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
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.