of attention to the music of Frédéric Chopin, but with 2010 being his 200
th anniversary year it is entirely logical that record companies are geared up to take full advantage. Any attempt at avoiding him entirely will be futile this year. The EMI
Anniversary Edition is a fine collection which trawls the back catalogue for some distinguished recordings from the 1970s and earlier, but also introduces some very recent contributions from musicians with which collectors may be less familiar. The label states that this represents
‘The Complete Works’, which is almost but not entirely true. I searched in vain for the
'Non più mesta' from Rossini's
for flute and piano which, while fairly lightweight as a piece is nonetheless the only original piece for this combination which Chopin wrote, and is certainly the only one we flautists think of when we hear his name.
Disc 1 starts us solidly with respected performances of the two Piano Concertos by Garrick Ohlsson and Polish conductor Jerzy Maksymiuk. There is a good deal of poetry in the slow movements, particularly the
Larghetto of the
Piano Concerto No.2, but Ohlsson doesn’t make a meal of the music, and his
rubati are always a servant of the phrasing and flow of the melodic line and harmonic weight. There are a couple of moments in the outer movements where subtlety and grace are less in evidence, but I actually quite like this masculine and straightforward approach in these pieces. Slightly glassy strings aside, the recordings are fine, and with the same sessions taking us to the beginning of Disc 2 we are also given a nicely performed
Fantasy on Polish National Airs which has plenty of poise and idiom despite the rather rambling nature of the piece. The
Grand Concert Rondo ‘Krakowiak’ manages to be warmly inviting and dramatic at the same time, rounding off this orchestral section in rousing style. On the same disc, the move to Paris and Alexis Weissenberg and the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire creates no bumpy problems of intonation of acoustic, the differences between the two sessions being a fairly innocuous advancement of the piano closer to the listener and a warmer acoustic. The balance in the
Variations in B flat on 'Là ci darem' (Mozart's Don Giovanni) Op. 2 does favour the soloist perhaps a little too much, but there can be few complaints about a performance which is mightily powerful in places, and has plenty of subtle moments. The jovial wit in the almost crassly banal
Con bravura variation is just the cherry on the top of a rather moreish musical cake. Weissenberg has plenty of fun in the little moments where the theme peeks around the corner to remind us what the piece is really about, but no quarter is given in Chopin’s frequently blowsy showmanship. By contrast, the
Andante spianato is given plenty of reflective sensitivity, blown away by the penetrating French horns which open the
Grande Polonaise in E flat major Op. 22. The tape overloads momentarily with Weissenberg’s fearsome peak levels around 2:35, but again, these are all noble performances which carry their years with remarkable and inspiring freshness.
Discs 3 and 4, and the lower opus number
Mazurkas played by Ronald Smith have a somewhat warm and woolly piano sound with a rather stuffy mid-range. The stereo effect is a bit strange as well, on headphones at least, but these technical issues are not hugely problematic and are cured in later sessions. What many listeners might find harder to adapt to is Smith’s somewhat spiky playing style. This is a question of taste, and many of the
Mazurkas, such as the famous
Op.7 No.1 have their own identity in a kind of contradiction between grace and angularity. Adapting to Smith’s approach, it is the abruptness of the left hand which is more often than not the source of discomfort. I happened to have Garrick Ohlsson’s 1998 Hyperion-Helios recording of these pieces to hand, and by comparison tend to prefer his fuller approach to pedalling, allowing the extremes of dynamic contrast to hang together more and shaping with a greater sense of flow. Here and there Ohlsson gives a knowing musical wink. What Ronald Smith does give us are serious and reliably consistent performances in the context of this bargain box, but I wouldn’t consider them a top reference.
Hyperion’s complete Chopin set with Garrick Ohlsson is being re-issued, if not in its entirety then certainly in substantial chunks, on their low price Helios label. It is fascinating to compare Ohlsson’s approach to the
Preludes Op.28, always the heart of any Chopin collection in my opinion. The 1974 EMI recordings are anything but superficial, but tend to faster tempi in the slower preludes, compared to the 1989 Hyperion recording. This doesn’t always make the later performances preferable in my opinion. Take the famous
Prelude No.4 for instance, beloved of innumerable Associated Board piano exam candidates - ‘the easy one’ of the selection for that particular grade. The earlier recording seems more four-square and direct, less poetic perhaps than the later one. Turning to the Hyperion recording and the melody is stretched, certainly beyond the useful sustaining power of the piano, to my ear making it ultimately less involving. There are exceptions.
Prelude No.2 is far more funereal in 1974, and the later recording is taken at nearly twice the tempo – more a walk in a desolate park than a lento cortège. Slowness – and a feeling of slowing down disturbs the flow of
Prelude No.6 in the later recording, the earlier version expressive in relative simplicity, surely more what Chopin would have intended. My goodness, the
Prelude No.7 is slow enough in the earlier recording, but nearly becomes a post-modern parody in the vastness of the later version. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that there was nothing but differences in tempo between these versions, and both are fascinating. This does however go to show that, even for one pianist, there are far more ways to skin a cat than you might imagine. Even given the 14 year gap between recordings, Ohlsson is never less than stunning in these essential pieces, and shows his affinity with the works at every turn.
