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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



A QUINTET OF CHOPIN PRELUDES
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)

24 Preludes, op. 28

Craig Sheppard (pianoforte)
with CHOPIN
Prelude in c sharp, op. 45
Alexander SCRIABIN

24 Preludes, op. 11
Recorded live in the Meany Theatre, University of Washington, Seattle
4th October 1994 (Chopin), 1st May 1995 (Scriabin)
AT 00-00549 [74’00"]

For information and sales contact:-
Annette Tangermann,
Friedenstrasse 16
D-14109 Berlin
at-label@gmx.de

Nina Milkina (pianoforte)
with CHOPIN
Nocturne in c sharp, op. posth.
Recorded at the Bishopsgate Institute, London, 1977
UNTERSCHRIFT CLASSICS (no number) [44’46"]

For information and sales contact:-
Alex Sedgwick,
Marketing and the Arts,
29 Belsize Avenue,
London NW3 4BL
alex@sedgwickphoto.com

Artur Rubinstein (pianoforte)
with CHOPIN
Sonata no. 2 op. 35, Berceuse op. 57, Barcarolle op. 60
Recorded 10th, 11th, 20th June 1946 (Preludes), 11th, 18th, 29th March 1946 (Sonata), 20th June 1946 (Berceuse), 28th August 1946 (Barcarolle), location not given
BMG CLASSICS – RCA VICTOR GOLD SEAL GD60047 [70’26"]
Alfred Cortot (pianoforte)
Recording first published 1934
Maurizio Pollini (pianoforte)
DG Recording first published 1975

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1. INTRODUCTORY

Like the companion article "A Quintet of Goldbergs", this derived from the submission for review of the recording by Craig Sheppard. It also gave me the occasion to review the recording by Nina Milkina, something I had been fully intending to do ever since I reviewed her set of the Mazurkas about a year ago. In choosing three further comparative versions I mean no disparagement of the innumerable other recordings, many of the highest calibre, which have been made over the years. My object has been to present a study of certain aspects of performing the Chopin Preludes, using the five chosen versions as illustrations. My choice fell upon two of the most famous "historical" versions, by Cortot and Rubinstein (my choice of his 1946 version was purely casual), and a late 20th Century interpretation which has acquired classic status in some quarters, that by Maurizio Pollini.

The Sheppard is live and unedited and is part of the series of Sheppard releases available from Annette Tangermann, at the address given above.

Like the Milkina Mazurkas, her Preludes were recorded for Pye and the rights are now owned by EMI who have so far shown no interest in them. Unlike the Mazurkas, however, the Preludes were not issued at the time. The sessions were rather fraught since they were mostly taken up in waiting for the piano tuner to come and repair some technical deficiencies of the instrument. Milkina did finally get to play the pieces but was thoroughly upset by that time and did not pass the results for issue. And so the tapes languished until many years later when Milkina, having by then retired from public performance for health reasons, listened to them again and conceded that they were "not bad". EMI made the tapes available to her family and so this private issue, available from Alex Sedgwick at the above address, was issued in time for her 80th birthday in 1999.

I have not given numbers for the Cortot and Pollini versions since I worked from old LP pressings. However, the reader who wishes to follow this up is assured that the Pollini has rarely if ever been out of the catalogue since it was issued and any dealer will happily advise. The Cortot recordings have long been out of copyright and have been issued by practically all smaller labels specialising in historical material, as well as by EMI themselves. Note that this 1934 version is not Cortot’s only one. Since he changed his interpretations with a certain liberty my comments may not much a lot of sense to you if you have one of the others. Again, a dealer will advise as to what is available at present. Also for the Rubinstein you should seek information since his recordings are being continually recycled, but most of them remain available in some form.

In my article on the "Goldbergs" I found space for comment on each single variation. It rapidly became obvious that to discuss properly each of the Chopin Preludes would result in a book rather than an article, so I have extended the "quintet" principle further and chosen five contrasting preludes: 1, 10, 13, 18 and 23.

 

2. A QUINTET OF COMPARISONS

1. C major

Timed variously between 0’ 38" (Pollini) and 0’ 48" (Milkina) you might think this tiny piece would be over and done with before there was much time to think about how to interpret it. And you’d be about as far from the truth as it is possible to be.

As with the op. 10 Studies, Chopin starts off with what is ostensibly an arpeggio-based flourish. The C major study is a famous stumbling block and most who attempt it for the first time find they just can’t get through without getting seizures in their right wrist and having to abandon it somewhere on the second page. And for many, things don’t get any better the second time, or the third, or indeed ever. And yet the problems Chopin set up are nowhere as complex as those of the C major prelude.

