The 50 greatest Chopin recordings – part 5

Gramophone Mon 10th October 2016

Concluding our survey of the greatest Chopin recordings, from Grosvenor in the Scherzos to Kevin Kenner's 'Chopin Resonances'

Verdi's Macbeth

All of the reviews printed below were originally published in Gramophone, the world's leading classical music magazine. To find out more about subscribing, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

Four Scherzos. Nocturnes Nos 5, 19, 20

Benjamin Grosvenor pf

(Decca)

Benjamin Grosvenor is not only the first British pianist to be signed by Decca since the days of Clifford Curzon, Peter Katin and Moura Lympany, but also the youngest British artist ever to be signed to the label. Just as significantly, this acknowledgement has not come on the back of a major competition. Frankly, Grosvenor is too interesting and too individual to win any of them. His discs of minor Chopin (EMI, 3/10), his highly praised unofficial debut (“This and That”, 4/10), live recordings circulated privately over the past few years and this new one are evidence of an awesome talent, a pianist with fantastic natural reflexes in the Cziffra class and, more excitingly, a musician with purpose and imagination, whose playing transcends the sterile confines of the studio.

Having said that, I think he misjudges the first of the Four Scherzos (he orders them 1, 4, 3 and 2). It clocks in at 8’08”, compared with Rubinstein’s fast 8’20” (his 1932 recording), a tempo that reduces the first subject to the verge of incoherence. After this undeniably exciting reading, Grosvenor inserts a single Nocturne as a counterweight between each Scherzo. Good programming. (Louis Lortie did this on his recent excellent Chopin recital for Chandos; his B minor Scherzo, incidentally, lasts 9’26”.) I have never heard the filigree runs in the Nocturnes and two Chants polonais delivered with such innate improvisatory nonchalance, or a second part of the B flat minor Scherzo that can match Grosvenor’s delicious insouciance. This is music-making with a smile on its face.

Crowning it all is a masterly Gaspard in which an astonishing array of touch and tonal colouring are brought to bear in Grosvenor’s vivid, distinctly defined characterisation of all three movements. In brief, I am delighted that this prodigiously gifted young musician is on his way, on the right label and launched at last on what will surely be an important international career.

 

Complete Waltzes

Ingrid Fliter pf

(EMI/Warner Classics)

Presenting them in their published order, followed by the 11 posthumous waltzes with and without opus numbers, Ingrid Fliter sets a new benchmark for the complete Waltzes. From beginning to end, this is among the finest Chopin recordings of recent years.

Why? Each waltz emerges as if a great actress were reading a short story, each with its own colour and character. Fliter’s ‘timing’ (meaning her phrasing and rubato) is judged to perfection; her tempi are near ideal; she never loses sight of Chopin the poet or reinvents him as a red-blooded virtuoso. In addition, the superbly voiced piano is realistically recorded, neither too distant in that impersonal back-of-an-empty-hall way nor so close that the instrument is not allowed to sing.

Dip into any section of any Waltz at random and you will hear a version to supersede, or at least rival, your current personal favourite. Fliter stays faithful to the spirit of the composer without denying her own keyboard personality.

 

Complete Waltzes

Stephen Hough pf

Hyperion

Not all major pianists play Chopin but many who do have expressed a good deal of themselves through the Waltzes. They reveal a lot about a player and are merciless, it has been said, in showing up the limitations of an interpreter’s personality, and not just in the rhythm department. Brilliance and allure are required, of course, and so are reflective, interior qualities. The many repeated sections in the Waltzes can derail even cultivated pianists, who may keep your attention for a while but who then become predictable. Once predictability sets in, you tend to feel there is no hope.

Chopin would have had a fit at the thought of us listening to his eight published Waltzes together on the trot, or the unpublished ones which follow them here. Once engaged with Stephen Hough, though, you will stick with him, I feel sure, and with increasing pleasure: less is not more but not enough, and a cumulative quality begins to build that one is reluctant to break. My admiration for him as an artist increases, too, as one senses how responsive he is to Chopin’s variety, in a corpus of music not generally recognised as being so various. The demand for a special kind of virtuosity, directed towards the natural exuberance of the dance, he meets here to perfection, and he meets another challenge which the merely accomplished virtuoso may not even be aware of: to use sound to command precise musical character.

