Before I come to the present records, which are to my mind of considerable importance, I should like to make a total digression and recall that my most abiding experience of Chopin's Mazurkas came from my one-time teacher Ilonka Deckers-Küszler. This remarkable but rather mysterious woman was born in Budapest around 1902 (no reference book known to me has an entry on her), taught, in her Budapest years, both Annie Fischer and Edith Farnadi (whose Westminster recordings cry out for reissue), withdrew from musical life, resumed it during the Second World War, by which time she was in Italy, and gathered an international crowd of students around her in Milan until not long before her death a few years ago.
Though I studied with her for many years (from 1975), I have still not yet made up my mind whether she was the greatest teacher in the world or whether she just said she was. I do think she was in some sense a repository of pianistic traditions that go back to the dawn of the Twentieth Century and have been rather lost sight of. By the time I knew her she no longer practised and her occasional attempts to demonstrate were messy affairs indeed, though the sound itself was still wonderful. But one day, in front of me and one other student, something miraculous happened. It was almost like living in a time-warp. Taking the volume of Chopin Mazurkas, which she adored and regarded as Chopin's finest compositions, she played piece after piece, and somehow her fingers went into all the right places. I don't think I could ever find the words to describe what I heard, and my memory may have embroidered the occasion, but this music seemed to speak to me from afar, to arrive from distant fields and mountains. You always knew it was music with deep popular roots, peasant songs, folk-dances and primitive folk-instruments. And it always arrived with this small, plaintive but uniquely consolatory tone. I have never heard anything like it, before or since (nor did Ilonka Deckers herself ever play like that again in my presence) and I always hope that some day a pianist will renew my memories for me.
Of artists who have recorded all or a fair number of the Mazurkas, it is Ignaz Friedman who evokes most vividly the music's popular roots. His selection is a fascinating document, but it must be said that he can also be wilful in his tempi and rubato and thickens up the text at times. This sort of thing was anathema to Rubinstein, of course, and his proudly impetuous first recorded cycle of 1938-9 (which I reviewed not many months ago on Naxos 8.110656-57) set the tone for Chopin playing for many decades to follow. It is full of wondrous things, even if it is sometimes possible to suspect which are the pieces he learnt specially for the occasion ("when in doubt take it by storm" seems the idea) and which were already in his repertoire. But above all, you always feel that Rubinstein is in a room playing to an audience. No, I don't quite detect the music's popular roots here.
Horowitz was hardly a man for complete cycles but he recorded a good number of Mazurkas at various times and always showed, alongside the demonic bursts of passion which were part of his legend, a strong feeling for their brooding melancholy. Ilonka Deckers worshipped these two pianists, yet she knew something about the Mazurkas that they didn't.
now what about Nina Milkina? In the first place, a regular concert-goer
or radio listener during the 1940s through to the 1980s would have thought
it strange that she needed any introduction to listeners at the beginning
of the 21st Century, but I think younger readers may need
to be told that she was born in 1919, has lived in England since the
age of seven, studied with Harold Craxton, then Britain's leading piano
teacher, and for many years delighted audiences with her very natural
charm and musicianship, especially in the works of Mozart and Chopin.
In a period rich in British-born or British-resident lady pianists -
Myra Hess, Eileen Joyce, Irene Scharrer, Moura Lympany - Nina Milkina
was certainly not the least of them. For some reason her reputation
led to few recordings. A Mozart disc, issued by ASV in 1989, might have
led to new developments, but not long after she was fighting cancer
and had to withdraw from public performance in 1991. She remains active
on various musical committees and as an adjudicator and is still very
much in touch with musical life.
There must be a wide range of broadcast material potentially available for issue, but at present the best opportunity to investigate her art lies in a small group of recordings made for Pye in the late 1960s. The Pye catalogue was bought up by EMI - to judge from the results, more from a desire to prevent others laying their hands on Barbirolli and Boult material that might have rivalled their own than out of any wish to do anything constructive with it - and their lack of interest in the Milkina recordings was so total that they lent the masters of the Mazurkas (and also the Preludes, of which I hope to speak later) to her family for this licensed CD issue. The recording is a little close and dry (Pye's piano recordings did tend to be) and if one day EMI were to issue it properly their experts might find more bloom to the sound. However, in the main the quality is good.
