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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-47)
Songs without Words
Op. 19 No. 1 in E
Op. 102 No.3 in C
Op. 38 No.6 in A flat ‘Duetto’
Op. 67 No.4 in C ‘Spinning Song’
Caprice Op.33 No.1 in A minor
Variations sérieuses Op.54 in D minor

Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-49)

Nocturne Op.32 No.1 in B
Barcarolle Op.60 in F sharp
Berceuse Op.57 in D flat
Polonaise-Fantasie Op.61 in A flat

Alicia de Larrocha (piano)
Recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York,
December 5–6, 1995 (Mendelssohn), August 3-4, 1997 (Chopin) DDD
RCA RED SEAL 09026 68959 2 [63.15]


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This is a well-planned and thoughtful recital, showing two near exact contemporaries in full command of their genius, and illustrating differences as well as similarities in style. It has taken some years to hit the shops (I’ve no idea what the delay has been), and this fine artist is always worth hearing. Indeed, one of the favourite Mozart discs of my collection is Larrocha and the Vienna Symphony under Uri Segal, playing K.482 and 459, sparkling, fleet-fingered renditions that I return to often. The chief problem here is that little of that sparkle is evident, and comparisons with some of her illustrious competitors finds her playing a little wanting in certain areas that are important for a fuller enjoyment of both composers.

To start with Mendelssohn, the basic selection of music is nicely representative of the composer, with gorgeous, finely-spun melodies juxtaposed with more weighty fair. Larrocha’s rendition of the opening Op. 19 Song without Words is certainly poetic, the wistful main theme nicely shaped. But turning to Perahia (his Sony recital) shows an element of fantasy and romantic temperament that is missing on the RCA disc. This vital extra edge is absent throughout most of the remaining Mendelssohn, her Spinning Song showing a technique that has become slightly too careful for this virtuosic piece. I certainly enjoyed Larrocha’s Variations sérieuses, where the ‘stately’ approach to the Bachian main subject is appropriate. But again, listening to Perahia (on an earlier all-Mendelssohn Sony disc) shows the American in much fuller command of a wide tonal palette; the tricky octaves of variation 3 (piu animato) are heroically despatched, and he is able to achieve a true allegro vivace in variation 8.

As I say, there is much to enjoy in the slower, more introspective sections of Larrocha’s disc, but one feels a whole dimension is missing.

The Chopin half of the disc shows this to an even more cruel degree. Take the Barcarolle, a late masterpiece and one of Chopin’s finest inspirations. I have a number of recordings of this work, and all somehow managed to dig a little deeper below the surface than Larrocha. My current favourite is Dinu Lipatti, showing how tempestuous the piece can be, despite its obvious layer of charm. Of modern versions, Krystian Zimerman gives a truly inspirational account (on DG) that again shows the multi-layered nature of Chopin’s vision; he is also able to point up the harmonic daring that is subtle and needs teasing out. I do like Larrocha’s way with the limpid beauty of the Berceuse, and she keeps a steady pulse instead of too much rubato mauling, not always easy in this deceptive piece. Her Nocturne is a might ‘safe’, and her Polonaise-Fantasie is somehow missing what the composer is wanting in his title – fantasy. Try Pollini (usually criticized for being too cold and unfeeling) on his DG set of Polonaises, and one enters a different world.

All this sounds very unkind to a great artist, but in oft-recorded repertoire such as this, and at full price, one has the right to expect new insights. I’m afraid we get safety first, with any poetic vision or fiery temperament only fleetingly glimpsed. Fans of the pianist will no doubt want this disc anyway, and the recorded sound is very good indeed, but lovers of the music will ultimately get greater rewards elsewhere.

Tony Haywood


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