> The Original Chopin - Lear [CH]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

One of the most grown-up review sites around
One of the most grown-up review sites around

Search MusicWeb Here


International mailing

Up to 40% off

  Founder: Len Mullenger

CHOPIN Frederic (1810-1849)
Volume Two

Scherzo no. 3 in C sharp minor, op. 39, Boléro in A minor, op. 19, Nocturne no. 18 in E, op. 62/2, Ballade no. 1 in G minor, op. 23, Mazurka in B minor, op. 33/4, Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat, op. 61, Mazurka in A minor, op. 17/4, Ballade no. 3 in A flat, op. 47, Scherzo no. 2 in B flat minor, op. 31
Recorded 27th July 1994, St. Georgeís, Brandon Hill, Bristol
APR 5555 [74í 38"]

Volume Three
Ballade no. 4 in F minor, op. 52, Valse in E flat, op. 18, Scherzo no. 1 in B minor, op. 20, Nocturne in B, op. 62/1, Polonaise in C sharp minor, op. 26/1, Mazurka in C minor, op. 56/3, Ballade no. 2 in F, op. 38, Nocturne in E flat, op. 9/2 (with cadenza from Mikuli edition), Polonaise in B flat minor, op. posth, Scherzo no. 4 in E, op. 54.
Recorded 22nd May 1995, location as above
MNU 9703 [73í 32"]

Volume Four

Sonata no, 2 in B flat minor, op. 35, Impromptu no. 1 in A flat, op. 29, Lento con gran espressione in C sharp minor, op. posth, Nocturne in F sharp minor, op. 48/2, Waltz in E flat, op. posth, Impromptu in F sharp, op. 36, Marche funèbre in C minor, op. posth, 3 Mazurkas, op. 50, Polonaise in A flat, op. 53
Plus extra disc in which Angela Lear gives a talk about performing Chopin in general, and the Sonata no. 2 in particular
Recorded 22nd May 1996, location as above
MNU 9842 [2 CDs, 75í 10", 33í 00"]

Volume Five
24 Preludes, op. 28, Valse in A flat, op. 34/1, 3 Mazurkas, op. 59, Nocturne in D flat, op. 27/2, Valse in F, op. 34/3, Barcarolle in F sharp, op. 60
Plus extra disc in which Professor Guy Jonson speaks of Chopin playing, past and present, and Angela Lear analyses the Preludes
Recorded 4th November 1996, location as above, and 12th April 2000, Royal Academy of Music
MNU 2052 [2 CDs, 75í 44", 68í 45"]

Angela Lear (pianoforte)
For sales and information contact:
Libra Records, PO Box 1172, Ilford, Essex,
Tel: 02085907380
e-mail: cpmusic@compuserve.com
website: libra-records.com

I donít find it easy to write about this, for so much sincere, honest endeavour has gone into it, yet somehow it seems able to rise above the ordinary only in the fifth volume. This latter does indeed justify many of the premises of the whole series so readers are alerted straightaway that the criticisms I shall have to make of the earlier volumes are not the whole story.

Angela Lear was encouraged many years ago by her teacher Louis Kentner to examine the manuscript sources of Chopinís music. Over the years she has gone on hunting down discrepancies between published editions and manuscripts and, more lately, has been persuaded to display her not inconsiderable pianistic skills in a series of recordings which, it is claimed, are unique in their scrupulous observance of Chopinís performance indications.

Excessive claims are always dangerous in that they risk stimulating the opposite reaction. The records come with an introduction from Colin Pryke which virtually challenges the dissenting critic to prove he does not have cloth ears. "Among the cognoscenti, Angela Lear is known as the worldís finest player of Chopinís music" (so, if you didnít know this, you are ignorant by definition). "The significance of the research and the attempt to produce exactly what Chopin required has not always been fully understood or appreciated", he warns us. Nevertheless, I have to side, at least as far as Volume Four, with "those critics who have not yet fully appreciated the importance of this work". Delicious, this "yet". My road to Damascus may yet be found and, who knows, I may even sit down at the piano one day and join "those mature artists who are not too proud to reshape their performances in the light of these important revelations".

