Like the companion article "A Quintet of Goldbergs",
this derived from the submission for review of the recording by Craig
Sheppard. It also gave me the occasion to review the recording by Nina
Milkina, something I had been fully intending to do ever since I reviewed
her set of the Mazurkas about a year ago. In choosing three further
comparative versions I mean no disparagement of the innumerable other
recordings, many of the highest calibre, which have been made over the
years. My object has been to present a study of certain aspects of performing
the Chopin Preludes, using the five chosen versions as illustrations.
My choice fell upon two of the most famous "historical" versions,
by Cortot and Rubinstein (my choice of his 1946 version was purely casual),
and a late 20th Century interpretation which has acquired
classic status in some quarters, that by Maurizio Pollini.
The Sheppard is live and unedited and is part of the
series of Sheppard releases available from Annette Tangermann, at the
address given above.
Like the Milkina Mazurkas, her Preludes were recorded
for Pye and the rights are now owned by EMI who have so far shown no
interest in them. Unlike the Mazurkas, however, the Preludes were not
issued at the time. The sessions were rather fraught since they were
mostly taken up in waiting for the piano tuner to come and repair some
technical deficiencies of the instrument. Milkina did finally get to
play the pieces but was thoroughly upset by that time and did not pass
the results for issue. And so the tapes languished until many years
later when Milkina, having by then retired from public performance for
health reasons, listened to them again and conceded that they were "not
bad". EMI made the tapes available to her family and so this private
issue, available from Alex Sedgwick at the above address, was issued
in time for her 80th birthday in 1999.
I have not given numbers for the Cortot and Pollini
versions since I worked from old LP pressings. However, the reader who
wishes to follow this up is assured that the Pollini has rarely if ever
been out of the catalogue since it was issued and any dealer will happily
advise. The Cortot recordings have long been out of copyright and have
been issued by practically all smaller labels specialising in historical
material, as well as by EMI themselves. Note that this 1934 version
is not Cortot’s only one. Since he changed his interpretations with
a certain liberty my comments may not much a lot of sense to you if
you have one of the others. Again, a dealer will advise as to what is
available at present. Also for the Rubinstein you should seek information
since his recordings are being continually recycled, but most of them
remain available in some form.
In my article on the "Goldbergs" I found
space for comment on each single variation. It rapidly became obvious
that to discuss properly each of the Chopin Preludes would result in
a book rather than an article, so I have extended the "quintet"
principle further and chosen five contrasting preludes: 1, 10, 13, 18
2. A QUINTET OF COMPARISONS
1. C major
Timed variously between 0’ 38" (Pollini) and 0’
48" (Milkina) you might think this tiny piece would be over and
done with before there was much time to think about how to interpret
it. And you’d be about as far from the truth as it is possible to be.
As with the op. 10 Studies, Chopin starts off with
what is ostensibly an arpeggio-based flourish. The C major study is
a famous stumbling block and most who attempt it for the first time
find they just can’t get through without getting seizures in their right
wrist and having to abandon it somewhere on the second page. And for
many, things don’t get any better the second time, or the third, or
indeed ever. And yet the problems Chopin set up are nowhere as complex
as those of the C major prelude.
If you can master the notes of the first study,
then nothing really stands in the way of your giving a reasonably effective
performance of it. Most middle-to-higher grade students, on the other
hand, can manage the notes of the first prelude, but that somehow brings
them little satisfaction. Often, out of desperation, they kick the traces
and play it fast and loudly, with lots of pedal, hoping to cover their
doubts in a sea of sound. If they are potentially sensitive artists
they realise this is getting them nowhere and start to look at the score
Where is the melody, for a start? Probably, it is thumbed
out in the right hand in the middle of the texture; Sheppard, Milkina,
Cortot and Pollini agree in finding it there, at least most of the time.
But the upper line in the right hand also follows the melody line, joining
it two semi-quavers later in each bar, then finishing the bar together.
For Rubinstein, the melody is here and the first three triplets of the
bar are a sort of upbeat to it. He even indulges in some quite extreme
rubatos to make sure we hear it that way. The trouble is, if Chopin
had wished us to hear the piece as Rubinstein plays it, logically he
would have barred it the other way round, beginning on the upbeat.
If we side with the majority and find the melody in
the thumb-notes, the next problem is that it’s syncopated. The
lowest note of the left-hand always falls on the first beat of the bar.
