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A revision of the review originally published in April 2003 of a disc of Chopin mazurkas purported to have performed by Joyce Hatto, but now revealed to be by Eugen Indjic

The first complete recording of the Mazurkas, made by Artur Rubinstein in 1938-9 and available on Naxos, included 51 Mazurkas – all those with opus numbers plus "Emile Gaillard" and "Notre temps". The next pianist to record them complete was Nina Milkina in 1970, who played the same 51. I have reviewed both of these and my review of the Milkina recording (a private transfer licensed by EMI) gives ordering details. Many successive complete recordings have added a few further pieces. Eugen Indjic includes two cheery little mazurkas that Chopin published at the age of 16 and another four which, though not published by Chopin, belong to the same period as the first published sets. The Polish Edition contains one further example, not recorded here.

My first reaction was that this was something like perfection. The difficult mazurka rhythms are unfailingly judged, in so far as my non-Polish ears can tell (that difficult placing of the second and third beats which is so different from a waltz or even from a non-Polish mazurka and which is so hard for the rest of us to get right). The phrasing is relaxed and musical and the music swings between the outdoor folkloristic elements and the indoor salon writing with complete authority. That reservations crept in may be due to my having listened to too many at a time, for certain small points began to have a cumulative effect.

For one thing, though the recording is warm and mellow it rarely expands and one feels at a certain distance from the performer [this is no longer true]. Nina Milkina’s 1970 recording has the microphones perhaps too closely placed but the sound has more life to it. For another, the slow tempi tend to be very slow, and some of the more melancholy mazurkas hang fire. Certainly the middle section of the bleak op. 17/4 fails to take wing. After an exceptionally convincing op. 56/2, with its bagpipe imitations, the symphonic dimensions of op. 56/3 get rather skittish treatment. The scale of the piece is not conveyed. On the other hand, the last group published in Chopin’s lifetime, op. 63, gets some of the best performances of the set, no. 1 irresistibly Vivace and the other two moving in their valedictory simplicity. Indjic also finds more than many in the uneven posthumous mazurkas.

Probably no one will have the definite solution to every single mazurka. Indjic is remarkably fine in enough of them for his version to take an honoured place among the more famous ones. What I should like to do in conclusion is to compare him with Rubinstein (1938-9) and Milkina, first in three mazurkas in which I particularly appreciated him, then in three where I was less happy.

Op. 6/3
One of the folkloristic mazurkas. Indjic is very precise over the placing of the left-hand accents at the beginning; this is a delightful performance. Rubinstein is a shade more laboured over the accents and then snatches at the theme when the right hand enters; bars 11 and 13 aren’t clear at all. However, Rubinstein and Indjic have the same basic idea. One of the features of Milkina’s mazurkas is that she often takes "Vivace" to mean "Vivace for a mazurka" rather than "Vivace in absolute terms". She is quite a lot slower and gains in grandeur and poetry what she loses in sheer verve. I am very glad to have two such convincing alternatives available.

Op. 56/1
Indjic’s gentle cradling movement at the beginning is very attractive and the different rhythms between the hands are crystal clear. His gentle approach does not prevent the music from opening out more passionately as it moves into forte. The Poco più mosso sections are magical in their soft, even fingerwork.
Rubinstein is far more extrovert. The opening is not dissimilar to Indjic’s, though he is less careful over the rhythms. As the music heads towards forte he surges ahead impetuously and his Poco più mosso sections positively scamper away. He concludes the piece with a grandstand accelerando.
Milkina is marginally slower than Indjic, but the interesting thing is how different her whole approach is. She finds a grandeur in the music and a strength which the others do not even attempt. Possibly she is the pianist of the three who makes the most important statement out of this mazurka but I prefer simply to marvel that a short piece of music can receive three such utterly different, yet convincing, interpretations.

Op. 63/2
Having said that Indjic tends to be least convincing in the slow mazurkas, I must say his gentle, valedictory reading of this one is most touching. Rubinstein is a shade faster, without any attempt at a valedictory effect. He displays all the warmth of tone for which he was famous. Milkina is closer in tempo to Indjic but (though the much closer recording may contribute to this impression) finds a more epic tone, rising to a note of protest before the recapitulation. I was particularly impressed by this, but once again, how wonderful to have three such different yet equally successful performances.

Op. 17/4
This was the point where I realised that Indjic wasn’t going to have a perfect solution for every mazurka and it’s only fair to point out that this was perhaps the one in the whole series that satisfied me least.
One of the most inconsolably melancholy pieces ever written, the problem is not to let the music become dreary for lack of contrast. Indjic’s halting main sections are idiomatic and attractive but the music never seems to get away from its beginnings. Though Chopin did not mark any particular change of mood at the first trio section, most interpreters seem to agree that it has to have a suddenly stronger profile. If it does not, as here, it risks saying nothing. The A major section is rather a plod and the final pages, though well done in themselves, add nothing because there is nothing for them to die away from.
Rubinstein, at a rather faster tempo, is certainly not dull but there is something salon-like in his handling of the filigree passages. Rather than being transported out into the Polish fields, one sees the lionised pianist delighting the ladies.
Close recording detracts particularly from Milkina’s performance in this case. The three crotchet chords in each bar chug rather literally, but she does find more contrast than Indjic and a certain grandeur. She at least takes us into the fields and this is the least unsatisfactory performance of the three. I must say, though, that, while Horowitz takes what some might consider appalling liberties, he is the pianist who really makes this mazurka speak.

Op. 41/1
Indjic’s performance slips in rather uncertainly. Then at other moments it dances ahead rather skittishly so one way or another Chopin’s Maestoso marking is never quite realised. Also, Indjic’s handling of the mazurka rhythm, usually so true, becomes so mannered at the recapitulation as to hold up the flow of the music.
Rubinstein is not exactly Maestoso either, but he has a wonderful ardour. Though I wouldn’t forsake his performance, I am bound to prefer Milkina’s genuinely Maestoso reading which finds an ardour and a grandeur of its own on the final page.

Op. 56/3
This is one of the most extended of the mazurkas, practically a ballade in mazurka rhythm. Indjic’s rather skittish opening does not convey the idea that this is the beginning of a piece on a large scale. He does find grandeur in certain moments later on but on the whole the performance proceeds too much section-by-section. Rubinstein is far more dramatic and though he makes a small cut (presumably to squeeze it onto a 78 side) he conveys the scale of the piece, as does Milkina with her steadier tempo. She perhaps makes more than either of the others of the sostenuto passage in A flat minor.
I would suggest that Indjic’s rather gentle approach, as though remembering the music from a distance, may be less than ideal if a large number of mazurkas are to be listened to at a stretch, but is not necessarily less valid in itself. The pleasant but not wide-ranging recording contributes to this effect [I get the idea the wider-ranging original recording at least alleviates this impression]. If forced to buy just one out of the three mazurka sets I have considered, I would choose, by a small margin, Milkina, but I am very glad I don’t have to make that choice, for Indjic’s versions can certainly be added to those that count.

Christopher Howell, 2003, revised 2007

Return to 2007 review

 


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