If you can master the notes of the first study, then nothing really stands in the way of your giving a reasonably effective performance of it. Most middle-to-higher grade students, on the other hand, can manage the notes of the first prelude, but that somehow brings them little satisfaction. Often, out of desperation, they kick the traces and play it fast and loudly, with lots of pedal, hoping to cover their doubts in a sea of sound. If they are potentially sensitive artists they realise this is getting them nowhere and start to look at the score again.

Where is the melody, for a start? Probably, it is thumbed out in the right hand in the middle of the texture; Sheppard, Milkina, Cortot and Pollini agree in finding it there, at least most of the time. But the upper line in the right hand also follows the melody line, joining it two semi-quavers later in each bar, then finishing the bar together. For Rubinstein, the melody is here and the first three triplets of the bar are a sort of upbeat to it. He even indulges in some quite extreme rubatos to make sure we hear it that way. The trouble is, if Chopin had wished us to hear the piece as Rubinstein plays it, logically he would have barred it the other way round, beginning on the upbeat.

If we side with the majority and find the melody in the thumb-notes, the next problem is that it’s syncopated. The lowest note of the left-hand always falls on the first beat of the bar. At the beginning and for most of the time thenceforth the melody note follows on the second semiquaver. In Cortot’s recording the first bass-note of the prelude doesn’t appear to be present at all, but since the ensuing performance is among the best-managed from this point of view I presume that elderly recording conditions are to blame. Other pianists begin by placing the first bass-note ruminatively, but in the ensuing maelstrom they often lose sight of it, as happens with Sheppard. Milkina manages better, but the pianist who keeps the bass note tolling at the beginning of every bar, making us feel that each bar derives from it, is Pollini.

Sometimes, however, the melody note is not syncopated, it sounds on the first beat of the bar together with the bass note. If the pianist makes no rhythmic pointing at all, the listener will hardly notice these changes. A striking effect is obtained by Rubinstein. If we accept his way of turning most of the bars on their head, then the non-syncopated bars, in which the rhythm returns the right way round, do register most strongly.

And then there are the dynamics and the tempo markings. The prelude is marked agitato, and the dynamic level is mezzoforte. All five pianists produce a plausible response. Then there is a crescendo which starts in bar 13, joined by a stretto (accelerando) from bar 17. Dotted lines indicate that both of these continue until bar 21. Then for three bars nothing is indicated, until the piano marking in bar 25. The literal interpretation of this would be that the tempo reached by the end of the stretto is maintained to the end, while the dynamic level suddenly drops to piano at bar 25. Though this would be realisable, none of these five pianists appear to believe that Chopin intended it. The general opinion seems to be that the three bars – 22-24 – in which Chopin wrote no indication are to be treated as a transition back to the piano in bar 25; that is to say, an unwritten diminuendo and rallentando are to be applied – a very big rallentando in Sheppard’s case, a very slight one with Pollini – over those three bars. And more; all of them, Pollini included, agree that the rallentando begins, not in bar 22, the first of the bars where nothing is written, but in bar 21 which is, according to Chopin’s own indication, the last bar of the stretto!

A further matter which seems to find them all in agreement is that Chopin didn’t really mean it when he wrote the piano. None find a dynamic level which is discernibly different from their initial mezzoforte; for Sheppard the piece starts again after his big rallentando, for the others the piano is simply a stage along the way of a gradual winding down which begins at bar 21 and lasts till the end of the piece.

Another question is, how much rallentando to make at the end? None is written yet it would surely be impractical to make none at all. Milkina and Pollini find time to let us savour the C major chord sounding on its own in the last bar but two before playing the final arpeggio – a very beautiful effect which is obtained simply by taking the pedal off where Chopin indicated.

The inescapable conclusion is that none of the five has given us entirely what is written. Rubinstein’s febrile originality, however effective on its own terms, surely removes him from serious consideration and Sheppard’s large rallentando and "starting again" at bar 25 restructures the piece. The pianists who are least distant from Chopin are Pollini and Milkina. But we have to make another consideration; the actual sound they make. Nobody could ever say that Pollini, at least as recorded, makes a particularly beautiful sound. It is impossible to tell, from the clangy recording, what sound Rubinstein made; Cortot (despite the age of the recording), Sheppard and Milkina all achieve a warm, rich sound. So Milkina takes the final honours in this prelude.

