CHOPIN Piano Sonatas Nos 1-3
Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy is hardly a household name. On this showing, he deserves to be. He is a storyteller. If the narrative is not that compelling (ie the first two movements of the early C minor Sonata) it is hardly his fault. When we get to that strange 5/4 Larghetto, however, things change as we enter that unique and magical world that the Polish composer created. This and the relentless finale almost salvage the work. If you have never heard this comparative rarity before, you might as well hear it at its best, as here.
Schmitt-Leonardy’s opening phrasing and tempos in the first movement of the B flat minor Sonata struck me as nigh-on ideal – unforced, rhythmically buoyant, textually translucent and without the blurred focus and over-pedalled attack favoured by George Li (Warner Classics, 10/17). Schmitt-Leonardy prefers to take the exposition repeat da capo (the extensive and very good English-only booklet argues the case for this). He brings some lovely touches to this much-recorded masterpiece, such as the tapered final chord of the first movement (‘there is more to come!’), the full weight of the resonant bass he employs to powerful effect in both the Scherzo and outer sections of the ‘Marche funèbre’ and the most superb articulation which he brings to the ghostly octaves of the finale.
By now, all fences crossed with such grace and ease, one is left hoping that the B minor Sonata will maintain this consistently high level. It does. The second subject of the first movement, surely one of the most beautiful in the literature, is given matter-of-factly on its first appearance (D major) and then with added expressivity for its return in B major. Highly affecting. No exposition repeat (that would, presumably, have exceeded the disc’s generous playing time) and no matter. The firm, rounded singing tone Schmitt-Leonardy produces (and which is so well captured throughout in the two venues used) pays dividends in the Largo, with the exhilarating finale confirming that this recording is up there with the other best single-disc accounts of all three sonatas – and that includes Ashkenazy, Andsnes and Howard Shelley.