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Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op 23 (1835-36) [10:09]
Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op 38 (1836-39) [8:10]
Ballade No. 3 in A flat major, Op. 47 (1840-41) [8:00]
Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 (1842) [11:36]
Impromptu No. 1 in A flat major, Op. 29 (1837) [4:57]
Impromptu No. 2 in F sharp major, Op. 36 (1839) [6:23]
Impromptu No. 3 in G flat major, Op. 51 (1842) [5:38]
Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op. 66 (1834) [5:49]
Bolero, Op. 19 (1833) [8:39]
Eugene Mursky (piano)
rec. SWR Kammermusik Studio, Villa Berg, 13-14 August, 17 September 2004. DDD
HÄNSSLER PH04065 [69:24]

 

 

Chopin’s Ballades are long stories made short. Their tragic impressions, with that sense of forever moving from twilight into darkness, comprise the most elemental and essential human motions and emotions. They are just one example in Chopin of what could be called ‘Resounding after Sounding’, their import staying with us long after the score has been put down and the Fall closed.

Based on Eugene Mursky’s previous efforts in other fantasy-infused pieces like Rachmaninoff’s Second sonata, Beethoven’s op. 27 sonatas and Schumann’s Fantaisie, his predilection for the richest and most demanding piano repertoire seems clear. As a boy he studied with Naumov and later with Reinhard Becker, winning a good number of competitions including the 1994 World Piano Competition in London. His special award from Princess Diana for the best Chopin readings is mentioned in the notes. Now at 30 years old and already with a background of notable teachers, competition prizes and major label recordings, this highly promising Uzbekistani pianist has an international career open and waiting for him.

Mursky’s way of telling these stories mostly comes through technique and not through any extra-musical sense. He treats both hands as equal partners. More than once in the G minor Ballade you’ll hear normally subdued left-hand figuration come out and achieve its own demanding voice. This quite effectively forms a duet in places that normally pass with right-hand dominance alone. Repetitive patterns gain a near monomaniacal focus — even the introduction is put in order. Between the slow tempo, overly controlled climactic points and highly calculated if initially novel sounding accents and voice leading, the work’s life-force is ex-sanguinated in a rather cold display of science and part-building. Certainly you won’t find any of the robust poetic impetuosity of Francois or Koczalski’s strange way of being able to play while looking over his shoulder at a past life lost.

Vocal clarity and calculated build-up lead us again through the F major Ballade. This time it is to better effect in the opening Andantino which is played in a sensitive and necessarily simple way. His grave and quite massive sonority inflates the crucial moment before the coda breaks. When it does break it’s something of a controlled swell, stormy in a staged way, but with a most telling nervous collapse right at the end. He then holds the sound, letting it resonate as the coda’s resolution slips in underneath. That is good story-telling.

A single comparison to Moravec in the A flat major reveals what’s missing in Mursky: subtler, more colourful phrasing, and expressive rubato to let the music breath and grow. His paternal obsession with controlling each note stunts the senses of freedom and joy which are peculiar to this particular Ballade.

As with Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie, the F minor Ballade demands the utmost rhythmic freedom, dynamic range and structuring for the expressive content to be realised and communicated. After a moment Mursky’s tapering of dynamics becomes predictable in a way you’d never hear from Sirota or Tiegerman in this work. The high arch of the opening motif is hardly acknowledged and elsewhere phrase groupings sound quite banal. As with the Polonaise-Fantaisie, section joins are crucial and all too often incongruously shaped, resulting in an unnatural sounding progression and at worst a near meaningless culmination. Mursky occasionally sounds rushed and careless with this. Though in the coda he understands that there’s repose at the centre of Chopin’s most violent storms, it is not the meaningful and final conclusion you hear in the most intelligible readings, the kind of readings you don’t forget afterwards.

Mursky’s Impromptus are prey to many of the same trappings. Op. 29 has none of the riveting freshness and youth you’ll hear from Gekic and Bolet. Op. 36 sounds stolid after Simon’s strength in the middle section; and compared to Sokolov’s nocturnal magic in Op. 51, Mursky is playing with the lights on. There is some fine cantabile in the middle section of op. 66, let down only by an expressive contour that lacks shape and direction. With Bolero (Chopin’s 5th Scherzo?), a greater dash and wit are required than Mursky cares to muster, exemplified in young Demidenko’s reading.

The acoustic is spacious and Mursky’s tone, on what is obviously a Steinway, never turns uncomfortably harsh or metallic. The Hänssler disc states Frederic Chopin Edition vol. 1. If they employ Mursky throughout the cycle I will certainly want to hear it. However this is by no means an essential disc and could only be recommended to collectors of the Ballades and to Chopin completists. Listeners wanting to have a single disc of all four Ballades are recommended to look to Moravec and Rubinstein long before coming here, or preferably some of the individual names mentioned above.

Tony Overington

 

 



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