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Friedrich CHOPIN

Piano Works Vol 12 - Songs
Ewa Podles, contralto; Garrick Ohlsson, piano; Elizabeth Mann, flute.
Arabesque Z6746 [57.35]
 £11.99   AmazonUS  $16.49

It doesn't matter what voice range Chopin originally scored his 19 songs for. They have been performed by mezzo-sopranos, sopranos, and sometimes with no singer at all, just a lone piano. It was a stroke of genius for Arabesque to have enlisted contralto Ewa Podles to sing them. Good contraltos occur rarely on new releases these days, even more rarely than their male equivalent, the countertenor. Not since Kathleen Ferrier have I heard a contralto mine such quarries of feeling. Her rendition of "Nie Ma Czego grzeba" ("Faded and Vanished") is so melancholic, so early Romantic, that it could have been penned by Franz Schubert. The melismas at the end of each stanza extracted tears from me, a feat that hasn't occurred in recent memory. Her rendition of "Out of My Sight" dramatically conveys the conflicting emotions of one lover parting from another. Elly Ameling and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sing Schubert lieder with similar finesse, pacing, and eloquence.

Scholars disagree, but Chopin appears to have written most of these songs in two periods, 1829-1831 and 1847. The early ones were old-fashioned even for their time. Because of their strophic style and naïve folk elements, they belong more to the pre-lied era of the late 18th century. Only in songs like "Melodia" (1847) does Chopin approach the emotional depth of the emerging art song. The piano works he composed at the same time blazed more brightly, popularizing such obscure forms like the nocturne. That said, I believe it is a pity Chopin didn't write more of these excellent songs. They transcend the limited forms in which he fit them. They are morose ("The Two-Fold End", raucous ("Drinking Song"), martial ("The Warrior"), even slightly earthy ("Lithuanian Song").

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who has performed in the previous 11 volumes of this series, proves an excellent accompanist. His technique is sensitive, well paced, and flamboyant only when required, never showy. Like pianist Gerald Moore, he never draws attention from the vocal pyrotechnics of his singer.

The final piece, "Variations in E Major for Flute and Piano" (for "Non piu mesta" from Rossini's La Cenerentola) is a charming trifle composed when Chopin was fourteen. Although a bit anti-climactic after these marvelous songs, the piece shows that Chopin, while not a child prodigy like Mozart or Mendelssohn, was clearly on the way to greatness. Flautist Elizabeth Mann and Ohlsson render the piece well. Compulsive Chopin collectors will be happy to have it.

Peter Bates

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