At the beginning and for most of the time thenceforth the melody note
follows on the second semiquaver. In Cortot’s recording the first bass-note
of the prelude doesn’t appear to be present at all, but since the ensuing
performance is among the best-managed from this point of view I presume
that elderly recording conditions are to blame. Other pianists begin
by placing the first bass-note ruminatively, but in the ensuing maelstrom
they often lose sight of it, as happens with Sheppard. Milkina manages
better, but the pianist who keeps the bass note tolling at the beginning
of every bar, making us feel that each bar derives from it, is
Sometimes, however, the melody note is not syncopated,
it sounds on the first beat of the bar together with the bass note.
If the pianist makes no rhythmic pointing at all, the listener will
hardly notice these changes. A striking effect is obtained by Rubinstein.
If we accept his way of turning most of the bars on their head, then
the non-syncopated bars, in which the rhythm returns the right way round,
do register most strongly.
And then there are the dynamics and the tempo markings.
The prelude is marked agitato, and the dynamic level is mezzoforte.
All five pianists produce a plausible response. Then there is a crescendo
which starts in bar 13, joined by a stretto (accelerando) from
bar 17. Dotted lines indicate that both of these continue until bar
21. Then for three bars nothing is indicated, until the piano
marking in bar 25. The literal interpretation of this would be that
the tempo reached by the end of the stretto is maintained to
the end, while the dynamic level suddenly drops to piano at bar
25. Though this would be realisable, none of these five pianists appear
to believe that Chopin intended it. The general opinion seems to be
that the three bars – 22-24 – in which Chopin wrote no indication are
to be treated as a transition back to the piano in bar 25; that
is to say, an unwritten diminuendo and rallentando are
to be applied – a very big rallentando in Sheppard’s case, a
very slight one with Pollini – over those three bars. And more; all
of them, Pollini included, agree that the rallentando begins, not in
bar 22, the first of the bars where nothing is written, but in bar 21
which is, according to Chopin’s own indication, the last bar of the
A further matter which seems to find them all in agreement
is that Chopin didn’t really mean it when he wrote the piano.
None find a dynamic level which is discernibly different from their
initial mezzoforte; for Sheppard the piece starts again after
his big rallentando, for the others the piano is simply
a stage along the way of a gradual winding down which begins at bar
21 and lasts till the end of the piece.
Another question is, how much rallentando to make at
the end? None is written yet it would surely be impractical to make
none at all. Milkina and Pollini find time to let us savour the C major
chord sounding on its own in the last bar but two before playing the
final arpeggio – a very beautiful effect which is obtained simply by
taking the pedal off where Chopin indicated.
The inescapable conclusion is that none of the five
has given us entirely what is written. Rubinstein’s febrile originality,
however effective on its own terms, surely removes him from serious
consideration and Sheppard’s large rallentando and "starting again"
at bar 25 restructures the piece. The pianists who are least distant
from Chopin are Pollini and Milkina. But we have to make another consideration;
the actual sound they make. Nobody could ever say that Pollini, at least
as recorded, makes a particularly beautiful sound. It is impossible
to tell, from the clangy recording, what sound Rubinstein made; Cortot
(despite the age of the recording), Sheppard and Milkina all achieve
a warm, rich sound. So Milkina takes the final honours in this prelude.
10. C sharp minor
The c sharp minor prelude alternates cascading semiquavers
with chordal passages which suggest mazurka-rhythm. A similar idea,
in miniature, to that of the Schubert A flat impromptu (D.899 no. 4).
Except that Schubert is a classical composer and any responsible
interpreter is going to play the cascading semiquavers and the chordal
passages at pretty much the same tempo. This is Chopin, and Chopin,
so the idea goes, needs interpretation.
Whether or not it is musically feasible or desirable
to play the whole piece – which lasts, by the way, between 0’ 38"
(Pollini) and 0’ 27" (Sheppard) – in a uniform tempo is not something
which has ever been put to the test in my experience. All performers,
certainly all five here, seem to accept as their starting point the
thesis that the cascades and the mazurka-hints have to go at different
tempi. As a result of a few private experiments I’ve tried myself, I
would say that if you do not prolong the last beat of each mazurka section
but keep strict time as you move on to the next group of cascades, both
your hands have to jump a long way very quickly. Far be it from me to
suggest that such distinguished artists let technical considerations
shape their interpretation but, by pure coincidence, their chosen rhythmic
shaping has eliminated a technical hurdle.
Other problems in this prelude?