"Those Who" have been a convenient butt of writers on music over the years. The doyen of opinionated musical analysts, Sir Donald Francis Tovey, had plenty to say about "Those Who". To stick with a single example, "Those who find it (Beethovenís op. 110 Sonata) unimpressive are beyond the reach of advice", he thundered in his famous edition of the Beethoven Sonatas, and "Those Who" had a good deal more to answer for than that. The whole tenor of Angela Learís Chopin series takes issue with "Those Who". The great thing about "Those Who" is that they are by definition without a name, yet with the aid of a little rhetoric readers can very readily imagine them. And so the picture is built up of a rabid crowd of egocentric pianists and editors who just canít wait to get their filthy fingers on Chopinís pristine music and manipulate it to their own ends. But who are the culprits? Who are "those who feel that some pianists have the ability to improve on Chopinís music"? Who are "those who seek to improve his work, or who fail to respect it by using it as a vehicle to display their own technical facility"? Which are the abominable editions? All of them? We are not told

Itís a funny thing, this business of Chopin editions. Listen to this: "To indicate all the differences between the manuscripts upon which Chopin worked and the original editions on the one hand, and the editions now universally available on the other, would be an endless labour. But the present strictly accurate edition will suffice to show to what extent petty minds have at times Ö lowered the standard of significance achieved by the composer".

Strong stuff. And no, itís not Lear and her collaborators that wrote this; it comes from the preface to the Oxford Original Edition of Chopin, dated 1928. And how about this one: "The principal aim of the Editorial Committee has been to establish a text which fully reveals Chopinís thought and corresponds to his intentions as closely as possible". As most pianists will recognise, this is from the Polish "Paderewski" Edition of 1949, an edition which many still prefer. As this preface goes on to recognise, "Chopin frequently changed details of his compositions up to the very last moment", leaving space for a wide variety of "authentic" texts. A well-known British pianist once told me that the guiding principle behind certain recent Urtext editions seems to be that of taking the least musical available reading in every case.

So the idea that all the printed texts are wrong is a red herring. The notes do at one point admit that the small differences between this and other performances are not so much textual variations but derive from the fact that the egos of many of the great artists of the past (de Pachmann, Cortot, Rosenthal and Rachmaninov are named) "would not allow the Composer complete control over his own music. This was something he fought for in life, though in death he only has an artist like Angela Lear (and hopefully others following in her tracks) to seek to maintain his standards".

While it is true that some pianists in the past have taken Chopin as fodder for their own genius, it is also true that there have also been many Ė with Rubinstein their leading light Ė who have believed firmly in Chopinís written scores and have attempted to follow them. Furthermore, not all those who have taken a freer view have done so out of mere arbitrariness and many have made their apparent "licences" in the name of traditions handed down from teacher to teacher and just possibly going back to Chopin himself (certainly, a number of "historical" pianists believed this was the case). So just what does Lear have to offer?

Her series has now reached five volumes, of which the first two were for the now defunct APR label. Rights to these are now held by Libra Records, who have reissued Volume Two (Volume One may be reissued later), and for whom Lear has recorded her subsequent volumes.


I followed the 3rd Scherzo with the score and I cannot say I noticed any point at which Angela Lear was not following the Paderewski edition I had in front of me (but here we are: which are the "wrong" editions and where are they wrong, exactly?) Ė or at which she was doing so while the likes of Rubinstein departed from it. Maybe this piece is not an ideal example since it is not one of those subject to traditional "maulings". The common aberrations which one might expect to see corrected, given the premises of the enterprise, are two: firstly, the opening bars are often played more slowly than the basic tempo, with "creative" interpretation of the rests; and secondly, when the chorale-like theme is alternated with gossamer figuration in the upper reaches of the keyboard, pianists are inclined, given the extreme difficulty of leaping up from the former to the latter and actually getting the right notes straight off, in the right pianissimo touch, to take their time in moving upwards, respecting the alternating character of the two musical ideas but playing havoc with rhythmic continuity. Both these "aberrations" are present in Rubinsteinís 1960s RCA recording, if to a lesser degree than in most other performances. Over both these points Lear is more, not less, indulgent than Rubinstein. In addition, there is also a suspicion that while Lear is coping with the notes very competently, Rubinstein is displaying a wizardry that goes beyond mere notes.

