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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Frederick CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Sonata No.3 in B minor, Op.58 (1844)
24 Preludes, Op.28 (1839)
Ann Schein (Piano)
rec. November 2004, New York
MSR CLASSICS MS 1119 [71:21]


Extended works by Chopin constitute a very small amount of his oeuvre and here we have two of the most important – assuming, as we should, that the 24 Preludes be regarded as a single work. 
 
It is a bold step by Ann Schein to produce this recent recording for she inevitably goes into competition with recordings made by some of the great Chopin players of the last fifty years or more.  Having said that, there is, as far as I am aware, only one other CD currently available of the same coupling and that is Nelson Freiere on Decca; more of him later.  But work for work, I have to say that Ann Schein struggles in the company of her more illustrious colleagues.
 
For example, Martha Argerich’s DG recording of the Preludes in a similar coupling with the other of the well known sonatas, No. 2 in B flat minor, invites comparison. If it really were a competition of a gladiatorial nature, then there would be no contest. Schein would be gobbled up by the tigress of the keyboard.  It is not my wish to denigrate Schein who can produce some beautiful playing with a kind of controlled relaxation and she can get her fingers around the fast, virtuoso preludes with complete accuracy. But Argerich has the technique to go faster if need be, and at the same speeds can generate a fiery excitement that Schein cannot approach. The same is true of Ashkenazy who as a young man recorded the preludes in a set with the three sonatas for Decca.  Take the fearsome final Prelude in D minor. This used to be one of Ashkenazy’s encore party pieces and I remember seeing him performing it on film many years ago. It was perhaps the most electrifying encounter between human and keyboard I had ever seen or heard up to that point.  Ann Schein’s  “appassionato” of Chopin’s marking is very lyrical but low on passion and she tackles the hair-raising pyrotechnical passages with remarkable smoothness. This may be a legitimate interpretation for some, but I feel I ought to be on the edge my seat which I never am with her.
 
But it is not just excitement that Schein does not achieve to the same extent as some others; she also fails to generate the kind of forward momentum that is needed, for example, to give the Preludes overall a sense of unity. The work is a journey that cycles through all the keys, reaching the remotest tonal territory at half way, and at that point the individual preludes start becoming more intense and complex. In spite of the high contrasts on the way, there is a grand design and I never felt Schein was producing that inexorable sense of progression the work calls for.
 
For me, she also falls short on emotion. Take the wonderful second main tune in the first movement of the Sonata. After the agitation of the opening, this tune emerges, soars, and then unexpectedly extends in a way that has never failed to tingle my spine – until I heard Ann Schein.
 
I know I am in subjective territory when judging Chopin performance and all I can say is that Schein’s playing, excellently competent though it is, just doesn’t do it for me.  The best phrase I can think of to describe the playing is that it lacks personality.
 
The recording quality is good and easily scores over some of the older recordings such as Ashnenazy’s. The booklet consists entirely of an interesting nine page essay by Schein on the relationship between Chopin and Georges Sand, justified by the author’s premise that, “we may owe [these two works] to the most astonishingly gifted woman of the C19th ”.
 
If, for some reason, you want to purchase the same coupling on a CD then there is Nelson Freiere’s Decca recording of about four years ago. Like Schein, he doesn’t attain some of the excitement of the great Chopin players but he produces thoughtful performances that do carry a sense of forward momentum.
 
As for the individual works, apart from those already mentioned, there is much to choose from depending on how you like your Chopin.  Apart from those I’ve already mentioned, Pollini and Kissin may be obvious choices and there is always Ann Schein’s former teacher, the sometimes wayward Artur Rubinstein in the Sonata.

John Leeman
 

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