10. C sharp minor

The c sharp minor prelude alternates cascading semiquavers with chordal passages which suggest mazurka-rhythm. A similar idea, in miniature, to that of the Schubert A flat impromptu (D.899 no. 4). Except that Schubert is a classical composer and any responsible interpreter is going to play the cascading semiquavers and the chordal passages at pretty much the same tempo. This is Chopin, and Chopin, so the idea goes, needs interpretation.

Whether or not it is musically feasible or desirable to play the whole piece – which lasts, by the way, between 0’ 38" (Pollini) and 0’ 27" (Sheppard) – in a uniform tempo is not something which has ever been put to the test in my experience. All performers, certainly all five here, seem to accept as their starting point the thesis that the cascades and the mazurka-hints have to go at different tempi. As a result of a few private experiments I’ve tried myself, I would say that if you do not prolong the last beat of each mazurka section but keep strict time as you move on to the next group of cascades, both your hands have to jump a long way very quickly. Far be it from me to suggest that such distinguished artists let technical considerations shape their interpretation but, by pure coincidence, their chosen rhythmic shaping has eliminated a technical hurdle.

Other problems in this prelude?

Firstly, the pedalling. Chopin has rather oddly indicated some touches of pedal where you might not expect them (on the cascades) and none where you probably would (in the mazurka bars; curiouser and curiouser, he marks a brief dab of pedal under the left hand trill in bar 8). His pedal indication in bar 10, in particular, is surely only realisable on a piano of his own time. The main thing is to keep it all clear, and all five succeed in this.

Secondly, the accents. In the second of each of the pairs of mazurka bars, the third beat has an accent, in accordance with mazurka traditions. Is an accent sufficient justification for making a pause? These five performers seem to think it is.

And finally, the last four bars. No rallentando is marked. However, the last dotted rhythm has a rest inserted whereas it was legato previously. If the bar is played fully in time, nobody will hear the difference. So, with this semiquaver rest as their justification, all five finish with a rallentando.

But now let us hear what the five pianists actually do.

Sheppard: Very light cascades, not one hundred per cent even but still attractive. The rhythm in the first mazurka group (bar 4) is unclear. This is a hazard of recording live and would certainly have been remade in a studio recording. The mazurka sections begin more or less in tempo and the hold-up before going on to the next cascade is fairly small. The bare octave As two bars before the end are made the herald of a considerable rallentando.

Milkina: The cascades are slow enough to allow the entire piece to assume a more sombre, minor-key, hue. Only minimal latitude is taken in shaping the mazurka sections. Though unmarked, the sudden pianissimo in bar 13 is very beautiful. Also here the bare octave As usher in a slower tempo for the last two bars, though the mazurka rhythm is not lost sight of. An unusual feature is the slower-than-usual arpeggiation of the left hand chords – slow enough to create a sort of dotted rhythm on its own account. Even so, this seems the nearest of the five to what Chopin wrote.

Rubinstein: The cascades have a clarity that is the stuff of legends. Thanks to his big hand, Rubinstein doesn’t need to arpeggiate the left hand chords. Chopin had a big hand too so, if he wrote arpeggio signs in front of chords he could have encompassed easily, maybe he wanted the arpeggios for musical reasons. In fact, Rubinstein seems a mite aggressive.

As for the mazurka sections, Rubinstein restructures the piece according to an agenda of his own. The first group is almost in tempo, the second also, with a lion’s roar of a trill and a larger pause on the last crotchet before taking up the next cascade. The third group is much slower and very soft, the fourth begins close to tempo. In spite of making a considerable rallentando at the end, the semiquaver rest in the right hand of the last bar is completely ignored.

Cortot makes an unmarked pause on the first note before cascading downward. To emphasise the mazurka rhythm he plays the chords detached in the first mazurka group, in place of Chopin’s indicated legato. In the second mazurka group the impetuous left hand trill dominates the texture. There is a considerable pause before taking up the next cascade. At the end the right hand rest is brought out with an expressive hesitation, about the only thing he could do when he has inserted rests into this rhythm right through the piece.

Pollini goes beyond Cortot in playing the whole first upbeat in rallentando. The mazurka sections enter in tempo but each one makes a larger rallentando at the end as the piece proceeds, that in bars 11-12 being very considerable indeed. Like Rubinstein, Pollini restructures the piece according to an agenda of his own. The final dotted rhythms are almost double-dotted. The left hand trill in bar 7 is very lightly sketched in.

