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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op.38 (1836-39) [6:28]
4 Mazurkas, Op. 33 (1837-38):
Mazurka No. 1 in G sharp minor [1:35]
Mazurka No. 2 in D major [2:18]
Mazurka No. 3 in C major [1:50]
Mazurka No. 4 in B minor [5:03]
3 Waltzes, Op. 34 (1834-38):
Waltz No. 1 in A flat major (1835) [4:56]
Waltz No. 2 in A minor (1834) [4:37]
Waltz No. 3 in F major (1838) [2:05]
Impromptu No. 2 in F sharp major, Op. 36 (1839) [5:01]
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 ‘Marche funèbre’ (c. 1837-39) [22:59]
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
rec. March 2008, Residenz, Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

It is good to have the supreme talents of award winning pianist Maurizio Pollini back in the recording studio, returning to one of his favourite venues, the Herkulessaal in Munich. It is particularly fitting that Pollini has chosen an ‘all Chopin’ recital as it was back in 1960 that he won the first prize at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw. The same year he appeared at La Scala, Milan playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 conducted by Sergiu Celibidache. In fact, to avoid being typecast as a Chopin-only specialist he ceased performing the music of the great Polish composer for a time. 

Chopin completed his Ballade No.2 in F major, Op.38 in Majorca in 1839 with a dedication to Robert Schumann. The F major Ballade is interpreted by Pollini with a broad tonal palette. I immediately noticed the splendid finesse and impressive use of light and shade. Especially thrilling is the dramatic burst of explosive power with the second theme at point 1:51.

Recordings of Chopin’s set of 4 Ballades are plentiful in the catalogues with several rival versions of exceptional quality. My longstanding benchmark is the magnificent cycle from Arthur Rubinstein that he made in 1959 at New York City. Rubinstein’s interpretations are truly magical and it is difficult to imagine playing of these scores that contain more poetry and expression. I have these magnificent Rubinstein performances of the 4 Ballades coupled with the 4 Scherzos on a RCA Victor Red Seal Living Stereo SACD and for me this is the greatest disc in my entire collection. The details of this and all the recordings mentioned in this review are contained in the footnotes.

Murray Perahia excels greatly in the 4 Ballades which he recorded in 1994 in Switzerland for Sony Classical. I admire his expansive lyricism that combines power with sensitivity in what is arguably the finest recital that he has ever recorded. I also hold a high regard for Pollini’s 1999 Munich recital of the 4 Ballades: performances of passion, vitality and drama for Deutsche Grammophon.

Chopin wrote over fifty Mazurkas, scores strongly connected to Polish dance forms. Rubinstein was reported to have said that, “the Mazurkas more than any of Chopin’s other music express the Polish nationality”. The Op. 33 set of 4 Mazurkas was started by Chopin in 1837 and completed by the summer of the following year.

Pollini’s relaxed interpretation of the Mazurka No.1 in G sharp minor feels like an evocation of a summer morning’s slumber and his confident performance of the Mazurka No. 2 in D major suggests a woman proudly admiring herself in her dressing table mirror in preparation for a formal ball. The Mazurka No.3 in C major is tinged with the sorrowful thoughts of leaving a loved one behind before a long journey and in the substantial Mazurka No.4 in B minor the assured Pollini provides a scene redolent of watching unsettled skies through the ivy-strewn window of a country cottage.

In the Op. 33 set of 4 Mazurkas it is hard to look elsewhere from Arthur Rubinstein’s refined and expressive survey of the 51 Mazurkas performed by Arthur Rubinstein from New York in 1965/66 on RCA Red Seal.

Chopin’s Op. 34 set of 3 Waltzes offers works of style and refinement that were composed over the period 1834-38. I was struck by the sense of unbridled joy of holidays in the summer sun that Pollini conveys in the Waltz No.1 in A flat major and one marvels at his sublime control and graceful touch in the grief-laden Waltz No.2 in A minor. The Waltz No.3 in F major is sometimes known as the ‘Cat Waltz’ and it is easy to imagine the light-hearted suggestion of a cat darting across a keyboard.

