A generous disc in
terms of playing time, and a useful
coupling of two major forms that Chopin,
in effect, made his own. Strange that
the cover of the product (see scan)
announces only the Préludes
– casual browsers will surely not even
pick it up for fear of being duped!
The reverse is, of course, the case.
Stefan Vladar (born
1965) won the Beethoven Competition
in Vienna in 1985, where he was also
the youngest participant. He has recorded
previously for Sony, and is also active
as a conductor with the Grosses Orchester
Graz (see my article on this orchestra
on Ludwigvanweb.com: (http://www.ludwigvanweb.com/navigation/1,1270,18-11,00.html).
Entering with the present disc into
a crowded field where competition is
fierce, Vladar announces himself as
an interesting artist, always musical
if not consistently illuminating.
Guido Fischer’s eloquent
booklet notes provide good background,
relating each Ballade to the
relevant Mickiewicz ballad that furnishes
the moment of inspiration.
The first Ballade
is probably the most (in)famous of the
four. Horowitz was notoriously incendiary
in its coda; it remains a firm favourite
with Pollini (he first recorded the
work for HMV and encored it in London
as recently as March 2, 2004!). Vladar
begins auspiciously, with an ominous,
portentous ascent from the depths that
leads to a 6/4 section that successfully
maintains an undercurrent of angst.
Yet the very beginning of the contrasting
subject causes doubts to appear – yes,
there is an accent on the initial C-F
fourth in the right hand, but surely
it should not be as hard-edged and boldly
interruptive as this?. The final coda,
too, raises eyebrows. To not treat it
as a mere virtuoso vehicle is a fine
ideal, but at this tempo (slower than
most) surely the correct way to handle
it is to emphasise the more dancing
aspect of the music? And why does Vladar
pull back from the final octave Gs,
a most curious effect like having the
rug pulled out from under one’s feet?
Perhaps the Coda to
No. 1 was a clue, for the more explosive
parts of the F major Ballade need a
similar unbuttoning of the pianistic
collar. Vladar does much that is admirable
here (including not breaking his sound
in big chordal fortes), yet this
listener’s attention became more focused
on the excellence of the recording rather
than the qualities of the playing, surely
a bad sign?.
Of the four Ballades,
it is the Third that comes off best.
Chording is careful and musical, lines
are shaded expressively and trills are
exemplary in that they carry an expressive
meaning. He even makes the section at
around 6’40 sound patriotic! The Fourth,
too, seems better than the first two.
It is characterised by an all-pervading
bed of gentleness that is mixed with
sadness. This is not a consistent enough
set of Ballades to achieve fully
recommendable status, however – perhaps
try Perahia’s poetry on his Gramophone
Award-winning disc (1995: Sony Classics
are, if anything, an even greater interpretative
challenge than the Ballades.
On disc, perhaps the greatest account
is Martha Argerich’s 1977 traversal
on DG The Originals (a MusicWeb
Recording of the Month: )http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2002/Jun02/CHOPIN_Preludes_Son2_Argerich.htm).
Vladar presents a variable set – and
the overall impression is of a collection
of pieces strung together more by temporal
proximity than anything else. In some
ways it is a frustrating account because
moments of magic (No. 21 in B flat;
and especially No. 15 in D flat, the
so-called ‘Raindrop’); beautiful, pearly
tone (No. 17 in A flat); and projection
of quirky, flighty imagination (No.
10 in C sharp minor, the first one of
the series to really command the attention
of the listener) are set against indulgence
(No. 7 in A – emphatically NOT Andantino)
and uncomfortable, harsh sound (No.
12 in G sharp minor). The ‘climactic’
D minor (No. 24) is stormy indeed in
Vladar’s hands. It does not quite act
as the summation of the preceding, nor
is it the climax. It stands apart, though,
in its success. The metallic edge to
the right hand contrasts well with the
dark hues of the left, an effective
juxtaposition especially given the brightness
of the scalic work. The stark, empty
depth of the ending is memorable.
A mixed disc, then
and not one to displace any favourites
on the shelf.