Extended works by Chopin constitute a very small amount of
his oeuvre and here we have two of the most important – assuming,
as we should, that the 24 Preludes be regarded as
a single work.
It is a bold step by Ann Schein to produce this recent recording
for she inevitably goes into competition with recordings made
by some of the great Chopin players of the last fifty years
or more. Having said that, there is, as far as I am aware,
only one other CD currently available of the same coupling
and that is Nelson Freiere on Decca; more of him later. But
work for work, I have to say that Ann Schein struggles
in the company of her more illustrious colleagues.
For example, Martha Argerich’s DG recording of the Preludes in
a similar coupling with the other of the well known sonatas, No.
2 in B flat minor, invites comparison. If it really
were a competition of a gladiatorial nature, then there
would be no contest. Schein would be gobbled up by the
tigress of the keyboard. It is not my wish to denigrate
Schein who can produce some beautiful playing with a kind
of controlled relaxation and she can get her fingers around
the fast, virtuoso preludes with complete accuracy. But
Argerich has the technique to go faster if need be, and
at the same speeds can generate a fiery excitement that
Schein cannot approach. The same is true of Ashkenazy who
as a young man recorded the preludes in a set with the
three sonatas for Decca. Take the fearsome final Prelude
in D minor. This used to be one of Ashkenazy’s encore
party pieces and I remember seeing him performing it on
film many years ago. It was perhaps the most electrifying
encounter between human and keyboard I had ever seen or
heard up to that point. Ann Schein’s “appassionato” of
Chopin’s marking is very lyrical but low on passion and
she tackles the hair-raising pyrotechnical passages with
remarkable smoothness. This may be a legitimate interpretation
for some, but I feel I ought to be on the edge my seat
which I never am with her.
But it is not just excitement that Schein does not achieve to the
same extent as some others; she also fails to generate
the kind of forward momentum that is needed, for example,
to give the Preludes overall a sense of unity. The
work is a journey that cycles through all the keys, reaching
the remotest tonal territory at half way, and at that point
the individual preludes start becoming more intense and
complex. In spite of the high contrasts on the way, there
is a grand design and I never felt Schein was producing
that inexorable sense of progression the work calls for.
For me, she also falls short on emotion. Take the wonderful second
main tune in the first movement of the Sonata. After
the agitation of the opening, this tune emerges, soars,
and then unexpectedly extends in a way that has never failed
to tingle my spine – until I heard Ann Schein.
I know I am in subjective territory when judging Chopin
performance and all I can say is that Schein’s playing, excellently
competent though it is, just doesn’t do it for me. The
best phrase I can think of to describe the playing is that
it lacks personality.
The recording quality is good and easily scores over some
of the older recordings such as Ashnenazy’s. The booklet consists entirely
of an interesting nine page essay by Schein on the relationship
between Chopin and Georges Sand, justified by the author’s
premise that, “we may owe [these two works] to the most
astonishingly gifted woman of the C19th ”.
If, for some reason, you want to purchase the same coupling
on a CD then there is Nelson Freiere’s
Decca recording of about four years ago. Like
Schein, he doesn’t
attain some of the excitement of the great Chopin players
but he produces thoughtful performances that do carry a
sense of forward momentum.
As for the individual works, apart from those
already mentioned, there is much to choose from depending
on how you like your Chopin. Apart from those I’ve already
mentioned, Pollini and Kissin may be obvious choices and
there is always Ann Schein’s former teacher, the sometimes
wayward Artur Rubinstein in the Sonata.