Then same is true of the
Nocturnes. I grew up with the Daniel Barenboim set on Deutsche Grammophon, and am currently growing up a little more with Roger Woodward’s recording on the Celestial Harmonies label. Price apart, Ohlsson’s late 1970s
Nocturnes are intrinsically very fine in their own right. As with the
Preludes, his playing is relatively unfussy – superficially less searching than some, but possibly enduring longer as a result. Some twangy notes in the treble of the piano are a minus point in the pieces on disc 5, but this is resolved in later sessions on disc 6. There are some moments where the tread of the left hand seems a little heavy, such as with
No.13, where the song of the right hand might have been better answered by a left with more direction.
Non-sentimentality can go too far, but with plenty of gently lyricism and generally a fine sensitivity in the playing, I ultimately came away happy enough with this set.
It is again Garrick Ohlsson who guides us through the
though with a brighter sound and whopping impact at the start you might be forgiven for thinking that it was someone else. Collected into a Helios single disc set covering ‘The Great Polonaises’, Hyperion’s 1993 recording competes in terms of sound quality, but with only a mild gauze of hiss the older EMI tapings are still very good, with superb dynamic range, and the No.1 Studio acoustic responsive to the subtler touches in a piece like the
Polonaise Op.26 No.2. I sense less difference in approach between the
Polonaises when compared with the
Preludes, and with only a few degrees of wildness more in the earlier recording of famous pieces like the
Polonaise in F sharp minor Op.44 it’s more of a case of which pianistic palette you prefer – bright and forceful with EMI, or more rounded and warm from Hyperion. Even the remarkable
Op.53 is pretty much honours even for heroism. Disc 8 brings us the version of the
Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise in E flat major Op. 22 which makes the orchestra redundant, and this and the remaining Polonaises all sound very good to me, if not Chopin’s best compositionally. These are pieces that provide plenty of pianistic display, and in this regard Ohlsson gives us technical fireworks aplenty. Ronald Smith’s piano sound is warmer, giving a milder character to the
Variations in B flat on a Theme from Hérold's 'Ludovic' Op. 12, but providing a
Boléro Op.19 with full impact, and a
Tarantelle in A flat Op. 43 with plenty of dancing bounce. As you would expect, the fairly disposable
3 Ecossaises Op.72 also have an effective dance feel, though I doubt they will make many Scotsmen feel homesick – this not being the pianist’s fault.
Disc 9 is a treat, with American pianist Agustin Anievas’s well respected traversal of the
Waltzes. This is a technical
tour de force as well as a refreshingly energetic recording, filled with remarkably subtle twists and turns. Only marginally older than the other No.1 Studio recordings, these have a different feel, as if we’re privileged to look through into some kind of golden era from the past. The connection with Chopin is in this regard somewhat spooky, but this is probably only my imagination working overtime. Just a little dimmer and more distant than the previous recordings, this still sounds very fine indeed. The brilliant
Impromptus which conclude the disc and the
Fantaisie-impromptu Op.66 which opens disc 10 are also superb.
Maurizio Pollini was always king in our household in the 1970s when it came to the
Etudes. His 1972 Deutsche Grammophon recording still stands head and shoulders above many, but Andrei Gavrilov is no slouch in this repertoire, mesmerising both with technical brilliance and warm lyricism in such romance-drenched pieces as the
Etude Op.10 No.4. There are superhuman fireworks aplenty here, and pretty much everything you could want from these works in this recording. With modern 1980s technology for the Etudes, the rather wayward tape for Danielle Laval’s
Trois Nouvelle Etudes is a bit disappointing. It sounds as if someone has done their best to restore the master recoding after someone else sat on it with a pair of magnetic underpants. The performance is fine and the piano sound is good, but moves about too distractingly. Tzimon Barto’s two contributions are the pleasantly lyrical
Contradanse, and the famous
Berceuse is given timeless poise by Daniel Barenboim.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Cécile Ousset’s uncompromisingly larger-than-life playing, and so both her
Piano Sonata recordings get my vote here.
No.2 is stunningly symphonic, with that ubiquitous
Marche funèbre paced to perfection – not too slow, but with a sense of unstoppable doom.