Firstly, the pedalling. Chopin has rather oddly indicated
some touches of pedal where you might not expect them (on the cascades)
and none where you probably would (in the mazurka bars; curiouser and
curiouser, he marks a brief dab of pedal under the left hand trill in
bar 8). His pedal indication in bar 10, in particular, is surely only
realisable on a piano of his own time. The main thing is to keep it
all clear, and all five succeed in this.
Secondly, the accents. In the second of each of the
pairs of mazurka bars, the third beat has an accent, in accordance with
mazurka traditions. Is an accent sufficient justification for making
a pause? These five performers seem to think it is.
And finally, the last four bars. No rallentando is
marked. However, the last dotted rhythm has a rest inserted whereas
it was legato previously. If the bar is played fully in time, nobody
will hear the difference. So, with this semiquaver rest as their justification,
all five finish with a rallentando.
But now let us hear what the five pianists actually
Sheppard: Very light cascades, not one hundred per
cent even but still attractive. The rhythm in the first mazurka group
(bar 4) is unclear. This is a hazard of recording live and would certainly
have been remade in a studio recording. The mazurka sections begin more
or less in tempo and the hold-up before going on to the next cascade
is fairly small. The bare octave As two bars before the end are made
the herald of a considerable rallentando.
Milkina: The cascades are slow enough to allow the
entire piece to assume a more sombre, minor-key, hue. Only minimal latitude
is taken in shaping the mazurka sections. Though unmarked, the sudden
pianissimo in bar 13 is very beautiful. Also here the bare octave
As usher in a slower tempo for the last two bars, though the mazurka
rhythm is not lost sight of. An unusual feature is the slower-than-usual
arpeggiation of the left hand chords – slow enough to create a sort
of dotted rhythm on its own account. Even so, this seems the nearest
of the five to what Chopin wrote.
Rubinstein: The cascades have a clarity that is the
stuff of legends. Thanks to his big hand, Rubinstein doesn’t need to
arpeggiate the left hand chords. Chopin had a big hand too so, if he
wrote arpeggio signs in front of chords he could have encompassed easily,
maybe he wanted the arpeggios for musical reasons. In fact, Rubinstein
seems a mite aggressive.
As for the mazurka sections, Rubinstein restructures
the piece according to an agenda of his own. The first group is almost
in tempo, the second also, with a lion’s roar of a trill and a larger
pause on the last crotchet before taking up the next cascade. The third
group is much slower and very soft, the fourth begins close to tempo.
In spite of making a considerable rallentando at the end, the semiquaver
rest in the right hand of the last bar is completely ignored.
Cortot makes an unmarked pause on the first note before
cascading downward. To emphasise the mazurka rhythm he plays the chords
detached in the first mazurka group, in place of Chopin’s indicated
legato. In the second mazurka group the impetuous left hand trill dominates
the texture. There is a considerable pause before taking up the next
cascade. At the end the right hand rest is brought out with an expressive
hesitation, about the only thing he could do when he has inserted rests
into this rhythm right through the piece.
Pollini goes beyond Cortot in playing the whole first
upbeat in rallentando. The mazurka sections enter in tempo but each
one makes a larger rallentando at the end as the piece proceeds, that
in bars 11-12 being very considerable indeed. Like Rubinstein, Pollini
restructures the piece according to an agenda of his own. The final
dotted rhythms are almost double-dotted. The left hand trill in bar
7 is very lightly sketched in.
13. F sharp major
What an unspeakably beautiful piece this is, and how
difficult it is to do it anything like justice! Firstly there is the
left hand figure which is ever-present in the outer sections; it must
not be clouded with pedal, yet an unpedalled performance would be unthinkably
dry. It must be flexible, because it is not a sternly rhythmic ostinato,
but it must not be rubatoed out of shape. Then there is the melody itself.
The upper line must sing, but all three notes of each chord must have
their weight. And what to do about the fact that the first three notes
of the melodic phrase are the same? The second has to have a little
less weight because it is on the weaker beat, but then how do you make
the three chords grow, without actually applying a crescendo, which
The middle section is marked più lento
and, apart from the beauty of its melody, it is accompanied by a mixture
of repeated notes, which must be neither obtrusive nor obsessive – this
is not the "Raindrop" prelude – and moving counter-melodies,
which Chopin has not specifically asked to be brought out but which
we must hear, and will do if the texture is transparent enough. In the
last two bars of this section the chords become richer, increasing to
six notes. It is one of the most expressive moments in all Chopin, and
the danger is for the performer to love it "not wisely, but too
well" by playing it more loudly. But no increase of dynamics is
When the opening section returns a higher countermelody
is added; the chords are splayed out far more widely than the human
hand can play together so, in addition to the problem of making the
contrapuntal layers clear, there is that of finding the exact moment
in which to place the higher notes.