13. F sharp major

What an unspeakably beautiful piece this is, and how difficult it is to do it anything like justice! Firstly there is the left hand figure which is ever-present in the outer sections; it must not be clouded with pedal, yet an unpedalled performance would be unthinkably dry. It must be flexible, because it is not a sternly rhythmic ostinato, but it must not be rubatoed out of shape. Then there is the melody itself. The upper line must sing, but all three notes of each chord must have their weight. And what to do about the fact that the first three notes of the melodic phrase are the same? The second has to have a little less weight because it is on the weaker beat, but then how do you make the three chords grow, without actually applying a crescendo, which isn’t marked?

The middle section is marked più lento and, apart from the beauty of its melody, it is accompanied by a mixture of repeated notes, which must be neither obtrusive nor obsessive – this is not the "Raindrop" prelude – and moving counter-melodies, which Chopin has not specifically asked to be brought out but which we must hear, and will do if the texture is transparent enough. In the last two bars of this section the chords become richer, increasing to six notes. It is one of the most expressive moments in all Chopin, and the danger is for the performer to love it "not wisely, but too well" by playing it more loudly. But no increase of dynamics is written.

When the opening section returns a higher countermelody is added; the chords are splayed out far more widely than the human hand can play together so, in addition to the problem of making the contrapuntal layers clear, there is that of finding the exact moment in which to place the higher notes.

Finally, there is a reminiscence of the middle section. No rallentando is marked. Is this to be played più lento, as it was before, or should it be strictly in time?

Let us now see how our five chosen pianists deal with the problems of this piece.

Sheppard unfailingly produces a warm and beautiful sound. He starts by holding the first bass note and then setting the left-hand quavers in motion gradually, to create an accelerando effect over the first bar and a half, compensating with a holding back when the harmony changes. This to-ing and fro-ing of tempo is in itself perfectly consistent with Chopin-esque rubato, but there are signs that he is living more for the immediate effect than for the longer line. He breaks Chopin’s second long phrase with something like a double-dotting in bar 4; and bar 8, where the left hand is on its own, gets a considerable rallentando. He anticipates the appoggiatura of the following bar to such an extent that it seems like an extra quaver added to bar 8, which therefore finishes with 13 quavers instead of 12. His middle section begins well, but then he begins to build up a crescendo from bar 23 and gives a degree of urgency to bars 27-28, beginning the return to the opening theme at something close to a forte. It’s effective in its way, but nothing in the score suggests that this is Chopin’s way. He has one or two "ideas" about highlighting certain notes in the texture – why single out the 11th quaver of bar 31 in this way? – and the coda, ushered in with a large rallentando, has an epic breadth which seems unrelated to what has come before.

This might seem like a catalogue of minute nit-pickings, but they point towards Sheppard’s opting for the easy solution, or the "listener-friendly" solution (it is that, make no mistake) without looking too far below the surface.

Comparison with Milkina at each of the points above only goes to prove that they do matter. She lets us hear the quaver rest in bar 4 without it appearing that a new phrase starts from that point, she allows only the tiniest relaxation in the left-hand only bar and the appoggiatura is inserted at the end of that bar (approximately as an upbeat semiquaver) without breaking the rhythmic flow. As a result of having established a steady tempo, her più lento for the central section is all the more effective. She is fairly full-toned at this point, and might quote Chopin’s sostenuto marking as her justification, but does not increase the volume further. For the coda she returns to the più lento tempo but keeps her expression and her dynamics in proportion to the rest of the piece.

Thus far I may seem to be extolling her for mainly negative virtues. She also gives her left hand quavers a life of their own, so that they dialogue with the right hand instead of merely accompanying it (for this reason it very likely never even occurred to her to single out a note here and there from the texture as Sheppard does). Her counter-melodies in the central section have a speaking quality. Her actual sound is at least as beautiful as that of Sheppard and has, in addition, a greater presence and profile, by the side of which Sheppard’s seems a little woolly. I realise that a combination of instrument, acoustics and recording quality (and my own equipment) may have all contributed to this effect as well as the pianists themselves, but I have to report what I hear.

The Rubinstein performance is infinitely more worthy of his reputation than was the case in the two preludes discussed so far. The shortcomings of the recording cannot dim the beauty and richness of his tone – raising the possibility that the unpleasant sound in no. 1 was not all due to the recording quality. His left hand quavers dialogue with the right hand as Milkina’s do, but he uses his fuller tone to produce a more expansive reading (at 3’ 33" his is the most measured performance; Milkina takes 3’ 08", Sheppard 3’ 11"). Notice how the quintuplets in bar 4 are made to sound very "special", without any distortion of the line. His central section is not much different in tempo from the first and he does not attempt Milkina’s speaking quality in the left hand counter-melodies. Instead he proceeds with a noble simplicity which is moving in its own right. His sudden swelling of the dynamics in bar 26, however, is exactly the opposite of what Chopin wrote. His split chords in the last section are split much more quickly than by Sheppard or Milkina – as nearly as is possible, he sounds the notes together; and that is a lot more nearly than you or I could without losing control over the tone.

