Post by dk Post by Herman
As noted before, the Chopin PCs are best listened to 'by accident', in a
concert program. Listening obsessively (I use the word advisedly) and
checking out tiny details, weighing pros and cons does not bring
I do not particularly like either Chopin concerto, though I prefer the
second to the first. I do not listen to them often, and I do not listen
I try to recalibrate my impressions of key piano works every few
years, and I use the analysis method I described for its efficiency.
For those interested, this is the ARG's overview of the concertos from 2011. Very subjective, of course.
It seems odd that, ever since he wrote them, the Chopin concertos have been criticized for their orchestration. Given the nature of his music, it seems perfect. We do not recommend the Balakirev or Tausig orchestrations (rarely recorded).
Piotr Paleczny recorded these with the Warsaw Philharmonic under Kasimierz Kord, one of the best conductors around. The result is a very Polish Chopin, beautifully played and in wonderful sound.
Emanuel Ax recorded them in Philadelphia with Ormandy, and that in itself recommends them--great orchestral contributions. Ax is not obtrusive; he offers a perfectly normal and adequate interpretation of each. Somehow the combination and the engineering make it a great recording, even if the pianist himself seems rather subdued. The Zimerman is wonderful--very thoughtful (some may think him mannered); Giulini (his conductor) is a poet, and you either like what he does or wish he would just get on with it.
Among recordings of both concertos, three recent ones stand out. Vasily Primakov is very poetic, lyrical, and sensitive--a present-day Gilels. Rafal Blechacz and Janne Mertanen both have beautiful tone and gorgeous phrasing and are almost as sensitive and poetic as Primakov. All three convey the emotional content of the music very well. Mertanen has the most bell-like piano sound; Blechacz sounds more "normal" in the big Concertgebouw. His recording is enhanced by the sounds of that big and wonderful orchestra, too. But Mertanen's Finnish orchestra does not let him down. Mertanen is faster than Blechacz, but neither takes extreme tempos. It amazes us that there are now so many good recordings of these concertos. There were very few when we did the first Chopin Overview in 1992.
Primakov Bridge 9278
Blechacz DG 477 8088
Mertanen Alba 247
Ax RCA 5317
Paleczny Canyon 3650
Zimerman DG 415970
Perahia is a poet, Mehta is not; and their recording sounds great.
Kissin on Melodiya: he was 12 and very impressive.
Fialkowska: robust, still elegant, not too sentimental.
Argerich on DG: exciting, but as usual missing the serenity.
Demidenko is fluent and polished, but lacks temperament.
Ohlsson is Lisztian--fiery, colorful, overwrought.
Francois is simply eccentric.
Abbey Simon: beautiful spontaneity; orchestra barely adequate
Jan Simon: wonderful pianist, over-eager conductor, weak strings
Emanuel Ax redid both with a period-instruments group that our critic called rather reedy--it's not an attractive sound--but the antique piano (an Erard, which Chopin never played) brings some transparency to textures.
Argerich EMI: dull sound.
Barenboim: more Barenboim than Chopin; nothing sustained or dwelled in
Lang Lang: artificial, loud, percussive, no flow, miserable orchestra
Berezovsky: somewhat plain and not moving
Sa Chen: perfectly adequate, boring phrasing & orchestra
Bachauer: big, but unsmiling; no tenderness or panache
Hobson: terrible sound; piano & orchestra seem out of it
Eugen Indjic: dull playing
Nebolsin: shallow, timid, and dim
Pires: bass & sound weak
Rubinstein early stereo: mechanical, sound weak, orchestra scrawny
Rubinstein later: he's still mechanical; orch & sound improved
Rodgriguez: orchestra coarse
Youn: nothing special
Weissenberg: relentless--no poetry or warmth
This is one of your Editor's favorite pieces, and he is very fussy about it. Most conductors don't put much into it, and that lets the pianists down. But the orchestra has so very many wonderful things to say that just staying out of the way is no way to conduct it. There can be so much expression in the woodwind solos, for example.
This is also a concerto that piano pounders cannot put across. It is simply too delicate and poetic.
Any recording with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra will thrill you with gorgeous strings and great wind solos. Among others, there were Brailowsky, Ax, and Cliburn--all wonderful--but the greatest by far is the Gilels, where every phrase seems utterly perfect. Gilels makes Rubinstein seem grossly insensitive, and his tone is just as beautiful. If you have Gilels/Ormandy, that's all you need. Gilels is pretty steady, and if you prefer romantic lingering you might try the Cliburn. His extra expressiveness distorts the music a little, but some find it worthwhile.
Yundi Li has all that's needed in poetry and sensitivity. He is the new Gilels but has better sound. (There was nothing wrong with the sound of the Gilels, but recording has improved a bit in 50 years.) Andrew Davis is a much more sensitive conductor here than past experience led us to expect, and the English orchestra is fine and has great wind soloists.
Gilels Sony 89836
Li DG 8236
Cliburn RCA 7945
Tsujii on Harmonia Mundi: inspired.
The Pollini, recorded when he was 16, is a classic; but many of us do not find it beautiful or appealing. One of us--usually a Pollini fan-called it streamlined and efficient with no charm whatsoever. The slow movement is missing its magic.
Earl Wild recorded this with Sir Malcolm Sargent, whose conducting is cold and aggressive, except in II, where the orchestra is subdued and the beauty of Wild's playing comes to the fore (Chesky).
Rosina Lhevinne does a sensitive job and sounds youthful and joyful, but there are better orchestral accompaniments.
Ashkenazy seems bored with it.
Kern: glassy & aggressive
Shebanova: brittle & ordinary
Vlaieva: low octane
Olli Mustonen has hard tone and jerks the rhythm about.
Apart from the sets of both concertos we can only name two of No. 2 alone. Cherkassky with Kempe has perfect poetry and exquisite playing. Idil Biret plays this beautifully on Naxos, but the main reason to own that disc is the fill: the Krakowiak and the La Ci Darem Variations--the brightest, wittiest performance of the latter and the most Polish-sounding one of the former (great rhythms).
Cherkassky Profil 4015
Biret Naxos 550369
LaForet: free, fluid, and wonderfully elegant-Cortot-like
Malcuzynski: relaxed, lyrical, well-shaped phrases
Previn's dull accompaniment tends to spoil
Pires's recording, in spite of the simple purity of her playing.
Vasary: remarkable grace and clarity, but weak orchestra & sound
Blumental: weak in every respect
Vlaeva: low-octane readings, sometimes sluggish