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This pianist is thought to be Eugen Indjic


Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Complete Mazurkas

CD 1
B flat (1825), G (1825), opp. 6, 7, 17, 24, 30, 33, 41/1 [the latter is not included in the track listings but it is present]
CD 2
Opp. 41/2-4, 50, 56, 59, 63, a minor "Emile Gaillard" [track 16 not 24 as listed], a minor "Notre Temps" [track 17 not 25 as listed], opp. 67, 68 [tracks 18-25, not 16-23 as listed], D (1832), B flat (1832), C (1833), A flat (1834)
Joyce Hatto (piano)
Recorded 15th March 1992, 27th April 1997, Concert Artist Studios
2 CDs - available separately
CONCERT ARTIST/FIDELIO RECORDINGS 9116-2, 9117-2 [73:29+73:56]

The first complete recording of the Mazurkas, made by Artur Rubinstein in 1938-9 and available on Naxos, included 51 Mazurkas – all those with opus numbers plus "Emile Gaillard" and "Notre temps". The next pianist to record them complete was Nina Milkina in 1970, who played the same 51. I have reviewed both of these and my review of the Milkina recording (a private transfer licensed by EMI) gives ordering details. Many successive complete recordings have added a few further pieces. Joyce Hatto opens with two cheery little mazurkas that Chopin published at the age of 16 and closes with four which, though not published by Chopin, belong to the same period as the first published sets. The Polish Edition contains one further example, but I understand that this and some others plus a few variant readings are included elsewhere in Hatto’s complete Chopin edition.

Complete sets of this kind were not common back in the 1930s and Artur Rubinstein set down the works in five sessions spread over several months. He had learnt a number of the pieces for the occasion. Chopin would probably have been surprised and a little shocked that anyone should listen to all his mazurkas in just two days; such is a critic’s life. But having said that, now look at the above dates and gasp suitably, for Joyce Hatto played all this music in just two days (even if five years apart). In general, three days of sessions would be allowed for a CD though a smaller company employing less famous artists might expect them to do it in two. But these are two CDs. This is obviously music which Joyce Hatto has played and thought about constantly all her life, but even so it says a great deal for her professionalism that her playing is so unfailingly fluent and poised.

My first reaction was that this was something like perfection. The difficult mazurka rhythms are unfailingly judged, in so far as my non-Polish ears can tell (that difficult placing of the second and third beats which is so different from a waltz or even from a non-Polish mazurka and which is so hard for the rest of us to get right). The sound is mellow and attractive, the phrasing relaxed and musical and the music swings between the outdoor folkloristic elements and the indoor salon writing with complete authority. That reservations crept in may be due to my having listened to too many at a time, for certain small points began to have a cumulative effect.

For one thing, though the recording is warm and mellow it rarely expands and one feels at a certain distance from the performer. Nina Milkina’s 1970 recording has the microphones perhaps too closely placed but the sound has more life to it. For another, the slow tempi tend to be very slow, and some of the more melancholy mazurkas hang fire. Certainly the middle section of the bleak op. 17/4 fails to take wing. After an exceptionally convincing op. 56/2, with its bagpipe imitations, the symphonic dimensions of op. 56/3 get rather skittish treatment. The scale of the piece is not conveyed. On the other hand, the last group published in Chopin’s lifetime, op. 63, gets some of the best performances of the set, no. 1 irresistibly Vivace and the other two moving in their valedictory simplicity. Hatto also finds more than many in the uneven posthumous mazurkas.

Probably no one will have the definite solution to every single mazurka. Hatto is remarkably fine in enough of them for her version to take an honoured place among the more famous ones. What I should like to do in conclusion is to compare her with Rubinstein and Milkina, first in three mazurkas in which I particularly appreciated her, then in three where I was less happy.

Op. 6/3

One of the folkloristic mazurkas. Hatto is very precise over the placing of the left-hand accents at the beginning; this is a delightful performance. Rubinstein is a shade more laboured over the accents and then snatches at the theme when the right hand enters; bars 11 and 13 aren’t clear at all. However, Rubinstein and Hatto have the same basic idea. One of the features of Milkina’s mazurkas is the she often takes "Vivace" to mean "Vivace for a mazurka" rather than "Vivace in absolute terms". She is quite a lot slower and gains in grandeur and poetry what she loses in sheer verve. I am very glad to have two such convincing alternatives available.

