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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 (1830) [40.44]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21 (1829-30) [31.07]
Christian Zacharias (piano/conductor)
Lausanne Chamber Orchestra
rec. Metropol Lausanne, 21-22 March 2003 (Op. 21), 10-11 October 2004 (Op. 11)
MD+G Gold MDG 340 1267-2 [72.05]

Christian Zacharias, who made his discographic mark as a Mozartean, makes the transition to Chopin's more fluid style with aplomb. He takes this music seriously, clearly sounding every note in the passagework - even in the accompaniments where one could be forgiven a little blurring of the edges. I prefer this to the skittering-across-the-keys style of Chopin playing, which makes an immediate flashy effect, but doesn't allow for much real poetry. And Zacharias certainly does provide the poetry, enlivening the phrases with flashes of subtle, impulsive rubato, coloring and projecting the tone over a wide, fully-weighted dynamic range. All in all, this is most fetching playing.

Reservations arise with the conducting - or, rather, the lack thereof. Zacharias has directed Mozart concerti from the keyboard, but Chopin's larger-scale works won't really "conduct themselves" that way. Only the introductory ritornellos afford the pianist extensive opportunities for arm-waving: that of the First Concerto is stolidly accented, but Zacharias does rather a good job with the introduction to the Second, bringing it the same sort of fresh inflections and airy propulsion that mark his pianism. And, once the piano part gets going, he doesn't compromise his solo performance, preferring to leave the players more or less to their own devices, under the leader's guidance. Granted, the music poses few problems for an ensemble of this caliber, but still they can't anticipate everything perfectly, and numerous supporting string chords land clearly, if marginally, late.

The use of a chamber orchestra ameliorates the communication problem, by dint of reducing the physical distance involved, but inevitably causes others. Granted, these orchestra parts are considered technically undemanding: Erich Leinsdorf, in The Composer's Advocate, commented that "a lesser group can do full justice to the score[s]." (The demands on the string players' stamina while they spend long periods contorted into first position are another matter altogether.) But surely Leinsdorf's "lesser group" means to describe the hypothetical ensemble's executant ability, not its sheer size. The Lausanne strings play well and neatly, but there simply aren't enough of them. This shows not only in predictable ways, as in the small-scaled sound of bass motifs, but in less obvious ones: at 7:02 in the Second Concerto's first movement, for example, the strings can't supply the needed heft to impel and reinforce the piano's crescendo into the tutti.

The recording is fine - a forward piano balance is hardly a problem in this music. And the playing may well make you revise your estimate of these concerti upwards. But do make sure you have a higher-powered version as well: Perahia's of Op. 11 (Sony), say, or Ashkenazy's of Op. 21 (Decca), or Rubinstein's stereo versions of both (RCA), if and when they reappear.

Stephen Francis Vasta



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