Notes and Editorial Reviews
Ballades: No. 1 in g; No. 2 in F; No. 3 in A?; No. 4 in f. Nocturnes: in c?,
Nelson Goerner (pn) (period instrument)
FRYDERYK CHOPIN INSTITUTE 3 (51:43)
This is one of the finest Chopin albums I have ever heard, not least for being on a period instrument. It is part of a series from a Polish concern dedicated
to recording all of Chopin’s music on original instruments. The piano is a Pleyel, built in Paris in 1848. It has 82 keys. The original works of the piano are virtually intact. It has a bell-like sonority, quite different from a modern concert grand. At times the music seems just to float above the instrument. Despite its early provenance, it has a wide dynamic range, with especially deep bass. Fortunately, it has been captured in some of the best sound engineering I’ve heard on a piano CD, recorded in a Polish radio studio.
An overused but appropriate word to describe this interpretation of the ballades is “poetic.” Some critics have suggested that Chopin was influenced by the ballads of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. I am less inclined to believe this than I am to feel that Chopin has transmuted the folk poetry and typical melancholy of the Romantic ballad into musical form. There is a narrative feel to these works that Goerner captures beautifully. His tempos are moderate, never drawing attention to themselves. Goerner has stated that the earliest influence on his playing was the recordings of Arthur Rubinstein, whose feeling for structure has imbued Goerner’s performances. Later, said Goerner, he was attracted to the “singing line” of Alfred Cortot. At their best, these renditions do sing.
I would like to pick out some of the felicities of these interpretations. In the First Ballade, the first two themes are introduced almost conversationally. There is splendid articulation in the more rapid passages. In the Second, the long line is built up very convincingly. For the Third Ballade, a hint of the feeling of a scherzo is maintained throughout. The Fourth Ballade is one of the summits of Romanticism, and Goerner is fully up to its challenges. The structure of the whole is beautifully laid out. Nothing is overplayed; nothing is rushed. The playing builds to a highly satisfactory conclusion. The first time I heard Goerner play this piece, my reaction was that it was insufficiently fiery. Further acquaintance taught me how effective this performance is.
Goerner has chosen to insert a nocturne after each of the first three ballades. This is a highly successful strategy. The pristine quality of the nocturnes whets the palate for the next balladic adventure. Stephen Hough tried something similar on his recording, alternating the ballades with the scherzos. While the effect of that was interesting, Goerner’s programming decision seems more effective to me. Goerner is not afraid of interpreting the nocturnes at virtually a whisper. The most famous of the three nocturnes, op. 27/2, receives a richly Romantic rendition.
There are, of course, many other fine accounts of the ballades. On CD, I would recommend Arthur Rubinstein, Garrick Ohlsson, Cécile Ousset, Stephen Hough, Bella Davidovich, Evgeny Kissin, and Vlado Perlemuter. Of these, Kissin’s is the most virtuosic, while Perlemuter’s is probably the most revealing. For those collectors who, like myself, find the rich sonority of the piano on LP highly attractive, there are excellently played and recorded LPs by Abbey Simon and Philippe Entremont. The latter received a most disappointing transfer to CD on Sony Essential Classics. An earlier LP that is less ingratiating as sound but which contains a devastatingly played performance is by Gary Graffman. Sony could do every piano lover a great service by reissuing all of Graffman’s RCA recordings and his Columbia solo albums.
That said, I have a hard time thinking of any CD of the ballades I would prefer listening to than Goerner’s. For both the period instrument and the interpretations, it is highly rewarding. The only down sides are the short playing time and turgid program notes, which harp incessantly on something called “balladicity.” Otherwise, urgently recommended.
FANFARE: Dave Saemann
Works on This Recording
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