The 10 greatest Chopin pianists
Saturday, May 8, 2021
Stephen Plaistow recalls the illustrious recorded history of Chopin's oeuvre and offers a personal view of some of the most famous pianists
In the years since Chopin died perceptions of him have, of course, changed, as they do of all great composers, but here is a singular fact: his popularity has never waned. In lands where people come together to listen to pianists, there has been little of his mature work that has not been constantly before the public. In the 90 years since electrical recording began there has also been little that has not been available on disc. It has been said of him that no other body of work by a great composer has been subjected to such relentless performance.
Perceptions do indeed change. Carl Tausig, the outstanding pupil of Liszt who was probably the first pianist to give all-Chopin recitals, could conceive of the Barcarolle only as a duet for two lovers in a gondola, with a kiss at bar 75. His revision of the E minor Piano Concerto includes re-orchestration and a wholesale rewriting of the solo part ('I am now more than ever convinced that Tausig's early death was the result of supernatural interposition for the extermination of a sacrilegious meddler' - George Bernard Shaw). Benno Moiseiwitsch played Chopin admirably but was accustomed to omit the first eight bars of the finale of the Sonata in B minor because he didn't like them. Horowitz hotted up the ending of the B minor Scherzo by recasting the rushing-upward scale in Lisztian 'blind' octaves (you can hear this on his recording). Several lesser Chopin 'specialists' whom I heard in London in the early 1960s seemed to be in a time warp.
By the beginning of that decade Arthur Rubinstein was well established as the elder statesman of Chopin playing. He had an unrivalled authority. When I began working for the BBC, recitals of Chopin were considered to be inappropriate material for the Third Programme but an exception might be made for him. He conveyed the paramount importance of revealing the music's structural logic and the results were thrilling. Above all, he put the dignity back into Chopin playing. In going back to my favourite Rubinstein records it is gratifying to find them as good as I first thought. At that stage of his career he was re-recording a good deal of Chopin for RCA but the version of the Sonata in B minor is the only one he made. Having begun it in 1959 he didn't complete it until two years later, so one presumes it must have engaged him in a special way. Without doubt it is one of his finest studio achievements. The movements are realized with vibrant strength, intensity and expressiveness, and considerable risks are taken in the first and last. Yet it's his brilliant conception and unfolding of each of the four – enabling detail to fall unhurriedly into place - that impresses most. There is edge, excitement and plenty of the Rubinstein temperament but no superfluous agitation, and in the opening Allegro maestoso, a movement which can often sound as if it's in two minds, the inevitability of events is a particular glory. In June 1962, when the LP appeared, I felt it made an irresistible case for readmitting Chopin to the canon as a sonata writer and crediting him with a renewal of its dramatic force. I predicted, too, that this would be a great recording of the century: I am happy to stand by that!
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Rubinstein made whatever he played his own, as artists must, but he was without mannerism in his phrasing. That was something that perhaps set him apart in his generation. When he played Chopin there was never any doubt of his seriousness and total engagement and his stance seemed just right. He was an aristocrat, and his beautifully vocal phrasing gave the impression of letting melody rise and fall under its own power. Although it is not easy to choose, I would nominate Rubinstein's recording of all the Mazurkas as his principal monument. In fact he recorded them twice. Some claim the earlier, pre-war version has a more improvisational charm, a wilder elan, a more profound melancholy and greater variety of expression, but that is a nice theological point. The later set, which appeared on three LPs in 1967, is the one I got to know and no one could deny that all of the 51 pieces, which are intricate in their variety of moods, come fully to life. Chopin responded strongly to the vital peasant music - national but with regional variants - which the mazurka represents, and they run through his career like a diary; if Rubinstein's serious approach lends the music more weight than usual, so be it. He points up their contrasts, one from another, and he makes an event of each piece. To listen to him in a sequence of (say) six or seven of the later ones is one of the acutest pleasures the discography of Chopin can provide.