In the set of 3 Waltzes, Op. 34 the effortless mastery of the performances that Rubinstein made in Rome in 1963 takes centre-stage on RCA Red Seal. I also have a high regard for Claudio Arrau’s poetic performances of the 3 Waltzes from 1979 in Switzerland for Philips.

The Impromptu No. 2 in F sharp major, Op. 36 from 1839 is a product of Chopin’s mature years. I was impressed with Pollini’s remarkable interpretation from gentle undulations of a nocturnal character to robust and tempestuous statements.

Completed in 1839 the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor is commonly known as the ‘Marche funèbre’ owing to the intense mournful mood of the celebrated third movement. In the opening movement one notices Pollini’s stern and forthright playing. The dreamy dusk-like quality of the contrasting lyrical second theme is impressive. The Scherzo feels like a frightening and reckless chase that Pollini follows with contrasting passages of wistful introspection. It is difficult to imagine a more sombre quality to the third movement funeral march than this controlled and assured interpretation. The fragrant Elegy at 2:09-5:24 is evocative of a serene and tender scene of a child’s nursery. I enjoyed the short and enigmatic final Presto where Pollini demonstrates a character of brutal torment yet ensuring that his playing doesn’t break out into an uncontrollable fever.

I greatly admire Rubinstein’s moving performance of the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor recorded in 1961 in New York for RCA Red Seal. Another exceptional interpretation of the Piano Sonata No. 2 that I have grown to love is from the talented Simon Trpčeski that he recorded in 2006 at the Potton Hall, Suffolk for EMI Classics.

In this 2008 Chopin studio recording, from the Herkulessaal, Munich, Pollini’s performances are characterised by an innate musicality of great nobility and magnificent technical fluency. I found the sound quality from the Deutsche Grammophon engineers to be pleasingly realistic although the booklet notes were acceptable rather than outstanding.

Michael Cookson


Recommended  recordings from my Chopin collection:

4 Ballades:
a) Arthur Rubinstein recorded the 4 Ballades in 1959 at New York City for RCA Victor Red Seal Living Stereo SACD 82876-61396-2 RE1 (c/w 4 Scherzos).
I also have a disc of the same performances from Rubinstein of the 4 Ballades on RCA Victor Red Seal 09026 63045-2 (c/w 4 Scherzos and Tarantelle).
b) Murray Perahia recorded the 4 Ballades in 1994 in Switzerland for Sony Classical SK 64399 (c/w selection of Nocturnes; Etudes; Mazurkas etc).
c) Maurizio Pollini recorded the 4 Ballades in 1999 at Munich for Deutsche Grammophon 00289 459 6832 (Prelude, Op. 45 and Fantaisie, Op. 49).

4 Mazurkas, Op. 33:

Performed by Arthur Rubinstein in 1965/66. Rubinstein’s refined and expressive survey of the 51 Mazurkas is contained on Vol. 50 of ‘The Rubinstein Collection’ a digitally remastered double set on RCA Red Seal 09026 63050-2.

3 Waltzes, Op. 34:

a) Arthur Rubinstein’s set of 14 Waltzes form the principal part of the disc Vol. 47 of ‘The Rubinstein Collection’ digitally remastered on RCA Red Seal 09026 63047-2 (c/w 3 Impromptus, Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66, Bolero, Op. 19).

b) Claudio Arrau the 14 Waltzes from 1979 in Switzerland, digitally remastered on Philips 400 025-2.

Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 ‘Marche funèbre

a) Arthur Rubinstein’s performance of the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor is included on the disc Vol. 46 of ‘The Rubinstein Collection’ digitally remastered on RCA Red Seal 09026 63046-2 (c/w Sonata No. 3, Op. 58; Fantaisie, Op. 49; Barcarolle, Op. 60; Berceuse, Op. 57).

b) The 2007 release from Simon Trpčeski on EMI Classics 3 75586 2 (c/w 4 Scherzos).


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