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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 



CHOPIN Frédéric

Polonaise-fantaisie in A flat, op. 61, Ballade no. 1 in G minor, op. 23 (live 1982), Nocturnes in E flat, op. 9/2 and C sharp minor, op., 27/1 (studio 1957), Barcarolle, op. 60, Etudes in C sharp minor, op. 25/7 and G flat, op. 10/5 (live 1979-80), Nocturnes in B, op. 9/3 and F, op. 15/1 (studio 1957), Ballade no. 4 in F minor, op. 52, Valse in A flat, op. 69/1 (live 1981)
Vladimir Horowitz (pianoforte)
Locations not given, dates as above
BMG RCA RED SEAL 7432168008 2 [73.34]


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Horowitz was in a mischievous mood indeed when he played the Polonaise-fantaisie in a 1982 concert. There are many phrases which have a speaking quality and an exquisite tenderness (in a rich-sounding recording) which they have probably never had before or since. But all sense of proportion seems to have left him, with the hands so uncoordinated as to virtually reinvent the textures, single notes brought violently into the limelight as though saying with a glint in his eye, "ah, you didnít expect that, did you!". At times I hardly recognised the piece, though Iíve studied it and played it in concert myself. Some of his textures, his sonorities and his phrasing are so phenomenal as to make any other pianist green with envy; yet all the same, were I able myself to do all these things (or even one or two of them!), I hope I would resist the temptation actually to do them, for great violence is wrought to the overall line and structure of this noble work. Turn to Horowitzís CBS recording of about ten years earlier (I have this on an LP which doesnít give a precise date) and these whimsical features are still present, but are not allowed to intrude on the overall sweep of a performance which does infinitely greater service to Chopin himself. There could be a case for preferring Rubinsteinís grand yet songful simplicity in this work, but the Horowitz performance to remember is certainly not this one.

However, op. 61 at least finds Horowitz strikingly involved in every note he plays. The trouble with the G minor Ballade is that he sounds as if he has flogged the old war-horse so often over the years as to have lost interest in it. The gestures are all too automatic, and here, also, there is an earlier CBS performance, live from the Carnegie Hall in 1968, which is infinitely fresher and generally free of exaggerations.

I find it worrying that this compilation is being put out, not in some "Legendary Recordings" series, aimed at a public which will hopefully know how to separate the grain from the chaff, but in a series which seems intended, to judge from the "Chopin is for you"-style notes, for first-time buyers. Certainly they will have a strange plunge from these 1982 aberrations to the "correct" but also very fine 1957 Nocturne recordings (rather dry and shallow in sound, but not at all bad).

It would seem that the 1982 performances were a diabolic whim of the moment rather than evidence of the terminal decline of a very great artist, for the remaining recent recordings contain some very fine performances indeed of works which Horowitz had not perhaps played quite so often. The Barcarolle is glorious in sound, and no other performance I know is so pervaded by the lapping of the water and the sunlight on the laguna as this one. The C sharp minor Study (Chopinís great anticipation of Scriabin) is also notable for the independence of its contrapuntal singing lines, but within the disciplined framework of the pulsating chords, and the F minor Ballade, a late work which has proved elusive to some of the greatest pianists, has a glorious overall surge, leading to an overwhelming conclusion and with much poetic detail on the way.

A comparison of the "Black-note" Study with an earlier CBS alternative suggests this time that Horowitz never did trouble to find the poetry in this piece, treating it on both occasions as a straightforward Study only, but the Valse gets a performance full of teasing timings which always threaten to go over the top but never quite do.

For once Iím at a loss to know how to recommend this overall. Itís not really for first-timers and BMG would have done better to offer them a Rubinstein compilation though I do see that Rubinstein compilations have entered so many households round the world that they may be reaching saturation-point. Piano buffs are likely to have collected all this in more comprehensive Horowitz Editions and the like. If you are a piano buff and you havenít got these performances of the Barcarolle and the 4th Ballade, then you should certainly get them without delay.

Christopher Howell


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