Op. 56/1

Hatto’s gentle cradling movement at the beginning is very attractive and the different rhythms between the hands are crystal clear. Her gentle approach does not prevent the music from opening out more passionately as it moves into forte. The Poco più mosso sections are magical in their soft, even fingerwork.

Rubinstein is far more extrovert. The opening is not dissimilar to Hatto’s, though he is less careful over the rhythms. As the music heads towards forte he surges ahead impetuously and his Poco più mosso sections positively scamper away. He concludes the piece with a grandstand accelerando.

Milkina is marginally slower than Hatto, but the interesting thing is how different her whole approach is. She finds a grandeur in the music and a strength which the others do not even attempt. Possibly she is the pianist of the three who makes the most important statement out of this mazurka but I prefer simply to marvel that a short piece of music can receive three such utterly different, yet convincing, interpretations.

Op. 63/2

Having said that Hatto tends to be least convincing in the slow mazurkas, I must say her gentle, valedictory reading of this one is most touching. Rubinstein is a shade faster, without any attempt at a valedictory effect. He displays all the warmth of tone for which he was famous. Milkina is closer in tempo to Hatto but (though the much closer recording may contribute to this impression) finds a more epic tone, rising to a note of protest before the recapitulation. I was particularly impressed by this, but once again, how wonderful to have three such different yet equally successful performances.

Op. 17/4

This was the point where I realised that Hatto wasn’t going to have a perfect solution for every mazurka and it’s only fair to point out that this was perhaps the one in the whole series that satisfied me least.

One of the most inconsolably melancholy pieces ever written, the problem is not to let the music become dreary for lack of contrast. Hatto’s halting main sections are idiomatic and attractive but the music never seems to get away from its beginnings. Though Chopin did not mark any particular change of mood at the first trio section, most interpreters seem to agree that it has to have a suddenly stronger profile. If it does not, as here, it risks saying nothing. The A major section is rather a plod and the final pages, though well done in themselves, add nothing because there is nothing for them to die away from.

Rubinstein, at a rather faster tempo, is certainly not dull but there is something salon-like in his handling of the filigree passages. Rather than being transported out into the Polish fields, one sees the lionised pianist delighting the ladies.

Close recording detracts particularly from Milkina’s performance in this case. The three crotchet chords in each bar chug rather literally, but she does find more contrast than Hatto and a certain grandeur. She at least takes us into the fields and this is the least unsatisfactory performance of the three. I must say, though, that, while Horowitz takes what some might consider appalling liberties, he is the pianist who really makes this mazurka speak.

Op. 41/1

According to the disc cover, Hatto doesn’t play this one at all, and in fact it slips in rather uncertainly as though not quite sure if it is meant to be there. Then at other moments it dances ahead rather skittishly so one way or another Chopin’s Maestoso marking is never quite realised. Also, Hatto’s handling of the mazurka rhythm, usually so true, becomes so mannered at the recapitulation as to hold up the flow of the music.

Rubinstein is not exactly Maestoso either, but he has a wonderful ardour. Though I wouldn’t forsake his performance, I am bound to prefer Milkina’s genuinely Maestoso reading which finds an ardour and a grandeur of its own on the final page.

Op. 56/3

This is one of the most extended of the mazurkas, practically a ballade in mazurka rhythm. Hatto’s rather skittish opening does not convey the idea that this is the beginning of a piece on a large scale. She does find grandeur in certain moments later on but on the whole the performance proceeds too much section-by-section. Rubinstein is far more dramatic and though he makes a small cut (presumably to squeeze it onto a 78 side) he conveys the scale of the piece, as does Milkina with her steadier tempo. She perhaps makes more than either of the others of the sostenuto passage in A flat minor.

When reviewing the first volume of Hatto’s mixed Chopin recitals (which are selected from her complete Chopin recordings, presumably for the benefit of those who are not intending to buy the entire series) I waxed extremely lyrical about her playing. Has prolonged contact with her playing of just one aspect of Chopin’s work modified my opinion?

Not really, for there is very much to be admired here. I would suggest that her rather gentle approach, as though remembering the music from a distance, may be less than ideal if a large number of mazurkas are to be listened to at a stretch, but not necessarily less valid in itself. The pleasant but not wide-ranging recording contributes to this effect, and I wonder if recording all this in two days encouraged a certain sameness of approach? If forced to buy just one out of the three mazurka sets I have considered, I would choose, by a small margin, Milkina, but I am very glad I don’t have to make that choice, for Hatto’s versions can certainly be added to those that count.

Christopher Howell

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