Chopin’s 200th birthday year: but what to hear, and where?


It’s Chopin’s 200th birthday year, and no self-respecting pianist would think of not participating. How, where and when, though? That’s where my pianist/educator friend Lisa Yui steps in with her valuable The Lives of the Piano concerts at the Manhattan School of Music. Lisa has a knack for deciding which pieces go where, and who should play them, while introducing the music elegantly and succinctly. So if you’re around Sunday February 21st, stop in between 2PM and 6PM at the Manhattan School’s Greenfield Hall. Admission is free, and some wonderful music making is in store. Lisa herself kicks things off with the Third Ballade, followed by the noted pianist/writer/scholar Joseph Smith, who’ll play John Field’s Fourth Nocturne alongside Chopin’s Op 9 No 2 Nocturne (the latter with authentic ornaments). Mijung Lee will offer another fascinating juxtaposition: the A-flat Op 25 No 1 “Aeolian Harp” Etude paired with no less than two Leopold Godowsky arrangements of the same work. Later on in the programme, large forms dominate, starring the F Minor Fantasy plus the Second and Third Sonatas. Knowing Mirian Conti’s authority and panache in Latin American repertoire, I wouldn’t be surprised if her Mazurka segment swing like mad, or if the virile poetry of Frank Levy’s Brahms and Schubert recordings for the Palexa label will inform his Chopin Fantasie-Impromptu and D-flat Nocturne Op 27 No 2. California readers can hear Levy a week later at his Stanford University recital debut in music by Schubert and Liszt. The other day, someone asked me what my favourite Chopin recordings were, and I said, “how much time do you have for me to answer that question?” The truth is that there are way too many to keep track of. I like to load Chopin performances into Itunes, press random play, and be surprised by performances I hadn’t thought about in years (I try not to identify the pianist until after I listen). Yes, Ignaz Freidman’s Mazurkas are iconic, but who talks about Emanuel Ax’s like-minded audacity and timing, albeit without amplifying the text? Or the dash and wit of Idil Biret’s Tarantella? Who played that particularly ravishing, tonally silken Berceuse, helped by gorgeous sonics? None other than Wilhelm Kempff, for German Radio in 1945. Who knew? Or that svelte, seductive A-flat Impromptu with subtle changes in voicing? Would you believe Peter Serkin for RCA Victor? Much as I’ve always loved Horowitz’s galvanizing Introduction and Rondo in E-flat Op 16, another performance boasted different, equally convincing details, just as much virtuosic flair, and riveted my attention from the first note to the last. The pianist? Vladimir Ashkenazy, from his complete Chopin cycle, newly reissued by Decca. Moral of story: collections are for listening!

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