Maurizio Pollini and Vladimir Ashkenazy
It is hard to believe that Rubinstein was nearing 80 when he completed the re-recording of the Mazurkas. His Indian summer continued with little diminishment of his powers and he was still inspirational to younger generations. By then, Maurizio Pollini and Vladimir Ashkenazy, 50 years his junior, had established their careers with Chopin, Ashkenazy with a Second Prize at the Warsaw International Chopin Competition in 1955 and Pollini (when he was 18) with the First Prize there in 1960. Pollini in that same year recorded the E minor Concerto (No 1) with the Philharmonia and Paul Kletzki. Their account has become a classic. It might seem strange to comment on the excellence of the orchestral playing and conducting - the Chopin concertos are not considered to need more than a lick and a promise from those departments - but the performance is more than a parade of fine piano playing and that is a strength. It is all of a piece, with the scale and articulation of the structure attended to and the long-range movement of harmony given motivation as well as the placing of detail. Serious stuff, yet with lots of room for the joyous, the ardent and the delectable - and with very good sound all round.
It was in 1960, again, that Vladimir Ashkenazy completed his first recording of the Etudes. As DJF commented, it is difficult to resist drawing parallels with the young Evgeni Kissin 30 years later: once-in-a-generation virtuosos, both of them, with a musical maturity that always makes their fingers say something. Ashkenazy went on to record an integrale of Chopin but he never surpassed these early Etudes. An essential aspect of Chopin's poetics of the piano lies in his exploration of the resources of the instrument and the potentialities of timbre to be exploited by a new keyboard technique. The Etudes (and the Preludes) exemplify this and Ashkenazy delights because his prowess serves Chopin's inspiration, which took off creatively from an understanding of technical problems.
By the summer of 1977 studio recordings by Sviatoslav Richter were rare events. The Four Scherzos were a joint production by Melodiya and RCA Victor Japan. The recording shows Richter at the height of his powers. I never heard him play Chopin better than here. The impression is of an artist passing through the studio and setting down a performance. A current of communicativeness and illumination shows through. He is on top form, taking risks other artists would rarely dare to in the studio, but the great joy derives from what I can only describe as a dialectic of tumult and order. There is none of the feverishness from which the Scherzos so often suffer but rather a refining fire, with virtuosity at the service of line, colour, character and continuity. The performances glow and blaze but what emerges is the great strength of these pieces, in which Chopin's balance of the ardent and the mercurial, the masculine and feminine, the fundamental and the ornamental, is perfectly understood and projected.
Richter does not, I stress, give you a guided tour of the intellectual beauties of the Scherzos, which could never be satisfying, yet in pieces which demand the most polished virtuosity to bring them alive the business of piano playing has rarely seemed less noticeable. He did indeed have a way of making most other players sound trite or clumsy. This recording shows the supreme musicality of his technique and a pretty good range of the colour and beauty of sonority one heard from him in the concert hall. I have a special affection for the Fourth Scherzo here, which is different from the others in its expansiveness and moods of quiet and often playful contentment.
Martha Argerich (and Mstislav Rostropovich)
In the music from the end of Chopin's life we sense a luminosity that seems to take the handful of great pieces on to a new plane. Horizons have changed, we emerge on to higher ground and the air is different. To judge from the small amount of work he sent out into the world in these last years, Chopin found composition more and more difficult but all of it strikes us as just that bit more special and more ambitious. I trust it will not seem perverse to represent Martha Argerich in my collection of ten pianists, not on her own, but as partner to Rostropovich in the Cello Sonata. What a combination of temperaments! Impulsive in spirit, generous in response to the emotional charge of this music, but they are precise and absolutely focused in their presentation of it. They make an inarguable case for Chopin as a master of order on a large scale as well as a small, and an inventor of new forms for new ideas all his days.
As a callow youth who didn't warm to Chopin particularly I was taken one Sunday afternoon to the Guildhall, Portsmouth to hear Alfred Cortot. It was 1952, he played the 24 Preludes and all the Eludes, and it blew my mind. I had never heard such sound from the piano and such vividness of musical character, nor anyone play so fast.