Cortot and Pollini both take a more mobile view of this prelude (2’ 35" and 2’ 33" respectively). For Cortot the left hand quavers are as gently lapping waves – clear but subordinate to the singing upper line which is the memorable feature of this performance. He treats the three repeated notes with which the piece opens as a gigantic upbeat to the first harmony change, but not quite to the extent of reversing Chopin’s barring. Doubts arise, rather, in the central section which is scarcely più lento at all and has a rather agitated feeling which some severe moments of uncoordination between the hands do nothing to dispel. However, his sudden highlighting of the inner line in bar 26 is not as capricious as it sounds – it is at least a possible interpretation of Chopin’s short diminuendo sign. True to his agitato interpretation of the central section, he begins the penultimate bar agitato too, and makes an extraordinarily beautiful thing out of the final relaxation. Whether you feel it is justified by the score is another matter.

Alone among these pianists, Pollini’s playing of the chords creates an effect which is vertical not horizontal; each for itself, interrupting rather than creating a musical line. Consequently this, the fastest of the five performances, is also the most stagnant. Like Cortot he rather roughs up the central section at a più lento which is only nominally so and, like Sheppard, his coda is out of proportion to the piece as a whole. One feels that, for Pollini, this prelude is to be despatched with a minimum of decorum as a sort of interlude between the more satisfyingly thunderous pieces on either side of it.

Here again, it would seem that Milkina is closest to what Chopin wrote, but it was also comforting to find Rubinstein on better form.

18. F minor

This very brief prelude - the outside timings are 0’ 41" (Rubinstein) and 1’ 02" (Milkina) – has the form of a dramatic recitative, but does that mean you can do what you like with it? Chopin’s note values are very clear, as when he inserts a group of quintuplet semiquavers in a run of normal semiquavers (bar 4). In Beethoven we are taught that the listener must perceive the faster-moving quintuplets (five in the space of four) in the context of the passage as a whole. Does this rule apply to Chopin or do you just barge along regardless and it comes as it comes? Then in bars 9-13 some short phrases in semiquavers are interrupted by forzando chords. At the beginning of bar 9 itself the first two notes are only quavers – they are long compared to the rush of semiquavers that preceded them. Should we hear them as two slower notes or does it not matter? At the beginning of bars 10 to 13 there are two semiquavers. If the first of them is not strongly accented the listener will perceive an accent on the second, so throwing the bars out of shape. Also in bars 13-17 a tight control over the rhythm is necessary if the proceedings are not to degenerate into a "bash everything in sight" effect. Finally, the last two chords are preceded by a rest lasting five crotchets (fourth notes). It’s long if you really count it out. A further point to make is that Chopin inconveniently wrote no dynamic indication at the beginning. However, from bar 7 onwards the music is basically in crescendo until it reaches fortissimo in bar 17. Only the last two chords are triple forte. Obviously, if you begin triple forte none of this will come across.

So let’s hear what happens.

Sheppard begins well, clear and not too loud, and we hear his quintuplets in bar 4. But recording live is not always a good idea. Some splashes in bar 8 seem to fluster him and he rather loses control of the situation. The accents come on the second semiquaver of the bar in bars 10-12, headlong rush (and more spills) is substituted for rhythmic grip and the long rest at the end is slightly shortened, "compensated" by a not so slight lengthening of the penultimate chord. Impressive enough in the midst of a live performance, maybe, but hardly an execution to put on disc.

Milkina begins more steadily and finds time for a certain elegance of expression on the first page. Her rhythms are clear and the performance gains power as it proceeds. Alone of the five pianists, she gives the long rest its complete value, and how dramatic it sounds!

Although Rubinstein is the fastest of the five, his exceptional technical address enables him to maintain rhythmic clarity and grip even amid the turmoil. At the beginning he is almost dry – Chopin’s pedal marks are ignored – and he makes more of the diminuendo in bar 12 than any of the others, enabling him to start the new crescendo from a piano. Unfortunately he opts to re-compose the ending – there is no other word for it. The five-crotchet rest is shortened to three and the penultimate chord is changed from a minim (half-note) to a crotchet (fourth-note).

