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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
can offer the complete Concert