In the Boléro Lear emerges creditably beside Rubinstein. The differences donít really have much to do with interpretation or with their basic view of the piece (so Rubinsteinís is "original Chopin" too?), itís just that Rubinstein is a better pianist. His open octaves have an "I mean business" air, his flourish goes up like a rocket and he separates melody from accompaniment, or points up harmonic changes, just that little more

The E major Nocturne raises another matter. Learís melodic line does not particularly sing, and in so far as it is separated out from the accompanying chords, it is done so by persistently playing with the two hands not quite together. I always thought this was a bad old habit, and maybe Rubinstein thought so too, for he certainly does not do it, nor does he need to since he is quite able to separate the two strands by colouring them. He is also a little faster, without in any way contradicting Chopinís Lento marking, and the agitato section sounds really that, without any hurry, not least because it produces a myriad of textual clarifications which donít seem to be even attempted by Lear. As regards the text, I had the Henle edition and both of them diverged from it in small details. However, I got the impression that, whatever edition they were using, they both had the same one. The Henle edition has collected a certain amount of flak, but inventing pedal markings was not on its agenda so what is the authority for the surely effective long pedal in the third and fourth bars from the end, ignored by both Rubinstein and Lear?

Without going into all the numerous comparisons in the G minor Ballade, here I must say that Lear, just by playing straight, produces a pleasingly sincere performance. It is the coda that fails to clinch the argument. She can be heard negotiating all the notes very ably but the difference between this and, say, Horowitz (just so as not to say Rubinstein every time) is the difference between a creditable performance and a scorching musical experience. And is it not conceivable that Chopin himself, the "original Chopin", might have made a scorching musical experience out of it ?

The B minor Mazurka is, above all, placid, except where the triplets in the crossed-hands section seem to throw her and the rhythm rocks every time. A comparison with Nina Milkina revealed a stronger undertow of emotion but this is perhaps not one of Milkinaís finest performances. Go to the first Rubinstein set (finely transferred on Naxos) to hear a melodic line spun over the accompaniment with a vocal freedom yet never betraying the mazurka rhythm. And you will never make me believe that Chopin himself would not have better recognised himself in this.

In the notes to the Polonaise-Fantaisie, "Those Who" get severe reprimand. The "entirely new tonal effects", which were "produced by a deep understanding of touch allied to subtle pedalling techniques, transformed piano sound. (It is unfortunate that Chopinís original pedal markings remain largely unknown)". So "Those Who" have been mucking up Chopinís original pedal marks. Which editions are wrong? Isnít a single one of them right? As far as my humble ears can tell, Lear follows exactly the markings in the Polish "Paderewski" Edition. If these are Chopinís own, then I should have thought most pianists were aware of them. Alfred Brendelís 1968 recording pedals the passage in exactly the same way Ė and we all know that Brendel is not the man to use discredited editions or to indulge in arbitrary interpretations of correct ones.

The comparison between these two performances is only too revealing. Taken separately, Learís is a pleasing demonstration of how a sincere belief in Chopinís text and a basic musicality can allow the music to tell its own tale (except that here, too, triplets seem to flurry her Ė she plays them too fast). Itís just that Brendel goes farther up and farther in at every turn, with a just dialogue between the hands in the B major section and an overall structural sweep that makes one single, impassioned statement of a piece that can seem sectional. (Brendel has turned rarely to Chopin but his one-off disc of Polonaises is a fascinating document; it is currently available from Brilliant Classics as part of a 6 CD box, 99351, and will be reviewed in due course).