No.3 is equally munificent, piling on the pianism while at the same time sweeping us along with the passion of the composer. Ousset is also a good choice for her wow-factor in the
Scherzos, but is also quite capable of moving melodic shaping – if not quite the last
nth of poetic expression in the
It is good that we’re proffered more recent recordings in the sonatas, and Leif Ove Andsnes’s performance of the
Piano Sonata No.1 is given the added bonus of the Snape Concert Hall acoustic. Heard less often than the other two sonatas, this earlier piece from 1827 doesn’t possess the same kind of musical marvels, but nonetheless deserves serious consideration, and is given such by Andsnes. Other highlights on disc 13 include Barenboim’s almost throwaway
Variations on ‘that theme’ by Paganini, and a piece of Chopin’s I’d not heard before, the fun two piano
Rondo Op.73 in a well defined recording at the Salle Wagram played by Danielle Laval and Teresa Llacuna.
Disc 14 is almost entirely in mono sound, giving us Claudio Arrau with a good
Allegro de Concert Op.46. I’m sure there must have been other candidates for this piece in more modern recordings, but even with somewhat congested dynamics this is still an impressive if not entirely endearing performance. The rest of the CD is given to Chopin’s songs, also recorded in the 1950s, but still mostly sounding good. Eugenia Zareska was a highly regarded lied singer, and with Polish as her native tongue it is hardly surprising she sounds entirely at home with these songs. A few of the recordings are a bit rough: no. 5
What She Likes is a bit of an assault on the senses, and the piano can sound fairly tinny at times, but these are all characterful performances and useful study material.
The final two Op. Posth. songs hit us with 2009 technology, and are taken with useful restraint by bass Lukas Jakobski, making the best of their not particularly involving content. There are no texts given in the booklet.
Disc 15 and 16, covering the chamber music with cello, are all recent recordings. Natalie Clein’s performance of the
Cello Sonata and
Introduction and Polonaise brillante Op.3 comes from an original pairing with the Rachmaninov Sonata already well received on these pages (see
review). I don’t find her and pianist Charles Owen quite as vibrant and glowingly expressive as Carter Brey and Garrick Ohlsson on Hyperion, but this is still a fine performance. Andreas Brantelid’s recordings seem to have been released almost simultaneously as a single disc Chopin recital cat. 6 87742 2 and part of this set, so you can make quite a saving obtaining the toothsome
Piano Trio Op.8 and
Grand Duo he performs with Marianna Shirinyan, and Vilde Frang the violinist with the trio. These are wide, open readings with a delectable lightness of touch. Going back to Garrick Ohlsson, this time with Leila Josefowicz playing violin and Carter Brey on cello, we get a more muscular performance, deeper digging into the strings where the dynamics demand power, but also with restrained lyricism in the
Adagio sostenuto. Brantelid’s ensemble is also capable of plenty of heft, but gives less of a sense of risk-taking. One of the players also has a squeaky chair which can be heard between 0:37-0:45 near the beginning of this lovely movement, something which can’t have gone unnoticed in the monitoring/editing process, but was left in on that particular take. This is refinement which might be perceived as reaching almost antiseptic levels, but these musicians still manage to bring the music to life – if perhaps not with quite the laughter, tears and abandon which would send a live audience wild.
The final set of tracks fall into the category of ‘rarities’, and is played with stylish elegance by Benjamin Grosvenor. Most of these miniatures are pleasantly Chopinesque bon-bons or encore fodder, though there are some fascinating exercises such as the
Fugue in A minor, and one can only wonder at the psychology behind cheerfully banal late works such as the 1846
Priced at about 30 UK pounds; under two pounds a disc at an average of 68 minutes each, this bumper collection has to be considered a real bargain, and anyone looking for a one-stop place to source their Chopin could do far worse than with this set. ‘Complete’ is not entirely true, but only dry academics would probably complain about the lack of duplications such as the alternative version of the
Piano Concerto No.2 with string quartet rather than orchestra. The omission of the
Variations in E major on 'Non più mesta' from Rossini's ‘La Cenerentola’ for flute and piano is probably the most regrettable one, if only because the wind sonority would have made a nice contrast somewhere. The solo piano contributions are generally of very high quality, and certainly serve as a platform from which to explore further if certain pieces awaken that particular need. A surrealist addition is the credit given to Yvonne Loriod on the back of the box – alas, a bloomer by the proof-reading team, along with the inclusion of Ann Murray in the same list. Hyperion’s complete set with Garrick Ohlsson is a challenge to this box in terms of intrinsic quality, but collectors can now cherry-pick his Chopin through individual re-releases on the bargain Helios sub-label. There are indeed marvels to be discovered beyond EMI’s
Anniversary Edition, but not in one place, and not at this price.
-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Polish Songs (17), Op. 74 by Frédéric Chopin
Eugenia Zareska (Mezzo Soprano),
Giorgio Favaretto (Piano)
Czary, B 51 by Frédéric Chopin
Eugenia Zareska (Mezzo Soprano),
Giorgio Favaretto (Piano)
Written: 1830; Poland
Dumka, B 147 by Frédéric Chopin
Eugenia Zareska (Mezzo Soprano),
Giorgio Favaretto (Piano)
Written: 1840; Paris, France
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