Cortot plays the whole thing in one mad rush. There’s not much point in going into detail because there aren’t many. The rests in bars 9-12 are considerably lengthened, destroying the shape of the bars, the semiquavers in bar 15 are lost in a welter of pedal and his "re-composition" of the end is even more drastic than Rubinstein’s; the rest is cut entirely, and the penultimate chord is shortened to a crotchet. "All this fuss about a rest", you will say. Yes, but in a piece as short as this, Cortot and Rubinstein’s omissions and shortenings amount to, respectively, 7.1% and 4.8% of the piece. A publisher who issued a copy of, say, "War and Peace" shortened by 7.1% - it would be a good hundred pages – would be obliged by the Trades Description Act to describe it as an "abridged edition". Why doesn’t the same thing apply in music?

Pollini, like Rubinstein, has all the powerful technical address necessary to make everything clear – perhaps too much so, for there is a slight suspicion of bluster towards the end. The long rest is very fractionally shortened, but is still long enough to contain much drama. This performance and that of Milkina are the only two that can be taken seriously, and if you feel Milkina is under-powered you might prefer Pollini’s harder-hitting version.

23. F major.

This is a very delicate piece dominated by the swishing arpeggios in the right hand. Occasionally a wisp of melody emerges in the left hand; starting with a trill, these fragments are hard to keep clear. Chopin’s markings are piano, delicatissimo and Moderato. This tempo marking is fundamental if we are to hear what is happening. The only other markings are a poco ritenuto which lasts only half a bar and a diminuendo followed by a smorzando ("dying away") over the last two-and-a-half bars. In the last arpeggio Chopin inserts a non-harmony note, an E flat, and marks it with an accent, so it resonates through the pedal right to the end. How do our five pianists interpret all this?

Sheppard’s performance is very beautiful, with a gentle, veiled sound. An occasional inequality of the semiquavers detracts a little from the effect and he seeks out traces of melody in the right hand too, which some may find attractive; others may feel he is gilding the lily. He prolongs Chopin’s poco ritenuto over several bars, picking up the tempo only in bar 17; even though this moment marks the return to the original key of F major, to signpost it in this way risks imposing a ternary structure on the piece which it does not really have. His E flat near the end rings out like a bell.

Milkina shows us that the right-hand semiquavers, if played with a beautifully even tone, have a melodic beauty all of their own. There is no need to seek out "hidden melodies" in it, they suggest themselves of their own accord. The poco ritenuto is no more than that, and the sheer calm as the rippling arpeggios rise to the top of the keyboard is breath-taking. The smorzando is not allowed to begin before it is written, but when it comes it is considerable. The E flat is only lightly touched, so it has cleared from the pedal by the time the final resting place has been reached. Harmonically daring though Chopin was, he probably intended an effect such as Milkina produces rather than an out-of-key ending. Milkina seems calmer than Sheppard, so it is instructive to find she is one second faster: 1’ 01" compared with 1’ 02".

Rubinstein is also magically clear and even. However, he makes the odd decision to substitute Chopin’s a tempo after the poco ritenuto with a long drawn-out rallentando, almost stopping before he picks up at bar 17. It’s certainly beautiful, but Milkina’s is no less so and happens to be what Chopin wrote. The E flat is slightly more present than Milkina’s, but is far from the tolling bell-effect that some performers have tried to present. As a result of the rallentando this is the longest of the performances; 1’ 06".

At a mere 0’ 43" Cortot has substituted an Allegro for Chopin’s Moderato, but it has to be admitted that it is miraculously clear. This clarity is also due to Cortot’s ignoring of many of the composer’s pedal markings, producing a scintillating display which looks ahead to the world of Ravel’s "Jeux d’eau". The E flat is strongly emphasised and can still be heard sounding through the last chord. Though probably not what Chopin intended this performance does have a magic all of its own.

Even if Pollini is slower than Cortot (0’ 55") he sounds faster and drier, tossing the piece off as an inconsequential finger-exercise, a bit of muscular warming-up before dealing with the final prelude. Such evenness and clarity have a beauty of their own, but the performance is lacking in humanity. So once again Milkina seems to have found more in the music. The E flat rings out quite strongly.

3. THE OVERALL EFFECT

My concern now is with the overall effect of the performances, rather than the minute details. At the same time, since only five of the preludes have been analysed in detail, I shall need to keep an ear open for any striking details that are not already implicit in those five.

