> Chopin - 24 Preludes op.28 [JL]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
24 Preludes op. 28
Prelude in C sharp minor op. 45
Prelude in A flat major op. Posth.
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor op. 35

Martha Argerich, piano
Recorded 1974 (sonata), 1975 (28 Preludes), 1977 (op. 45/posth)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Legendary Recordings 463 663-2 [61:17]


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The recording companies use all sorts of means by which to recycle old performances from their vaults, the most common being to invent a series such as, "great conductors/artists of the past", "great historical recordings", and so on. It is easy to be cynical about this and some of the stuff that is wheeled out in these circumstances can be questionable. Here we have a disc in Deutsche Grammophon’s "Legendary Recordings" series but I cannot imagine that anyone would quibble at the application of the term "legendary" in this case.

DG have put on the one disc two complete, major Chopin works. This is apt because Martha Argerich never got near to recording the complete Chopin oeuvre: for example, there is no set of the Mazurkas available to posterity.

In this complete version of the Preludes, recorded twenty seven years ago, the tigress of the keyboard laid down one of her finest Chopin performances.

Chopin conceived the preludes as a set (although they are often played as stand-alones) and handled correctly they cumulatively become a powerful single musical experience. All twenty-four keys are used, each major key prelude being followed by its relative minor. The composer cycles through them starting in C major and ends with the final pair in the closely related keys of F major followed by its relative (D minor). The most remote keys are reached in the middle and, generally, these preludes tend to be more complex, reinforcing a feeling of moving into remote territory before returning home. It is a principle inherent in sonata form.

I apologise if this is a bit technical for some, but it helps to show the overall design, an aspect of the music that not all pianists, including some great ones, seem to take into account. A feature of the work is the contrast between preludes – an elegiac number may be sandwiched between displays of virtuosity con fuoco, and therein lurks a potential enemy of a grand design approach. The group of nos. 16, 17 and 18 is a case in point. Pianists who are seduced into overdoing the display side of 16 and 18 are in danger of unbalancing the work.

Argerich delivers no 16 in inimitable tigress fashion with frightening panache and virtuosity, repeating the performance for no. 18. That makes them fabulous on their own, but it is the sort of thing that can militate against the overall flow of things. What is the fate, for example, of the lyrical no. 16, mercilessly squashed between this heavyweight display? Well, Argerich strengthens the lyricism with a kind of masculinity (if I may use the term) that somehow enables it to take the strain. By this and other means she achieves what ought to be the impossible, a satisfying whole whilst not keeping on the lid when a head of steam is building.

She does several things which, in passing, caused my eyebrows to raise. For example, the restraint of no. 4 in E minor is over disturbed by a climax, the strength of which is surely not inherent in the piece. The Raindrop Prelude (no.15), with its repeated A flat throughout I have always considered gains power from an incessant, steady approach but this is not Argerich’s way. These are, admittedly, personal quibbles that are overridden by the overarching consistency of approach that is inimitably Argerich. Some may wish the lyrical preludes were more sweetly lyrical and the contemplative ones more deeply contemplative, but the overall impact is such that for many this is the finest Chopin prelude set ever recorded. One would expect tough competition from the likes of Pollini and Kissin. Both, like Argerich, can make hair-raising pianism sound easy, but Pollini sometimes gives an impression of being emotionally switched off whilst Kissin charges thoughtlessly at the music with a freneticism that cannot allow for the kind of cumulative impact achieved by Argerich.

Some of the music in the preludes sounds like a trial run for the Second Sonata, for example the trio of nos. 16, 17 and 18 mentioned above. The Finale, in its shortness, could easily serve as a prelude. Argerich’s rendering of it, an impossibly smooth sounding combination of speed and virtuosity with restrained dynamic, I find unrivalled. In the Funeral March third movement she is, predictably, less successful. Hers is not a deep contemplation on the mysteries of death. Nevertheless, like the Preludes, the whole work has an overall power that is uniquely Argerich.

A great Chopin disc.

John Leeman

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