Notes and Editorial Reviews
Nocturnes: in b?,
Michal Bialk (pn)
ARS MUSICI 232590 (50:30)
This is the sort of album that makes me wonder why I am a reviewer. My Elizabethan drama professor, Gwynne Blakemore Evans (the textual editor of
The Riverside Shakespeare
), once said to me, “A critic always can find something to say.” I often remember this when I write for
, because it is a two-sided remark. Yes, a critic should be able to find something to say, but that very facility calls into question the value of his remarks.
So, listening to Michal Bialk’s CD has been a kind of learning experience for me, as it should be. Bialk is a young Polish pianist. This is his second Chopin album for Ars Musici. The program notes contain no analysis of the music. Instead, there is an interesting poem about the nighttime by the choreographer John Neumeier. He writes that in the night, “values are out of proportion.” That certainly has been my experience with Bialk’s nocturnes. The first time I heard the recording, I thought, it’s too slow, it’s too loud, it’s too metronomic. Rather than experiencing appreciation or loathing, both being states of mind easy to write in, my initial reaction was indifference. How could I find something to say about this disc? I put it aside for two days, then I played it again.
The second time I cast aside all my reactions to the surface of Bialk’s playing and listened anew. I instead discovered a very lovely album. The key to my varying reactions is that Bialk plays a Bösendorfer. It is a totally different-sounding instrument for Chopin than a Steinway, and Bialk relishes these differences. His tempos and sonorities are distinctive because the instrument’s tonal qualities are distinctive. What’s more, the sound of the Bösendorfer, with its size and heft, is beautifully captured by the engineer. So what we have here is a most singular depiction of Chopin’s sonic world.
If you accept this premise about what Bialk is doing, beautiful things emerge. The coda of op. 32/1 is excellently judged. In op. 32/2, Bialk adopts a rare brisk tempo for both the first and second subjects. When I initially heard it, I thought someone might have given the pianist a shot of vitamin B. Actually the tempo is lively and melancholy at the same time, and then Bialk slows down for the final chords. In op. 37/2, the filigree chords are beautifully voiced, and the tonal opulence of the Bösendorfer is evident even in passages that aren’t loud. In op. 48/1, the left hand is made prominent to bring out tragic tonal shadings. The effect is reminiscent of Liszt’s
; one wonders who influenced whom? For op. 62/2, the keyboard action and sonic decay of the Bösendorfer sound slower than a Steinway’s and less brilliant, producing a statelier effect. Bialk’s interpretation of the op. posth. is gnomic rather than romantic, bringing a foretaste of Grieg.
Of course, there are many fine recordings of the nocturnes, which are worth considering when the timing for Bialk’s album is so short. In somewhat a similar vein, I treasure my LPs of Garrick Ohlsson’s first complete recording of the cycle, which has been reissued inexpensively on EMI Gemini. But Michal Bialk definitely has found his own path to realizing Chopin’s nocturnes, and if you are less preoccupied with surface considerations than this reviewer at times has been, I think you’ll find his performance a rewarding experience.
FANFARE: Dave Saemann
Works on This Recording
Nocturne for Piano in C minor, B 108 by Frédéric Chopin
Michal Bialk (Piano)
Written: 1837; Paris, France
Date of Recording: 12/2007
Venue: Klavierhaus Hess
Length: 3 Minutes 27 Secs.
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