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Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Complete Piano Works Volume Three

Ballade No.1 in G minor Op.23
Ballade No.2 in F major Op.38
Ballade No.3 in A flat major Op.47
Ballade No.4 in F minor Op.52
Rondo in E flat major Op.16
Rondo in C major Op.73
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
Recorded at Concordia College, Bronxville, New York, December 1989
ARABESQUE Z6630 [64.04]


I’d not previously caught up with Ohlsson’s cycle of the complete solo piano works for Arabesque. Having recently heard him accompany Ewa Podles on disc in Chopin songs, a Warsaw recital of insight, and knowing of the contralto’s famous summary dismissal of accompanists (but not Ohlsson – she holds him in high esteem) I was eager to catch up with his younger self.

He’s certainly a strong, lean and technically impeccable player with pronounced views. I’ve not hear him in the Ballades or the Rondos since – so I can’t say how or if he has altered his view of them - but I can say that his view of them in 1989 was entirely consistent. Let me preface this by saying that many will find his playing highly poetic and sympathetic, that his consistently slow tempos will appeal and that his musical understanding is out of the ordinary. Obviously though I have a ‘But’. I find the elasticity of tempo rubato really too excessive (not least in the F minor), the slow and italicised playing unsettling, some of his chording (see the G minor Ballade) unconvincing, and an air of stiffness of phrasing that doesn’t always sound natural. Thus the G minor moves from extremes of introspection to cataclysmic outburst in a way that stretches the piece to breaking point. Similarly this fitfulness of approach – or is it overplayed inhibition? – afflicts parts of the F major whilst the A flat major, to these ears, never really gets off the ground; there’s a rhythmic choppiness and an emotive unreliability at its heart. And for all the attractive qualities of the Rondos, they too seem vitiated by tempi that never cohere. It’s not simply a question of slow tempos, it’s a question of the tempo relationships making architectural sense – and here I’m afraid they don’t. Not to me.

The recording quality is sensitive and attractively warm though there are moments when Ohlsson forces through his tone and sometimes lacks colour. So Ohlsson 1989 is not greatly to my liking – it would be instructive to hear him in these pieces on disc now.

Jonathan Woolf

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