The warm, mellow sound of Sheppard’s version is a pleasure in itself, except that cumulatively one begins to feel the need for more "ping". Performance and recording seem to aid and abet one another, for it is the stronger preludes that appear to lack stature and grip. No. 8 begins inconsequentially and is hardly Molto agitato or even slightly agitato. No. 12 is a strangely subdued affair, as is the almost Debussian rendering of no. 16. A failure to offset the gentler preludes obviously creates an overall imbalance and reduces the effect even of those that are successful in themselves.

Another general feature is that Chopin’s markings are observed, but only approximately. Crescendos, diminuendos and rallentandos begin more or less where they are written, give or take a bar or two either side; but when the pieces have only a few bars anyway, that amounts to a fair margin of error. Characteristic of this approximate approach is a tendency to separate pieces that are already fragmentary into further fragments. Take bars 72-75 of no. 15, the so-called "Raindrop" prelude. Chopin’s marking is forte, with a diminuendo to piano only in the last half-bar. No rallentando is marked. Sheppard makes a long diminuendo over the whole section, accompanied by an equally long rallentando, making Chopin’s structure appear a clumsy piece of joinery, which it is not.

Another tendency is that of seeking out "hidden melodies" within the texture. A prime case is no. 11. In bars 3-5 the upper notes are sung out and the lower right-hand notes subdued almost out of existence. You might find this "new" reading ear-tickling (which in a way it is) and revelatory. I can only suggest you compare it carefully with those pianists who evidently feel that the magic of Chopin lies in the way these "hidden melodies" suggest themselves from within a texture which is created by a limpid equality of the notes. Another case is no. 14 where by bringing out "hidden melodies" but not letting us hear where the first beat of each bar is, the prelude is reduced to an incoherent muttering which has no sense at all. Incidentally, the unfortunate incident at bar 8 of no. 21 is a strong argument against putting unedited live performances on record. These slips matter not a jot in the heat of a live performance and can happen to anyone, but anyone might not want to have them repeated every time he hears the piece.

Having sung Sheppard’s praises on other occasions, notably his "Goldberg" variations which might be imagined a more arduous undertaking, I am only sorry not to find more to appreciate here, and ask myself why this is so. I described Sheppard’s approach to the "Goldbergs" as "listener-friendly". Where the structure of the piece is one of rigorous austerity, I feel that a solution which helps the listener to relate to it is wholly beneficial. Listeners who find the prospect of the "Goldbergs" a daunting one may well find their point of entry in Sheppard’s performance. In the case of Chopin the "listener-friendly" nature of the music is undeniable, but for that very reason hardly needs underlining. Rather, the artist should seek in the music those qualities of formal perfection and control which Chopin so admired in his beloved Mozart. In the case of Chopin the "listener-friendly" solution (and most of this performance is "nice", I’ll give it that) is rather equivalent to the "easy" solution.

Unfortunately I have only modified praise for the remainder of this CD. The separate op. 45 Prelude has a warmly romantic atmosphere but does not have that natural dialogue between accompanying figures (which are rather damped down) and melodies which are the hallmark of a true Chopin player.

I did hope the Scriabin would redress the balance, since I was highly enthusiastic about Sheppard’s performance of the Rachmaninov "Etudes Tableaux". To some extent it does display similar qualities of pianistic colour and elucidation of texture, but Sheppard also seems to feel that Scriabin’s music, as it is written down, is inadequate and needs to be "helped out" with generous doses of rubato which amount to wholesale distortion. This is not the place to go into detail but if you compare any one of these preludes with the recording (also live) made in 1979 by Tiziana Moneta you will hear how a respectful but imaginative response to the score allied to a technical ability and range of colour at least the equal of Sheppard’s can reveal the true quality of the music. (I don’t know how you will make this comparison, though; the Moneta recording was a private issue made by the Gioventù Musicale d’Italia for its members and I’m not aware that it has ever been issued on CD. After a few years of extraordinary promise – she was even hailed as the heir to Annie Fischer – Moneta opted to specialise in the 2-piano and piano duet repertoire together with Gabriele Rota; their duo has been much appreciated and has made several CDs).

Milkina gets a fuller and more satisfying recording. Technically, it is better than her Mazurka recordings, remarkably good for its age and a far better sound than I usually associate with Pye productions of those years.