Finally, there is a reminiscence of the middle section.
No rallentando is marked. Is this to be played più lento,
as it was before, or should it be strictly in time?
Let us now see how our five chosen pianists deal with
the problems of this piece.
Sheppard unfailingly produces a warm and beautiful
sound. He starts by holding the first bass note and then setting the
left-hand quavers in motion gradually, to create an accelerando effect
over the first bar and a half, compensating with a holding back when
the harmony changes. This to-ing and fro-ing of tempo is in itself perfectly
consistent with Chopin-esque rubato, but there are signs that he is
living more for the immediate effect than for the longer line. He breaks
Chopin’s second long phrase with something like a double-dotting in
bar 4; and bar 8, where the left hand is on its own, gets a considerable
rallentando. He anticipates the appoggiatura of the following
bar to such an extent that it seems like an extra quaver added to bar
8, which therefore finishes with 13 quavers instead of 12. His middle
section begins well, but then he begins to build up a crescendo from
bar 23 and gives a degree of urgency to bars 27-28, beginning the return
to the opening theme at something close to a forte. It’s effective
in its way, but nothing in the score suggests that this is Chopin’s
way. He has one or two "ideas" about highlighting certain
notes in the texture – why single out the 11th quaver of
bar 31 in this way? – and the coda, ushered in with a large rallentando,
has an epic breadth which seems unrelated to what has come before.
This might seem like a catalogue of minute nit-pickings,
but they point towards Sheppard’s opting for the easy solution, or the
"listener-friendly" solution (it is that, make no mistake)
without looking too far below the surface.
Comparison with Milkina at each of the points above
only goes to prove that they do matter. She lets us hear the
quaver rest in bar 4 without it appearing that a new phrase starts from
that point, she allows only the tiniest relaxation in the left-hand
only bar and the appoggiatura is inserted at the end of that
bar (approximately as an upbeat semiquaver) without breaking the rhythmic
flow. As a result of having established a steady tempo, her più
lento for the central section is all the more effective. She is
fairly full-toned at this point, and might quote Chopin’s sostenuto
marking as her justification, but does not increase the volume further.
For the coda she returns to the più lento tempo but keeps
her expression and her dynamics in proportion to the rest of the piece.
Thus far I may seem to be extolling her for mainly
negative virtues. She also gives her left hand quavers a life of their
own, so that they dialogue with the right hand instead of merely accompanying
it (for this reason it very likely never even occurred to her to single
out a note here and there from the texture as Sheppard does). Her counter-melodies
in the central section have a speaking quality. Her actual sound is
at least as beautiful as that of Sheppard and has, in addition, a greater
presence and profile, by the side of which Sheppard’s seems a little
woolly. I realise that a combination of instrument, acoustics and recording
quality (and my own equipment) may have all contributed to this effect
as well as the pianists themselves, but I have to report what I hear.
The Rubinstein performance is infinitely more worthy
of his reputation than was the case in the two preludes discussed so
far. The shortcomings of the recording cannot dim the beauty and richness
of his tone – raising the possibility that the unpleasant sound in no.
1 was not all due to the recording quality. His left hand quavers dialogue
with the right hand as Milkina’s do, but he uses his fuller tone to
produce a more expansive reading (at 3’ 33" his is the most measured
performance; Milkina takes 3’ 08", Sheppard 3’ 11"). Notice
how the quintuplets in bar 4 are made to sound very "special",
without any distortion of the line. His central section is not much
different in tempo from the first and he does not attempt Milkina’s
speaking quality in the left hand counter-melodies. Instead he proceeds
with a noble simplicity which is moving in its own right. His sudden
swelling of the dynamics in bar 26, however, is exactly the opposite
of what Chopin wrote. His split chords in the last section are split
much more quickly than by Sheppard or Milkina – as nearly as is possible,
he sounds the notes together; and that is a lot more nearly than you
or I could without losing control over the tone.
Cortot and Pollini both take a more mobile view of
this prelude (2’ 35" and 2’ 33" respectively). For Cortot
the left hand quavers are as gently lapping waves – clear but subordinate
to the singing upper line which is the memorable feature of this performance.