So what of the performances? When she was a very young girl, before she came to England, Nina Milkina's parents taught her to dance the Mazurka and showed her how it is danced by a man and how it is danced by a woman. In other words, she has the Mazurka in her blood. You get the impression that she never has to consciously think where to place those elusive three beats that most of us either inflect effortfully or just level out. And I say "three beats" and I say it again because a lot of those Mazurkas which are marked "vivace" or something similar are usually ripped off at a one-in-the bar. Every Mazurka here has three beats in the bar. This in no way means a loss of vitality - listen to the delightfully rumbustious op. 33/2, and she can conjure up a world of folk instruments in op. 56/2. Op. 41/1, often played with a nationalist fervour, is here one of the springy ones. Perhaps I still prefer the grander performances in this case (it is marked "maestoso" after all) but this is completely enjoyable in its own right. By contrast the popular op. 7/1 has a certain stately quality as well as vivacity - and all for the better, for this over-played piece can seem banal if tossed off too exuberantly.
To return to the beginning, in the first Mazurka you are immediately struck by the gently swaying quality of the rhythm, and by the way in which both the stronger outbursts and the folk-like elements all fall into place in the musical discourse. Those many pieces in "Moderato" or "Allegretto" tempo evoke images of graceful dancers - it is a very friendly Chopin we find here.
I've spoken of the faster ones and the moderate ones; am I preparing to say that the slower ones lack something in depth, are too "nice"? Not at all. Op. 7/2 has all the wistful melancholy you could desire and this generally sets the tone for all the slow Mazurkas. Just once or twice I had small perplexities. Op. 33/3 seems a little stagnant. If I consciously imagined the dancers the tempo seemed to work, but in this instance I fear the dance rhythm that Nina Milkina certainly felt inside herself has not been transmitted. Also in op. 17/4 the repeated chords seem to trudge a little heavily, and for a complete realisation of this piece's extraordinary distillation of melancholy you have to go to Horowitz - and also, surprisingly, to Gieseking. But these are rare, and only partial, failures. I would also single out op. 6/4. This Mazurka occupies only a page of music, and as Rubinstein tosses it off it really says nothing. Nina Milkina, at a much slower tempo, finds a wistful songfulness in it.
Nor does the playing lack scale. Hear how op. 7/3, from its mysterious beginning, gathers strength as the music moves into the major key, forging ahead to break into a gloriously sung cello-like left-hand melody in the central part. Op. 50/3 and op. 56/3 are virtually Ballades in Mazurka tempo and are given full-size interpretations, while the set culminates in the sublime simplicity of the last two, op. 63/2 and 3. I say culminates, but thereafter follow the posthumous pieces. Sets of the Mazurkas tend to be arranged in this way (the Rubinstein is too), but would it not be better to put these mostly youthful pieces at the beginning or even slip them in along the way, in the right chronological places? Having said that, I must now say that Nina Milkina rather interestingly plays them, not with youthful charm, but in the light of what has come before, as though the later composer is revisiting his earlier creations. Mostly this approach is attractive - just occasionally it becomes a little too placid, and you do begin to notice how many of them are in A minor.
So to go back to where I started, how does this playing compare with my memories of Ilonka Deckers? Well, the two artists are different, of course, but certain overall similarities in the basic concept suggest they may have come into contact with the same tradition. This is a set of real importance, there is no doubt about it. The world of Chopin's Mazurkas is so infinitely varied that no one artist will have the best answer to every single piece (is there a "best answer"?). There are a number of sets, selections and one-offs for which we have to be eternally grateful and Nina Milkina's is among them. No lover of the piano and of Chopin should miss it.
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