Overall, it is her innate musicality, her unaffected warmth, which impress. Not only is she properly observant of Chopin’s texts but she unfailingly finds a convincing solution to the many problem which they present. She does not go in for barnstorming virtuosity, and if you want the performer to have you on the edge of your seat in no. 12 or 16 (as, in certain moods, I would myself) then you will find more sheer excitement in certain other performances. On the other hand, heard in context, she sets up a strong rhythmic pulsation in these preludes – no. 12 seems a manic mazurka – which ensures that they play their proper contrasting role in the overall scheme. Her no. 8 may not seem at first to be Molto agitato but it certainly expresses disquiet, the more so when we can appreciate for once Chopin’s quite extraordinary dissonant figuration. Milkina’s way is not the only possible way but it is consistent and satisfying. The disc is completed with a very beautiful rendering of the posthumous c sharp minor Nocturne.

If you want thrills, drive and virtuosity pushed to the verge of the impossible, then Rubinstein might be your man. His no. 8 is truly Molto agitato, his no. 12 hurtles towards its doom, as does his no. 24; his 16 is a truly fantastic digital display, combined with electric rhythm. The problem is that this same approach is applied in several cases where it is arguably out of place. Unless you see no. 3 as a cousin to the "Revolutionary" study (their only similarity is that they both make the left hand work very hard) you are likely to find Rubinstein’s performance too frenetic by half; equally hard to defend is his rabid rampage through no. 5.

The harsh and clangy recording may not help Rubinstein and yet, as already pointed out with regard to no. 13, it does not fail when the playing itself has the sort of bloom and poetry we expect to hear from Rubinstein. The closing section of the "Raindrop" (no. 15) is exquisite, leaving the inescapable conclusion that the earlier part was just as cavalier as it sounds. The last page or so of no. 17 takes Chopin’s fz markings absolutely literally and is among the few to really make sense of them. The tempo for this prelude broadens out around bar 35, as though Rubinstein has suddenly become engaged with the job in hand. For, truth to tell, far too often he is just uncaring; nos. 2, 4 and 6 are remarkable only as a demonstration of how perfunctory a great artist can be when he is not in the right mood. Despite a few remarkable successes along the way, this Rubinstein version has to be judged a bitter disappointment.

However, the Rubinstein disc is still worth having, for the 1946 sessions yielded at least one great performance: that of the Second Sonata, which is awesome in its barely contained fury and its on-the-brink impetuosity, contrasted with real tenderness in the lyrical moments. The Berceuse, too, distils the rarefied poetry of this piece while the Barcarolle is instead often impatient and unsettled; Rubinstein’s later recording of this finds all the serenity that is lacking here.

Cortot was one of the earliest believers in the Preludes as a single, unitary work, at a time when most pianists viewed them as source-book from which to extract their favourites. Years of tireless championing enabled him to weld them into a whole, as if they were one vast tone-poem. It is true that in matters of detail he could be a law unto himself – ending no. 5 with a whimsical piano in the place of Chopin’s forte, for example – and his no. 22 has to join his no. 18 as an example of incoherent rampaging. His splitting of the hands and arbitrary arpeggiation of many chords will not please modern tastes. But it is also true that his singing tone – undimmed by the age of the recording – has a vocal expressiveness which carries the ear with it and that the basic character he gives to each piece is in itself almost always convincing. In the main he does not overturn or ignore Chopin’s markings though it could be said that he responds to them over-enthusiastically. His climax to no. 4 is fierily impetuous, but Chopin did after all mark the lead up to it stretto and write a crescendo which passes from piano to forte in a very brief space. Rather against my preconceptions I found this performance an enthralling experience, infinitely greater than the some of its parts.

The Pollini is a strange case. Scrupulously prepared and respectful of Chopin’s indications, it is possible to agree with practically everything he does and yet on another level remain untouched. The brightly lit sound means that everything is firmly present and that excludes anything like half-lights, mystery or intangibility. The tendency to analyse the music in its vertical harmonies rather than to seek out horizontal singing lines leads to singularly static performances of some of the slower preludes – nos. 15 and 17 sound almost banal. Other listeners appear to hear this performance in a different way; I am afraid I can only enjoy it where, as in no. 24, Chopin is stretching even Pollini’s powerful technical address to somewhere near its limit and evidently compels him to engage a little more.

The conclusion seems to be a strong recommendation for Nina Milkina’s little-known set; don’t be discouraged by the fact that you can’t just go into a shop and buy it, for it is really worth having. The other conclusion is that though Cortot may do some odd things along the way, the overall effect of his performance is terrific and you should hear this if you are at all tolerant of "historical" sound. But perhaps these pieces are too important and varied for you to have just one or two versions of them. I hope at some later date to return to the fray with another quintet of pianists and another quintet of preludes.

Christopher Howell

 


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