The op. 17/4 mazurka is very successful. Given the premises of "the original Chopin" it must be said that it has about as many "personalised" rhythmic pointings (in the first interlude) as anybody elseís; also, it is just as far as everybody elseís from Chopinís metronome mark. This is a very swift marking and would seem incompatible with the "Lento ma non troppo" tempo indication. I donít advocate its observance, I merely point out that this "original Chopin" ends up by raising doubts as to whether the Chopin we know is so very "unoriginal". In this case Lear is to be commended for an excellent performance.

Learís A flat Ballade is enjoyable, but Richterís recently issued 1960 Carnegie Hall performance (RCA Red Seal 09026-63844-2 Ė if you havenít got it then drop everything and run to the nearest shop) is on another plane of existence. Even if you will look no further than a correct realisation of the notes, then a speeding up of the "leggiero" section (a mere few bars) is Richterís only textual sin. But for heavenís sake, just listen to how every phrase at the beginning speaks, how you can hear where each phrase is leading, and listen to how he builds the work up to an overwhelming climax.

The B flat minor Scherzo shows Lear at her best, a sensitive, technically secure performance that builds up well. I canít honestly say I noticed anything musically or textually different from the norm, in spite of the implied swipes at "Those Who" in the notes. Referring to the opening bars we are told "It is crucial .. that the irregular silences are measured as indicated". I concur, and so, apparently, do many other interpreters, so I wonder who "Those Who" donít count them out actually are. Well, a barís rest is lopped off between bars 23 and 24 in this performance, though not at the corresponding point later on. Maybe the extra barís rest (I have the Polish "Paderewski" Edition in front of me) is one of those mistakes we have been making all our lives, but then why not say so? We are also told in a footnote that "Chopin was very particular with regard to the performance of the opening triplet figure of this Scherzo .. and wrote: ĎIt must be a question Ö a house of the deadí." "Those Who" had got that wrong too, evidently, yet I can hear no basic difference in character between Learís opening and Rubinsteinís. What I do hear is that Rubinsteinís sound has a sharper profile, it speaks more. This is the difference between great and lesser pianism, but Chopinís text is respected in both cases. Lear also comments that "these figures are usually snatched with an abrupt staccato Ďedgeí to the phrase ends". Not by Rubinstein.


I decided to try another tactic with the next disc. Not to follow through with the score and bring out the comparisons but just to sit back and let Lear play me a Chopin programme and see whether the basic sense of communication is there. The trouble is I couldnít keep it up. The opening of the F minor Ballade seemed so slow and spelt out, rather mannered in its halting presentation, that I had to get out the score and start again. The funny thing is, with the score it seemed reasonable enough. So having got to the end I tried again without the score. My conclusion is that, while Lear keeps large-scale tempo changes to a minimum, her actual phrasing, and the rubato she uses to point it, is very much on a bar-to-bar basis, with the result that what looks like a fair representation of the score if you follow it with the music open actually gets stuck over and over again, so that the listener who just wants a musical experience never really gets engaged. Itís all quite nice (but, given the "original Chopin" theme, wouldnít one expect the stretto from bars 199-202 to be carried through to the end, instead of being turned into a rallentando in bars 201-2, and the staccato chords to be that, instead of the last one being held an age with the pedal?). So there was nothing for it, out came Richter, an under-identified performance from 1962-1966 on AS 343 and, truth to tell, he indulges in no more tempo licence than Lear (bars 199-202 are virtually recomposed by means of the sustaining pedal but, as Iíve just pointed out, Lear doesnít play what Chopin wrote here either). What he achieves and she doesnít is a true cantabile to the themes, a sublime simplicity in his phrasing, always guiding the ear to understand the shape of the phrase, and he concludes with a controlled maelstrom of sound which is beyond the ken of normal people like you and me and Lear.

I actually did enjoy the op. 18 Waltz, feeling it had an enjoyable swing to it, one or two clipped phrases apart. At the same time, I felt it a rather effeminate grace I was being offered, more suitable for certain movements from Schumannís Carnaval than for the more fiery passion of Chopin, even at his most elegant. Still, a nicely-turned account.

The B minor Scherzo is rather the case of Columbus and the egg. Itís deftly managed, with a warmly-phrased middle section. But this just doesnít go far enough when others offer a demonic brilliance in the outer sections and poetic magic in the central lullaby.