He treats the three repeated notes with which the piece opens as a gigantic
upbeat to the first harmony change, but not quite to the extent of reversing
Chopin’s barring. Doubts arise, rather, in the central section which
is scarcely più lento at all and has a rather agitated
feeling which some severe moments of uncoordination between the hands
do nothing to dispel. However, his sudden highlighting of the inner
line in bar 26 is not as capricious as it sounds – it is at least a
possible interpretation of Chopin’s short diminuendo sign. True to his
agitato interpretation of the central section, he begins the
penultimate bar agitato too, and makes an extraordinarily beautiful
thing out of the final relaxation. Whether you feel it is justified
by the score is another matter.
Alone among these pianists, Pollini’s playing of the
chords creates an effect which is vertical not horizontal; each
for itself, interrupting rather than creating a musical line. Consequently
this, the fastest of the five performances, is also the most stagnant.
Like Cortot he rather roughs up the central section at a più
lento which is only nominally so and, like Sheppard, his coda is
out of proportion to the piece as a whole. One feels that, for Pollini,
this prelude is to be despatched with a minimum of decorum as a sort
of interlude between the more satisfyingly thunderous pieces on either
side of it.
Here again, it would seem that Milkina is closest to
what Chopin wrote, but it was also comforting to find Rubinstein on
18. F minor
This very brief prelude - the outside timings are 0’
41" (Rubinstein) and 1’ 02" (Milkina) – has the form of a
dramatic recitative, but does that mean you can do what you like with
it? Chopin’s note values are very clear, as when he inserts a group
of quintuplet semiquavers in a run of normal semiquavers (bar 4). In
Beethoven we are taught that the listener must perceive the faster-moving
quintuplets (five in the space of four) in the context of the passage
as a whole. Does this rule apply to Chopin or do you just barge along
regardless and it comes as it comes? Then in bars 9-13 some short phrases
in semiquavers are interrupted by forzando chords. At the beginning
of bar 9 itself the first two notes are only quavers – they are long
compared to the rush of semiquavers that preceded them. Should we hear
them as two slower notes or does it not matter? At the beginning of
bars 10 to 13 there are two semiquavers. If the first of them is not
strongly accented the listener will perceive an accent on the second,
so throwing the bars out of shape. Also in bars 13-17 a tight control
over the rhythm is necessary if the proceedings are not to degenerate
into a "bash everything in sight" effect. Finally, the last
two chords are preceded by a rest lasting five crotchets (fourth notes).
It’s long if you really count it out. A further point to make is that
Chopin inconveniently wrote no dynamic indication at the beginning.
However, from bar 7 onwards the music is basically in crescendo until
it reaches fortissimo in bar 17. Only the last two chords are
triple forte. Obviously, if you begin triple forte none
of this will come across.
So let’s hear what happens.
Sheppard begins well, clear and not too loud, and we
hear his quintuplets in bar 4. But recording live is not always a good
idea. Some splashes in bar 8 seem to fluster him and he rather loses
control of the situation. The accents come on the second semiquaver
of the bar in bars 10-12, headlong rush (and more spills) is substituted
for rhythmic grip and the long rest at the end is slightly shortened,
"compensated" by a not so slight lengthening of the penultimate
chord. Impressive enough in the midst of a live performance, maybe,
but hardly an execution to put on disc.
Milkina begins more steadily and finds time for a certain
elegance of expression on the first page. Her rhythms are clear and
the performance gains power as it proceeds. Alone of the five pianists,
she gives the long rest its complete value, and how dramatic it sounds!
Although Rubinstein is the fastest of the five, his
exceptional technical address enables him to maintain rhythmic clarity
and grip even amid the turmoil. At the beginning he is almost dry –
Chopin’s pedal marks are ignored – and he makes more of the diminuendo
in bar 12 than any of the others, enabling him to start the new crescendo
from a piano. Unfortunately he opts to re-compose the ending
– there is no other word for it. The five-crotchet rest is shortened
to three and the penultimate chord is changed from a minim (half-note)
to a crotchet (fourth-note).
Cortot plays the whole thing in one mad rush. There’s
not much point in going into detail because there aren’t many. The rests
in bars 9-12 are considerably lengthened, destroying the shape of the
bars, the semiquavers in bar 15 are lost in a welter of pedal and his
"re-composition" of the end is even more drastic than Rubinstein’s;
the rest is cut entirely, and the penultimate chord is shortened to
a crotchet. "All this fuss about a rest", you will say. Yes,
but in a piece as short as this, Cortot and Rubinstein’s omissions and
shortenings amount to, respectively, 7.1% and 4.8% of the piece. A publisher
who issued a copy of, say, "War and Peace" shortened by 7.1%
- it would be a good hundred pages – would be obliged by the Trades
Description Act to describe it as an "abridged edition". Why
doesn’t the same thing apply in music?
