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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-49)
Pré ludes, Op. 28a (1836-38) [45'31]; Etudesb - Op. 10 (1829-32) [31'59]; Op. 25 (1832-36) [33'23]; Piano Sonata No; 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35c (1839) [27'04];
aAlfredo Perl, bFreddy Kempf, cAngela Hewitt (pianos).
Rec. aHopetoun House, Edinburgh on April 1st-4th, 2003, bChâ teau de Neuville, Gambais on February 19th-22nd, 2003, cWimbledon Theatre, London, on September 1st-4th, 2003.
BBC/OPUS ARTE OA0893D [135'00]

Although I may have reservations about certain aspects of the performances on this disc, there is little doubt that this is, in sheer production terms, the best classical DVD I have seen so far. Three pianists, three locations, one producer (Karen Whiteside for BBC Wales, although James Whitbourn is the DVD producer) and 'three' masterworks; three, that is, if one groups Opp. 10 and 25 together under the umbrella 'Etudes' - no Trois Nouvelles Etudes here).

It falls to Alfredo Perl, possibly the lesser-known of the three pianists on show, to start things off with the Op. 28 Pré ludes. The lush setting of Hopetoun House in Edinburgh is used here, in daylight. The significance of that factor will become evident later. One initially sees Perl walking towards the piano before launching into Op. 28. The only production criticism I have is that in between Preludes the screen goes to black, with the next Prelude announced in white letters. With so many Preludes being so short and most, if not all, pianists in performance will link some together to form groups this rather interrupts the overall experience.

Two things strike the viewer at once as the C major begins: this has got to be the shiniest Steinway ever; and do we really want to see Perl's facial expresions? Some might find his mouthing, rather like a goldfish, undistracting, but not this reviewer.

Perl's Chopin distinctly grew on me. His shading of the A minor is very sensitive, there is good cantabile in the slow B minor; 'now you're going to play the cello', as my teacher used to say before I embarked on it! The so-called 'Raindrop' is beautifully shaped, with just the right amount of build in the C sharp minor middle section. The final recitative works well. I like the way the camera starts from outside the room, moving slowly towards then onto Perl. Should anyone doubt Perl's technique, let them try No. 16 (close-up camera-work on the amazingly rapid fingers).

If the left-hand in the G major does not quite scamper and if No. 11 could be a tad lighter; if some of the accents in No. 17 feel forced, if the tone is a little tinny in No. 22 (I believe this to be Perl, not the recording), these are minor caveats.

Freddy Kempf seems, as a musician, to promise so much, then never quite deliver. I referred to 'interpretative holes' in his December Monday lunchtime concert at the Wigmore review. It included the Op. 25 Etudes . Kempf’s BIS SACD brought similar comments review . There is no denying there is plenty to admire in these Etudes, right from the rich bass of Op. 10 No. 1 through the melancholy No. 6 to the final 'Revolutionary'. And the rich setting helps the mood, of course as does the lighting. The T-Shirted No. 2 in A minor is in broad daylight; there's a morning feel to the light. The famous No. 3 in E takes to night-time; highly appropriate, of course, and it does work. Kempf wears black here, by the way. Twilight also helps No. 6, mentioned above. The changes of 'scene' (time of day or night) seem very well chosen. I remain less convinced as to Kempf's decision to change outfit now and then, though. It more raises the eyebrows than makes any contribution.

Op. 25 brings another excellent feast for the eyes. There are the sepia-tinged octaves of No. 10; hands a blur, fire in background; how symbolic is that?. The blue (twilight?) of No. 5 contrasts subtly with the near-pitch-darkness of the Nocturne-like No. 7. The aerial beginning of the final C minor is striking. This is all highly impressive. Amongst all this there is not the slightest hint of trickery; it all just helps the experience. And when one listens to Kempf, one hears a top Chopin player in the making. Keep watching.

A change of piano manufacturer to Hewitt's favoured Fazioli, and the loneliness of playing to a deserted but still lovely Wimbledon Theatre takes us to Chopin's B flat minor Sonata. The opening is fascinating. Instead of walking on, she appears out of darkness, already seated at the piano. As the dark opening gestures emerge, a single spot-light shines down on her. Hewitt's playing is carefully crafted and equally carefully controlled, her technique textbook, her back textbook-straight, her weighting exemplary. This is not the most phenomenally exciting Chopin you will have heard, but on its own terms it works perfectly. Hewitt’s structural sense is exact, and she refused to dawdle where lesser players might falter. It is a shame that the second movement needed more excitement. Here there is perhaps the feeling that Hewitt is being just that little bit careful. Similarly the third movement, for all its niceties, needs to be a frightening Funeral March. Here it is an ominous processional that does not reach its full climax, yet the 'ray of light', redeeming melody is just that - and we do see Hewitt with literally much more physical light around her. The shifting finale, with just a touch of pedal, is appropriately spooky.

A good variety of camera angles, nothing tricksy, keeps attention firmly on the task in hand.

A memorable DVD. Musically none of the three pianists leaves a definitive version, but each gives much to enjoy. The real triumph comes in the production values, which are astonishing in variety and integrity. Do see and hear this.

Colin Clarke

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