In making sequences of my own through the tracks, I’ve been delighted by the rediscoveries I’ve made, and also by new pleasures found among the slighter, less complex waltzes that Chopin allowed to circulate but did not publish. The nine securely authenticated pieces immediately follow the published ones here, a further three of more doubtful provenance being added after that. As compositions, the nine may not be as sophisticated as the concert waltzes, but are no less characteristic of him, and Hough shows they repay treatment as detailed and thoughtful as the rest require. In many other versions they do not get it, however, the moderately paced pieces being played too slowly and infected with a generalised wistfulness or, worse still, languor. Another of Hough’s strengths is to be found in the shape and direction he gives all the Waltzes, and in the freshness of his tone of voice. He can charm and beguile, and be bold in his contrasts, but he gets on with it, and it is the music he gives us, with true sentiments, and not merely a take on received ideas.

And what a lovely sound he makes – on a Yamaha, excellently recorded in a concert-hall acoustic. In textural terms he is up to the minute with current thinking, accepting that the interpreter should make choices among the variants existing for some of these pieces, in the same spirit as Chopin created them. More freshness, again. The recital is rounded off with the most waltz-like of the Nocturnes, the E flat major, Op 9 No 2 – a nice touch.

 

Complete Waltzes

Alice Sara Ott pf

DG 477 8095GH (57’ · DDD) 

Only just out of her teens, Alice Sara Ott – half-German and half-Japanese – gives us a performance of the Waltzes as touching, piquant and scintillating as on any modern recording. She leaves you to marvel at her instinct for Chopin’s poetic ambiguity, his alternating melancholy and exuberance, his ultra-Slavonic hope and despair, her playing backed by the sheen of an immaculate technique and pianism. You will go a long way to hear the A minor Waltz confided with a greater sense of its intimacy or the following F major Waltz given with such contrasting brio and expressive freedom. Her D flat Waltz, Op 64, is sufficiently stylish and elegant to make nonsense of its sobriquet, ‘Minute’ Waltz, and she catches the B minor Waltz’s gentle but querulous mood to perfection. Playing from autograph manuscripts, she relishes the more florid harmony and ornamentation of, for example, Nos 8, 9 and 10, and includes all the posthumous Waltzes, ending with the Allegretto in A minor and making it a haunting and touching valediction. (DG’s sound is ideal and their presentation could hardly be more lavish.)

 

Waltzes Nos 1-14. Mazurka No 32. Barcarolle, Op 60. Nocturne in D flat

Dinu Lipatti pf

(Warner Classics)

Recorded 1947-50 

As a former pupil of Cortot, it wasn’t perhaps surprising that Lipatti always kept a special place in his heart for Chopin. And thanks primarily to the 14 Waltzes, played in a non-chronological sequence of his own choosing, it’s doubtful if the disc will ever find itself long absent from the catalogue. Like the solitary Mazurka, they were recorded in Geneva during his remarkable renewal of strength in the summer of 1950. The Nocturne and Barcarolle date back to visits to EMI’s Abbey Road studio in 1947 and 1948 respectively. Just once or twice in the Waltzes you might feel tempted to question his sharp tempo changes for mood contrast within one and the same piece – as for instance in No 9 in A flat, Op 69 No 1. However, for the most part his mercurial lightness, fleetness and charm are pure delight. His Nocturnein D flat has long been hailed as one of the finest versions currently available. And even though we know he himself (one of the greatest perfectionists) was not completely happy about the Barcarolle, for the rest of us this glowing performance has a strength of direction and shapeliness all its own. In fuller contexts there’s just a trace of plumminess in the recorded sound.

 

Waltzes Nos 1-14

Arthur Rubinstein pf

(RCA Red Seal) 
Recorded 1960s 

There has in recent years been a tendency to take Rubinstein’s imposing series of Chopin recordings from the mid-1960s for granted, but to hear them digitally refurbished soon puts a stop to that. His tone doesn’t have much luxuriance, being quite chiselled; yet a finely tuned sensibility is evident throughout. This is at once demonstrated by his direct interpretation of Op 18, its elegance explicit. His reading of Op 34 No 1 is brillante, as per Chopin’s title. In Op 34 No 2 Rubinstein judges everything faultlessly, distilling the sorrowful yet cannily varied grace of this piece. The two finest here are Opp 42 and 64 No 2, and with the former Rubinstein excels in the unification of its diverse elements, its rises and falls of intensity, its hurryings forward and holdings back. This is also true of his reading of Op 64 No 2, the yearning of whose brief più lento section is memorable indeed. The sole fault of this issue is that conventional programming leads to the mature Waltzes, which were published by Chopin himself, coming first, the lesser, posthumously printed items last. Not all of these are early but they have less substance than Opp 18-64, and should come first.

