Notes and Editorial Reviews
Ballades: No. 2 in F; No. 3 in A?. Piano Sonata No. 2,
Waltzes: No. 5 in A?; No. 7 in c?; No. 12 in f. Preludes: in c,
Edna Stern (pn) (period instrument)
NAÏVE AM 197 (64:17)
There are two stars on this CD, the 1842 Pleyel piano and Edna Stern. The
piano is a remarkable instrument. It is owned by the Musée de la Musique in Paris, a museum dedicated to historical instruments. The recording was made there. The piano has 80 keys and two pedals. Its hammers are covered with chamois leather, giving it a plummy, buttery sound. The instrument has been recorded up close, securing a great deal of detail. The Pleyel was Chopin’s preferred piano. He even dedicated the op. 28 Preludes to Camille Pleyel, and the op. 9 nocturnes to his wife. The curator of the museum quotes Chopin as follows: “When I am out of sorts … I play an Érard piano, where I easily find a ready-made tone. But when I feel in good form and strong enough to find my own individual sound, then I need a Pleyel piano.” Edna Stern describes this particular Pleyel as “a deep and dark piano,” especially suited to the Second Sonata and the Second Ballade. Hearing Chopin played on this piano reveals new facets of his genius.
Edna Stern is a highly sophisticated artist. She lives in Paris and teaches at the Royal College of Music in London. She has studied with Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman, and Leon Fleisher. Her sound is unlike any of these artists, although the influence of Fleisher can be heard on this CD in the fluidity of musical ideas. Stern writes beautifully, and has contributed an illuminating program note to the album. In describing Chopin’s artistry, she cites André Gide quoting Paul Valéry: “Is there art more gentle / Than this slowness?” Indeed there is an ease to Stern’s Chopin playing that is highly beguiling. To quote André Gide on Chopin from Stern’s program note, “It is very simply a matter of not hurrying, of allowing its natural movement, easy as breathing.”
Stern’s etudes, which begin the program, are marvelously relaxed with an understated virtuosity. She considers the Second Ballade related to a poem about Polish girls being swallowed up by the earth and turned into flowers, to avoid a fate worse than death at the hands of their Russian conquerors. Her Ballade opens with a narrative feeling, while its second subject is suitably tumultuous. The “Funeral March” Sonata is the centerpiece of the album. Stern links the first and second movements, and then the third and fourth. Having the only pause come before the famous march is highly effective. The pace of the first movement is expertly judged, while its second subject displays tenderness. In the second movement, the second subject has a hint of a dance, so that it is never lugubrious even though it is slow. The return of the A section here is grand. The funeral march has a ghostly character on the Pleyel. Stern plays its second subject almost
. The final chord of the last movement, in Stern’s words, “strikes like an unavoidable fate.” This is a superb statement of the sonata, not just because of the instrument used.
Stern’s waltzes are very interesting. She is strongly attuned to their harmony. The waltzes have a highly songful quality on the Pleyel. In No. 5, one can see the point of Schumann’s remark about the waltzes having to be danced by “countesses,” so noble is the feeling. Stern describes No. 12 as “melancholic and poetic,” precisely the sentiments she evokes. No. 7 is full of ambiguity. In the op. 45 Prelude, Stern stresses the improvisatory quality of the music. As in her quote of Gide on Chopin, “the landscape reveals itself only gradually.” Stern calls the Third Ballade “a story of love and betrayal.” Appropriately, here her playing has a steamy, hothouse quality. Stern chooses the op. 28/20 Prelude to end the program because it is a chorale that demonstrates Chopin’s ties to Bach. It has a monumental quality that throws the rest of the program into high relief.
I am very taken with this album. I listened to the sonata five times before writing this review. The first time I heard the CD, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. The sound of the piano was so unusual. But with repeated listening, Edna Stern’s interpretations really have grown on me. I think that anyone curious to hear Chopin played on a period instrument would be richly rewarded by this CD. I don’t believe that performances on a modern concert grand, no matter how accomplished, would be a substitute for what Edna Stern succeeds at doing. Her CD is one of the high points of the Chopin year.
FANFARE: Dave Saemann
Works on This Recording
3 Nouvelles etudes, Op. posth.: Etude No. 1 in F minor: Andantino
3 Nouvelles etudes, Op. posth.: Etude No. 2 in A flat major: Allegretto
3 Nouvelles etudes, Op. posth.: Etude No. 3 in D flat major: Allegretto
Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op. 38
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35, "Funeral March": I. Grave - Doppio movimento
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35, "Funeral March": II. Scherzo
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35, "Funeral March": III. Marche funebre: Lento
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35, "Funeral March": IV. Finale: Presto
Waltz No. 5 in A flat major, Op. 42
Prelude No. 25 in C sharp minor, Op. 45
Waltz No. 12 in F minor, Op. 70, No. 2
Ballade No. 3 in A flat major, Op. 47
Waltz No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2
24 Preludes, Op. 28: Prelude No. 20 in C minor, Op. 28, No. 20
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