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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballades: No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23 (1836) [9’28]; No. 2 in F, Op. 38 (1840) [7’44]; No. 3 in A flat, Op. 47 (1842) [7’16]; No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 (843) [11’29]; Préludes, Op. 28 (1836-38) [35’57]
Stefan Vladar (piano)
Rec. Teldex Studio Berlin in February 2002. DDD
HARMONIA MUNDI FRANCE HMC905260 [74’15]

 

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 SK64399).

The Préludes 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.

Colin Clarke

 



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