Pollini, like Rubinstein, has all the powerful technical
address necessary to make everything clear – perhaps too much so, for
there is a slight suspicion of bluster towards the end. The long rest
is very fractionally shortened, but is still long enough to contain
much drama. This performance and that of Milkina are the only two that
can be taken seriously, and if you feel Milkina is under-powered you
might prefer Pollini’s harder-hitting version.
23. F major.
This is a very delicate piece dominated by the swishing
arpeggios in the right hand. Occasionally a wisp of melody emerges in
the left hand; starting with a trill, these fragments are hard to keep
clear. Chopin’s markings are piano, delicatissimo and Moderato.
This tempo marking is fundamental if we are to hear what is happening.
The only other markings are a poco ritenuto which lasts only
half a bar and a diminuendo followed by a smorzando ("dying
away") over the last two-and-a-half bars. In the last arpeggio
Chopin inserts a non-harmony note, an E flat, and marks it with an accent,
so it resonates through the pedal right to the end. How do our five
pianists interpret all this?
Sheppard’s performance is very beautiful, with a gentle,
veiled sound. An occasional inequality of the semiquavers detracts a
little from the effect and he seeks out traces of melody in the right
hand too, which some may find attractive; others may feel he is gilding
the lily. He prolongs Chopin’s poco ritenuto over several bars,
picking up the tempo only in bar 17; even though this moment marks the
return to the original key of F major, to signpost it in this way risks
imposing a ternary structure on the piece which it does not really have.
His E flat near the end rings out like a bell.
Milkina shows us that the right-hand semiquavers, if
played with a beautifully even tone, have a melodic beauty all of their
own. There is no need to seek out "hidden melodies" in it,
they suggest themselves of their own accord. The poco ritenuto
is no more than that, and the sheer calm as the rippling arpeggios rise
to the top of the keyboard is breath-taking. The smorzando is
not allowed to begin before it is written, but when it comes it is considerable.
The E flat is only lightly touched, so it has cleared from the pedal
by the time the final resting place has been reached. Harmonically daring
though Chopin was, he probably intended an effect such as Milkina produces
rather than an out-of-key ending. Milkina seems calmer than Sheppard,
so it is instructive to find she is one second faster: 1’ 01" compared
with 1’ 02".
Rubinstein is also magically clear and even. However,
he makes the odd decision to substitute Chopin’s a tempo after
the poco ritenuto with a long drawn-out rallentando, almost stopping
before he picks up at bar 17. It’s certainly beautiful, but Milkina’s
is no less so and happens to be what Chopin wrote. The E flat is slightly
more present than Milkina’s, but is far from the tolling bell-effect
that some performers have tried to present. As a result of the rallentando
this is the longest of the performances; 1’ 06".
At a mere 0’ 43" Cortot has substituted an Allegro
for Chopin’s Moderato, but it has to be admitted that it is miraculously
clear. This clarity is also due to Cortot’s ignoring of many of the
composer’s pedal markings, producing a scintillating display which looks
ahead to the world of Ravel’s "Jeux d’eau". The E flat is
strongly emphasised and can still be heard sounding through the last
chord. Though probably not what Chopin intended this performance does
have a magic all of its own.
Even if Pollini is slower than Cortot (0’ 55")
he sounds faster and drier, tossing the piece off as an inconsequential
finger-exercise, a bit of muscular warming-up before dealing with the
final prelude. Such evenness and clarity have a beauty of their own,
but the performance is lacking in humanity. So once again Milkina seems
to have found more in the music. The E flat rings out quite strongly.
3. THE OVERALL EFFECT
My concern now is with the overall effect of the performances,
rather than the minute details. At the same time, since only five of
the preludes have been analysed in detail, I shall need to keep an ear
open for any striking details that are not already implicit in those
The warm, mellow sound of Sheppard’s version is a pleasure
in itself, except that cumulatively one begins to feel the need for
more "ping". Performance and recording seem to aid and abet
one another, for it is the stronger preludes that appear to lack stature
and grip. No. 8 begins inconsequentially and is hardly Molto agitato
or even slightly agitato. No. 12 is a strangely subdued affair,
as is the almost Debussian rendering of no. 16. A failure to offset
the gentler preludes obviously creates an overall imbalance and reduces
the effect even of those that are successful in themselves.
