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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, op.11
Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, op.21
Chamber Versions: world premiere recordings
Fumiko Shiraga, piano
The Yggdrasil Quartet: Henrik Peterson, Per Öman, violin; Robert Westlund, viola; Per Nyström, cello; Jan-Inge Haukås, double bass
Recorded Germany 1996
BIS-CD-847 [72:14]

Revelatory experiences in music do not come my way much these days but listening to this disc has been one of them.

It never occurred to me that chamber performance of these concertos would sound so right. In spite of their popularity and steadfast position in the concerto repertory, these are works that have not had a good press. Received wisdom has suggested that, as youthful works (Chopin was around 20 at the time), the piano writing is a sort of watered-down version of the composer's more mature solo pieces. And since his sense of colour was not naturally orchestral, then the writing for the accompanying instruments was considered watery as well. Then there are problems of structure and so on.

The fact that these concertos are not of the piano/orchestra adversarial, war-horse variety - otherwise so popular - then it follows that they may be likely to respond sympathetically to chamber treatment. But the more obvious truth that now dawns on me is that Chopin could not help writing in chamber terms anyway. After all: just as, for example, Bruckner's spiritual sound-world is within the lofty heights of a Monastery or Cathedral, so Chopin's was within the intimacy of the salon or a friend's drawing room. The disc's booklet contains a detailed article that backs this theory, pointing to evidence that Chopin tried the pieces out with a few string-playing friends before publication and indeed may have intended the works for an alternative chamber rendering.

The net result for me, listening to these performances, is that I have now revised my opinion of the works and judge them a great deal better than I thought hitherto. Considerable credit must go to the performers for this. I recommend that anyone considering purchase of this full priced disc should not just do so for curiosity value alone. These are first class performances by any standard. Fumiko Shiraga is a very fine Chopin player and the Yggdrasil Quartet from Sweden (augmented by a double bass), a talented group.

Chopin's music is pretty central to Shiraga's repertory and her way with it is to my taste. She is direct, maintains a sense of forward motion and is relatively free of mannerism although some people may prefer more rubato dreaminess in lyrical passages. I pulled a couple of "great pianist" recordings of Concerto no. 1 off the shelf to make a comparison: Maurizio Pollini and Martha Argerich. Both, as you would expect, are technically flawless, so much so in Pollini's case that he sounds clinical to my ears. Even though he takes the lovely slow movement of Concerto No. 1 slower than Shiraga and with tempo variation, her straight approach carries more beauty and expression. Argerich’s approach here is similar to Pollini’s – with more robustness - but she invests the music with real feeling. Shiraga stands up favourably to this formidable competition

As for the string quintet, the players, in their chamber immediacy, provide a punch that Chopin's orchestral scoring does not normally deliver. There may be a little license here. I do not have a score to hand but as far as I recall, Chopin provides very little guidance in the manuscript in terms of dynamic and accent. The players take their own view that results in a good sense of attack matching Shiraga's playing well. The outcome is a heightened sense of excitement and virtuosity when it comes to those passages where Chopin starts to wind things up. Further license is taken by Shiraga in sometimes playing along in the original score’s orchestral tutti passages. This helps the sense of textural integration. Chopin may well have done this himself in his own performances.

I cannot think of anything that is significantly lost in delivering these performances in chamber mode. One may assume perhaps that the odd rare wind solo would suffer from a loss of colour but I never felt this. For example, the little horn solo near the end of Concerto No. 2’s finale is taken on the piano and it sounds just right.

So my verdict, personal though it may be, is that this is how these two concertos were meant to be. Congratulations to BIS, Shiraga and her players for offering this insightful world premiere recording.

John Leeman

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