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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recommended recordings from my Chopin collection:
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).
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.
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.
No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 ‘Marche
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).
The 2007 release from Simon Trpčeski on EMI Classics 3 75586
2 (c/w 4 Scherzos).