Another general feature is that Chopin’s markings are
observed, but only approximately. Crescendos, diminuendos and rallentandos
begin more or less where they are written, give or take a bar
or two either side; but when the pieces have only a few bars anyway,
that amounts to a fair margin of error. Characteristic of this approximate
approach is a tendency to separate pieces that are already fragmentary
into further fragments. Take bars 72-75 of no. 15, the so-called "Raindrop"
prelude. Chopin’s marking is forte, with a diminuendo to piano
only in the last half-bar. No rallentando is marked. Sheppard makes
a long diminuendo over the whole section, accompanied by an equally
long rallentando, making Chopin’s structure appear a clumsy piece of
joinery, which it is not.
Another tendency is that of seeking out "hidden
melodies" within the texture. A prime case is no. 11. In bars 3-5
the upper notes are sung out and the lower right-hand notes subdued
almost out of existence. You might find this "new" reading
ear-tickling (which in a way it is) and revelatory. I can only suggest
you compare it carefully with those pianists who evidently feel that
the magic of Chopin lies in the way these "hidden melodies"
suggest themselves from within a texture which is created by a limpid
equality of the notes. Another case is no. 14 where by bringing out
"hidden melodies" but not letting us hear where the first
beat of each bar is, the prelude is reduced to an incoherent muttering
which has no sense at all. Incidentally, the unfortunate incident at
bar 8 of no. 21 is a strong argument against putting unedited live performances
on record. These slips matter not a jot in the heat of a live performance
and can happen to anyone, but anyone might not want to have them repeated
every time he hears the piece.
Having sung Sheppard’s praises on other occasions,
notably his "Goldberg" variations which might be imagined
a more arduous undertaking, I am only sorry not to find more to appreciate
here, and ask myself why this is so. I described Sheppard’s approach
to the "Goldbergs" as "listener-friendly". Where
the structure of the piece is one of rigorous austerity, I feel that
a solution which helps the listener to relate to it is wholly beneficial.
Listeners who find the prospect of the "Goldbergs" a daunting
one may well find their point of entry in Sheppard’s performance. In
the case of Chopin the "listener-friendly" nature of the music
is undeniable, but for that very reason hardly needs underlining. Rather,
the artist should seek in the music those qualities of formal perfection
and control which Chopin so admired in his beloved Mozart. In the case
of Chopin the "listener-friendly" solution (and most of this
performance is "nice", I’ll give it that) is rather equivalent
to the "easy" solution.
Unfortunately I have only modified praise for the remainder
of this CD. The separate op. 45 Prelude has a warmly romantic atmosphere
but does not have that natural dialogue between accompanying figures
(which are rather damped down) and melodies which are the hallmark of
a true Chopin player.
I did hope the Scriabin would redress the balance,
since I was highly enthusiastic about Sheppard’s performance of the
Rachmaninov "Etudes Tableaux". To some extent it does display
similar qualities of pianistic colour and elucidation of texture, but
Sheppard also seems to feel that Scriabin’s music, as it is written
down, is inadequate and needs to be "helped out" with generous
doses of rubato which amount to wholesale distortion. This is not the
place to go into detail but if you compare any one of these preludes
with the recording (also live) made in 1979 by Tiziana Moneta you will
hear how a respectful but imaginative response to the score allied to
a technical ability and range of colour at least the equal of Sheppard’s
can reveal the true quality of the music. (I don’t know how you will
make this comparison, though; the Moneta recording was a private issue
made by the Gioventù Musicale d’Italia for its members and I’m
not aware that it has ever been issued on CD. After a few years of extraordinary
promise – she was even hailed as the heir to Annie Fischer – Moneta
opted to specialise in the 2-piano and piano duet repertoire together
with Gabriele Rota; their duo has been much appreciated and has made
Milkina gets a fuller and more satisfying recording.
Technically, it is better than her Mazurka recordings, remarkably good
for its age and a far better sound than I usually associate with Pye
productions of those years.
Overall, it is her innate musicality, her unaffected
warmth, which impress. Not only is she properly observant of Chopin’s
texts but she unfailingly finds a convincing solution to the many problem
which they present. She does not go in for barnstorming virtuosity,
and if you want the performer to have you on the edge of your seat in
no. 12 or 16 (as, in certain moods, I would myself) then you will find
more sheer excitement in certain other performances. On the other hand,
heard in context, she sets up a strong rhythmic pulsation in these preludes
– no. 12 seems a manic mazurka – which ensures that they play their
proper contrasting role in the overall scheme. Her no. 8 may not seem
at first to be Molto agitato but it certainly expresses disquiet,
the more so when we can appreciate for once Chopin’s quite extraordinary
dissonant figuration. Milkina’s way is not the only possible way but
it is consistent and satisfying. The disc is completed with a very beautiful
rendering of the posthumous c sharp minor Nocturne.