Coming to him after players of our day, his searing oratory, his passion, are startling indeed. The richness of gesture and of sound seem almost too much. All his Chopin has the air of transcending considerations of the instrument. 'The pianist's hand on the keyboard is like the violinist's bow on the strings,' he used to say. He was a many-sided artist but his most compelling effects always emanate from simplicity, which allowed his playing to sound free and uncontrived.
Today's players who continue to find inspiration in Cortot's example will tell you that it was not just his sound in general that was so remarkable, but the precision with which he used it to command character. The Etudes - both books, in his London recording of the 1930s - are essentials for my list; also the Preludes, from the same period, which are conveniently available on a single CD with the Berceuse, the Barcarolle and the lmpromptus.
Cortot said of his erstwhile pupil that he was 'perfection'. Characteristic of both of them was the way the tenderest lyricism never lost a virile quality, however quietly they played. From a short life, Lipatti's Chopin recordings have become classics, his studio recordings of the Barcarolle, the B minor Sonata and the 14 Waltzes (which he played in a nonchronological order of his own) in particular. The Waltzes are merciless in showing up the limitations of an interpreter's personality, and not just in the rhythm department. Not a few good players keep your attention for a while and then become predictable, or forget that virtuosity needs always to serve the exuberance of the dance. In this repertoire there can be few players who haven't felt inspired by Lipatti's example. 'No caprices, and a perfect tempo rubato! ' Toscanini said of him. He was a supremely gifted pianist of phenomenal insight and sensibility who was also a relentless perfectionist.
I include him not because, as an outstanding English pianist, he has been held in special veneration and affection, but because (like Lipatti) he had a flawless technique and was a tireless seeker. He was the least vain of players and instantly recognizable for his integrity and the great beauty of his sound. His A flat Waltz, Op 42, yields nothing to Lipatti's (or Cortot's) in its vivacity and allure, but I am wrong to call it 'his'- he is not 'making something of it', only concerned to serve it, and at the end you feel the music has liked Solomon, rather than the other way round. Testament has a CD of all his Chopin recordings which include the Fourth Ballade, the Fantasie in F minor and a Berceuse - five minutes of music shaped and generated only by texture and sonority, as someone nicely described it - which is about as good as it gets.
Murray Perahia and Maria João Pires
Today, when I listen to Perahia in the Ballades, or Pires in the Nocturnes and the Preludes, I find it impossible to agree that players of distinction are less individual in Chopin than their predecessors (though that may be more generally true), or that spontaneity has been sacrificed in order to satisfy the modern industry's insistence on a product of high technical finish (which again is sometimes true). Perahia in the Ballades is successful in unfolding them with a quite special improvisational rhetoric, every paragraph a stream of poetically charged events, and the vividness is as striking as his finesse.
I wonder if Chopin would have liked making CDs! I feel pretty sure he would have approved of Pires in the Nocturnes. Let me try to annotate her playing of one of the greatest ones, the C minor, Op 48 No 1 - perhaps the most imposing and dramatic of the entire series. It requires perfect control of sound, scale and timing and a range of expression which can encompass the lament at the start - rolling on and on and developing into a huge lyric paragraph, like something in Bach or a slow movement of Mozart - and the increasingly grand procession of statements which follows it (the C major middle section) . And more: after that the lament returns, changed by what has come in between, and in one of those endings characteristic of Chopin we sense a sort of apotheosis. What an inspiration this sombre masterpiece is, and how difficult for the pianist to hold a line and make everything belong and to convey, here at the close, a sense of strength in adversity.
Clear away the sentimentality and the pathos, as Pires does, and Chopin appears in simple dignity, as Thomas Carlyle saw him in London in 1848: a great artist and, in Carlyle's words, 'a noble and much suffering human being'. Perhaps he was an 'artist' in that word's most absolute sense more than any musician of his time. He was dedicated to the task of exploring the world he knew best, and as Debussy said: 'Chopin is the greatest of them all, for through the piano alone he discovered everything.'
He remains a touchstone for recognizing whether the performer is a poet or merely a pianist.
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