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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Twelve Etudes op. 10 (1835)
Twelve Etudes op. 25 (1840)
Murray Perahia (pianoforte)
Rec: Lyndhurst Hall, Air Studios, London, 28th June-4th July 2001
SONY CLASSICAL SK 61885 [55’54"]


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Two of the greatest 20th Century exponents of Chopin, Horowitz and Rubinstein, apparently hesitated over recording these studies complete; the first pianist to do so, unlikely as it may seem, was Wilhelm Backhaus. The earliest complete recording which has remained with us ever since was that of Alfred Cortot. Though sometimes derided as both an approximate technician and an empirical interpreter, Cortot did understand that what will transform these pieces from mere exercises to pure poetry is a delight in the ravishing sound they make.

No one would have doubted that Perahia has all the necessary technique to play these pieces; nor has he ever been a pianist who has made digital dexterity his visiting card. As an interpreter of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and often of Chopin he has always put musical values first. Unfortunately on this occasion he has not always transcended the purely mechanical aspects of the music. The first two studies emerge somewhat dryly and the dynamics are not always those written in the score. In the last five bars of no. 2, for example, Chopin has written (unless it can be shown that the Polish edition is wrong) a crescendo to forte then a diminuendo. Perahia substitutes this with a long diminuendo to end piano.

In no. 3 one appreciates that he does not drool over the music, but he seems bumpy and uncaring. No 5 lacks the written forte/piano contrasts and in general those studies which depend on light-fingered sparkle for their particular magic – 5, 7 and 8, of which the latter is decidedly brusque – are disappointing. A hint of the missing magic appears on the last page of no. 10 but no. 11 is rather noisy and driven and the so-called "revolutionary" is well-managed rather than thrilling. The final pedal change of no. 6 is badly managed and might have been re-made.

For whatever reason, op. 25 is more successful. In the first Perahia’s careful placing of the inner voices is to be appreciated and the second finds at last that pleasure in the light sonorities which eluded him earlier. Unfortunately it eludes him again in no. 3 which emerges as a hard-driven galop but he makes the dialogue between the voices speak effectively in no. 7. From here to the end I have only praise; 8 and 9 have the light touch so often lacking elsewhere and the last three are suitably powerful, but with some nice lyrical playing in the middle section of the "octave" study as well.

I am sorry not to have found more to admire here since Perahia’s high reputation is thoroughly deserved. He has made many discs which will, I believe, preserve his name for future generations; one such may be that of the Bach Goldberg Variations which I recently discussed in a comparative review. The present CD will not, I venture to suggest, be remembered among his greatest successes.

Christopher Howell


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