 

Waltzes Nos 1-14. Impromptus – Nos 1-3. Fantaisie-impromptu

Arthur Rubinstein pf

(Naxos)

Recorded 1953-57

This invaluable issue of recordings dating from the 1950s does yet more to Rubinstein’s status as the greatest of all Chopin pianists. Outwardly sober-suited and without the occasional wildnesses or mischievous emendations of the score that so delighted his capacity audiences, his relative reserve thinly disguises a heart of gold. Try Waltzes Nos 3, 7 and 13, where Rubinstein emphasises a melancholy and introspection far removed from the ballroom glitter of the more extrovert numbers, and you will realise that no other pianist has captured more subtly Chopin’s unique blend of classical bias and romantic freedom. Here in particular you note an elegance and insinuation devoid of all sentimentality, neurosis or self-serving idiosyncrasy.

Such quality is even more pronounced in the Impromptus, where Rubinstein’s musical breathing plays across the music’s surface like some gentle but enticing balm. His way with the bardic Second Impromptu is a poetic ultimate; here the Chopin of our dreams becomes a reality. There is not a single contemporary pianist who comes within distance of such playing. The Hollywood-based recordings are tight and dry.

 

‘Journal intime’

Alexandre Tharaud pf

(Erato) 

Here, in memorably refined and stylish performances, Tharaud is wonderfully enterprising, mixing the familiar and unfamiliar, the large-scale (despite his disc’s title, ‘Journal intime’) and the miniature. Everything is arrestingly personal yet never exaggerated or inflated, and his way with five Mazurkas, in particular, is very much at the heart of their confessional nature.

One misses the Berceuse, surely the most magical of all Chopin’s intimate creations, but relishes the variety achieved by including such grand works as the Fantasie and the First and Second Ballades. Here, as so often with Tharaud, there is an aristocratic balance of sense and sensibility, though his brilliant fury in the Second Ballade’s Presto storm is breathtaking, the left-hand octaves hurtling towards their apex like guided missiles.

Finally, in the evergreen E flat Nocturne, Op 9 No 2, Tharaud may be less enchanting than, say, Cherkassky but it is also a salutary reminder that Chopin was the most classically biased of the great keyboard composers. Finely recorded, this is an original and exemplary addition to Chopin’s bicentenary year.

 

‘Late Masterpieces’

Stephen Hough pf

(Hyperion) 

A new Hough disc is one of life’s pleasures. You know the programme will have been carefully considered and nurtured, every aspect of the performance and recording attended to in the finest detail, matched by Hyperion’s exacting standards of presentation. Hough’s Chopin can be a little emotionally chilly in a studio-perfect environment but here, for the most part, he transcends the lonely confines of St George’s (Bristol) to offer a masterclass in pianistic command and stylistic poise with the most heartfelt playing of any of his recent recordings. There are few who can elucidate the question-and-answer phrasing of Chopin’s music with Hough’s transparency and unaffected simplicity. Just listen to the opening Barcarolle, the selection of four Mazurkas, two Nocturnes and the closing Berceuse. At the centre of the recital is a masterly performance of the enigmatic Polonaise-fantaisie. In Hough’s hands, this discursive, experimental piece of great depth and beauty becomes an operatic aria. It seems to cry out for lyrics and a soprano.

After the first movement of the B minor Sonata (without the exposition repeat), Hough takes the Scherzo at a conservative molto vivace, while the finale, after one of those long-spun cantilena movements that Hough does so well, is an acutely executed studio recording. The disc’s striking cover has the Bowler-hatted Hough gazing at a Rothko abstract. The connection between Bowler, Rothko and Chopin is the subject of a thought-provoking essay by the pianist.

 

‘Chopin Resonances’

Kevin Kenner pf

(Dux)

This is Chopin presented with a difference. For here Kevin Kenner follows a reeling path, moving effortlessly from Chopin through related composers (Scriabin, Szymanowski et al) to Bill Evans and George Crumb. To crown everything, all the performances are of unwavering mastery and musicianship, with towering but never forced strength and a rubato and nuance both personal and telling. He is exceptionally glittering and stylish in Chopin’s Fantasie-impromptu (later making a ghostly reappearance in Crumb’s Dream Images) and offers a tantalising glimpse of Balakirev’s extensive but little-recorded repertoire in his Second Nocturne, music enriched with the composer’s elegant and conversational brilliance.

One mystery remains. Kenner’s own fine essay makes no mention of a lavish arrangement of Chopin’s Mazurka, Op 7 No 2. This is sufficiently piquant and startling to raise eyebrows. Everything is beautifully recorded on a light-toned instrument quite without alien heaviness or texture. This is a record to fascinate even the most blasé listener and one can scarcely wait to hear this superb and enterprising artist in further recordings.

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