In both the B major Nocturne and the C sharp minor Polonaise I found once again that, while Lear keeps steady tempi in the long term, in the short term her playing can be distractingly fidgety, and with some more of her snatched triplets in the Polonaise, too. No, I got limited enjoyment out of these.

Where the music is straightforwardly melodic, as in the E flat Nocturne (and here we do get a textual novelty in the form of a different cadenza noted down by Mikuli) and the early Polonaise, she can be very pleasing (but couldnít we have had more sense of surprise as the Polonaise introduces its Rossini quotation?). The F major Ballade is a pleasant affair, too, though the placidity of the opening seems closer to the world of Sterndale Bennett than of Chopin. From the start of the Mazurka Nina Milkinaís performance conveys a stronger profile, the music is going somewhere, with Milkina developing a full head of passion as the music reaches its climax. Richter may sometimes seem on the verge of flying out of control in the Scherzo, but he conveys something. Iím afraid I have to record a sorry case not unlike that of Helmuth Rillingís Bach, where a lifetimeís dedication to the notes the composer wrote seems to me not to have resulted in any larger understanding of what the music says.


This disc brings with it a further manifesto in the form of a free extra disc in which Angela Lear talks about playing Chopin, first in general and then entering into some detail over the B flat minor Sonata. On a number of occasions she goes to the piano and gives us a few bars of a typical "Those Who" performance, adding comments such as "Terrible!", "an amorphous mass of sound", then following the demonstration with the same passage in what she believes to be the correct manner. The problem is that, while Lear may not mean to imply that the "terrible" performances are typical of the likes of Rubinstein or Horowitz, some people might get that idea. This is a point where I feel strongly that "Those Who" should have been named. Could not Lear have illustrated her points with actual examples from recordings by pianists who, however famous, she feels are imposing their own egos on the composer? Alternatively the suspicion is that "Those Who" are over-enthusiastic students or young hopefuls just entering the concert-giving arena. But Lear does need to prove that she is way above that level. It should be clear by now that, while I donít think she plays the piano as well as Rubinstein or Horowitz, I donít for a moment suggest she is less than professionally competent. (And I havenít overlooked the fact that each programme, except the last, was the result of a single dayís session, which means there was virtually no time for faking. Most artists expect two or three days to record a 70-minute programme). Speaking of the finale of this Sonata, she lets us hear it in two ways, one an unholy mess, the other a good, very clear performance. Still, the difference remains; that between an everyday performance and a good one. Rubinstein lets us hear it in a third way. He maintains the sotto voce marking as Lear does, he maintains clarity as Lear does, but within this pianissimo sound he finds an infinite variety of tone, he makes the phrases say something, and the final forte pay-off is not just loud; it is stomach-wrenching.

However, the Sonata performance as a whole has many strengths. Regarding the first movement, Lear does raise two important points. Firstly, the main body of the work is doppio movimento, exactly double the tempo of the slow introduction, while some performances tear away at far more. Secondly, the climax of the development, as it spills into the recapitulation, is hair-raisingly difficult and the maximum tempo in which it can reasonably be done has to be the tempo for the whole movement Ė there can be no putting on the brakes. It is certainly interesting to hear this movement expounded rigorously and steadily, and with the repeat. However, Rubinsteinís 1946 recording is no less aware of these points (albeit repeatless) though the actual tempo is faster. He seems to be virtually flagellating the piano at the climax of the development, thrills and spills galore, but he manages to hold the tempo and to engage the listener.

In the Scherzo it is Lear who makes little rhythmic nudges here and there, compared with Rubinsteinís direct virility. The lyrical sections of this movement, and the trio of the funeral march, find him playing with peerless eloquence (and no distortion), and he knows just as well as Lear does that the trio has to go at the same tempo as the march itself. Learís left-hand-before-right is rather irritating here.