If you want thrills, drive and virtuosity pushed to
the verge of the impossible, then Rubinstein might be your man. His
no. 8 is truly Molto agitato, his no. 12 hurtles towards its
doom, as does his no. 24; his 16 is a truly fantastic digital display,
combined with electric rhythm. The problem is that this same approach
is applied in several cases where it is arguably out of place. Unless
you see no. 3 as a cousin to the "Revolutionary" study (their
only similarity is that they both make the left hand work very hard)
you are likely to find Rubinstein’s performance too frenetic by half;
equally hard to defend is his rabid rampage through no. 5.
The harsh and clangy recording may not help Rubinstein
and yet, as already pointed out with regard to no. 13, it does not fail
when the playing itself has the sort of bloom and poetry we expect to
hear from Rubinstein. The closing section of the "Raindrop"
(no. 15) is exquisite, leaving the inescapable conclusion that the earlier
part was just as cavalier as it sounds. The last page or so of no. 17
takes Chopin’s fz markings absolutely literally and is among
the few to really make sense of them. The tempo for this prelude broadens
out around bar 35, as though Rubinstein has suddenly become engaged
with the job in hand. For, truth to tell, far too often he is just uncaring;
nos. 2, 4 and 6 are remarkable only as a demonstration of how perfunctory
a great artist can be when he is not in the right mood. Despite a few
remarkable successes along the way, this Rubinstein version has to be
judged a bitter disappointment.
However, the Rubinstein disc is still worth having,
for the 1946 sessions yielded at least one great performance: that of
the Second Sonata, which is awesome in its barely contained fury and
its on-the-brink impetuosity, contrasted with real tenderness in the
lyrical moments. The Berceuse, too, distils the rarefied poetry of this
piece while the Barcarolle is instead often impatient and unsettled;
Rubinstein’s later recording of this finds all the serenity that is
Cortot was one of the earliest believers in the Preludes
as a single, unitary work, at a time when most pianists viewed them
as source-book from which to extract their favourites. Years of tireless
championing enabled him to weld them into a whole, as if they were one
vast tone-poem. It is true that in matters of detail he could be a law
unto himself – ending no. 5 with a whimsical piano in the place
of Chopin’s forte, for example – and his no. 22 has to join his
no. 18 as an example of incoherent rampaging. His splitting of the hands
and arbitrary arpeggiation of many chords will not please modern tastes.
But it is also true that his singing tone – undimmed by the age of the
recording – has a vocal expressiveness which carries the ear with it
and that the basic character he gives to each piece is in itself almost
always convincing. In the main he does not overturn or ignore Chopin’s
markings though it could be said that he responds to them over-enthusiastically.
His climax to no. 4 is fierily impetuous, but Chopin did after all mark
the lead up to it stretto and write a crescendo which passes
from piano to forte in a very brief space. Rather against
my preconceptions I found this performance an enthralling experience,
infinitely greater than the some of its parts.
The Pollini is a strange case. Scrupulously prepared
and respectful of Chopin’s indications, it is possible to agree with
practically everything he does and yet on another level remain untouched.
The brightly lit sound means that everything is firmly present and that
excludes anything like half-lights, mystery or intangibility. The tendency
to analyse the music in its vertical harmonies rather than to seek out
horizontal singing lines leads to singularly static performances of
some of the slower preludes – nos. 15 and 17 sound almost banal. Other
listeners appear to hear this performance in a different way; I am afraid
I can only enjoy it where, as in no. 24, Chopin is stretching even Pollini’s
powerful technical address to somewhere near its limit and evidently
compels him to engage a little more.
The conclusion seems to be a strong recommendation
for Nina Milkina’s little-known set; don’t be discouraged by the fact
that you can’t just go into a shop and buy it, for it is really worth
having. The other conclusion is that though Cortot may do some odd things
along the way, the overall effect of his performance is terrific and
you should hear this if you are at all tolerant of "historical"
sound. But perhaps these pieces are too important and varied for you
to have just one or two versions of them. I hope at some later date
to return to the fray with another quintet of pianists and another quintet