Regarding the funeral march, Lear insists (probably rightly) on the need to place the grace notes on the beat, and protests that despite her efforts, a critic commented that she plays them before the beat. The trouble is, while she certainly makes the grace-note and the left-hand coincide, she rather nervously makes both come in ahead of the beat, so it really does sound as if the grace note is anticipating the beat. She and her critics seem to be both right and wrong in equal measure.

As for the remainder of the programme, the A flat Impromptu lacks real lightness of touch and has a doggedly heavy middle section, but the next few pieces show Lear in altogether more favourable light. The "Lento con gran espressione" has real poetry and a real feeling for its harmonic movement. And, if in this rare piece I may be thought more lenient because comparisons with the various 'Those Who" are lacking, I found the F sharp Nocturne equally fine, warm and flexible in just the right way. The E flat Waltz, another rare piece, is nicely turned but the F sharp Impromptu is a shade perfunctory and, strangely given her strong words about "Those Who" make unauthorised tempo changes in Chopin, Lear rather forges ahead in the middle section. She is to be commended for keeping the elaborate return to the opening subject so clear, the pedal exactly as written, unfortunately she makes it sound so dry.

The early Marche Funèbre is sensitively done; this piece was new to me, so I cannot tell whether a certain monotony is attributable to the composer or the performer. But in the op. 50 Mazurkas she brings over-inflected rhythms to bear on all three of them and loses the cadence of the dance. The famous op. 53 Polonaise is competently played but this is hardly enough when the likes of Rubinstein Ė for one Ė can turn it into proudly patriotic statement without any need for distortion.


Here, too, we get a companion disc. This starts off with a talk by Professor Guy Jonson, Learís former teacher and now her mentor, and for many years Head of Piano Studies at the Royal Academy of Music. The gist of it is that heís seen it all and itís all awful Ė except Lear. Then Lear herself tells us all about playing the Preludes. Again, she has a lot of fun demonstrating "Those Who" performances, but really, sheís flogging a dead horse. As early as no. 2 her examples of how not to do it are so grotesquely unmusical that no professional pianist on any level would be so ghastly. As a series of tips for students the disc might have some use, but the implication is that Rubinstein et al have never noticed these points. I must say, too, that having spent very many hours trying to get the right syncopated effect in no. 1, I rather resent being lectured on the matter as if Lear has discovered it herself.

However, the disc itself is a pleasant surprise. Not, maybe, the first few Preludes, for no. 1 is a little dry and the left hand doggedly intrusive in no. 3. But I was captivated by no 10, its Mazurka-hints integrated for once tempo-wise with the cascading quintuplets, and by and large I found that thereafter Lear was at last arguing her case with spontaneity and a real appreciation of the music. The Preludes are perhaps the most difficult Chopin works to get right (though some would say the Mazurkas) since the brevity of most of them means that if the mood and touch of each one is not spot on from the beginning itís too late to save the situation. Generally I found myself sufficiently in thrall to set aside memories of other interpretations and simply enjoy these.

The RAM acoustics (only the Preludes and Mazurkas were recorded in the usual Bristol venue, and four years separate the sessions) are more brilliant, but a touch clattery. Nevertheless I thought the Valses had much vitality and Learís insistence on a steady waltz-tempo is triumphantly vindicated. There is also much quiet poetry in the Nocturne and the Barcarolle, not quite an impressionistic evocation à la Lipatti, but joyously fluent all the same. The Mazurkas find the natural rhythm which eluded the previous Mazurka performances.

So Volume Five deserves a place in our library of Chopin discs for reference, and this raises the question of whether in her own home, or in a public recital, she can achieve that easy dialogue with the music which had previously largely eluded her in the studio? Can it be that her many admirers who were instrumental in bringing this series about had heard her play "in the flesh" with a flair and communication which didnít come through at first to those who only know her by the discs? The earlier volumes, as I made clear, suggested something rather limited. Now Iím not quite so sure. If her next Volume is on this level, I shall look forward to hearing it. And I wonder if she is really doing the best she can for herself by sticking so rigidly to Chopin. Surely she would make a good Brahms pianist, and how about some clear-headed, un-neurotic Scriabin?

Christopher Howell

Return to Index

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.