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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor, op.11 (1830) [37:53]
Piano Concerto No.2 in F minor, op.21 (1830) [31:47]
Annerose Schmidt (piano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Kurt Masur
rec. venue not stated, 1984 (concerto no.2) and 1985 (concerto no.1)
Experience Classicsonline

It goes without saying that anyone looking for recordings of Chopin’s piano concertos is quite simply spoiled for choice.

In preparation for this review, I looked on my own CD shelves to remind myself of the pianists who, over the years, I thought had something distinctive to say. They included Arthur Rubinstein (recorded in 1931 and 1937), Krystian Zimerman (1979 and 1980), the 12 years old (!) Evgeny Kissin (1984), Martino Tirimo (1984), Idil Biret (1990) and Martha Argerich (1999). I also own a couple of stand-alone accounts of the E minor concerto: Maurizio Pollini’s 1960 recording and Earl Wild’s from 1965. 

So does the rather less well-known Annerose Schmidt’s disc deserve a place on those rather well filled shelves? Let’s note first of all that hers is a distinctively cooler than usual approach - especially so in the first concerto – with performances characterised by a slightly lighter touch on the keys and a reluctance to linger unnecessarily over the notes. Schmidt’s comparatively brisk - and very deft – finger-work thus does a great deal to purge these warhorses of the anachronistic lush Romanticism that many other pianists, understandably succumbing to Chopin’s gorgeous melodies, have often applied in varying degrees to the scores. 

Take the first concerto’s opening movement, for instance. Of the accounts listed above, Biret and Tirimo are, at 21:24 and 21:13 respectively, the most long drawn out. Occupying the middle ground are Zimerman (20:04), Wild (19:29), Argerich (19:03 – a 1968 account with Abbado took 18:59) and Pollini (19:01). At the front of the field by some way, only the very young Kissin, at 18:22, comes in faster than Annerose Schmidt’s time of 18:35. [Rubinstein’s 1937 account cannot be compared to the others on timings because it suffered from cuts that were conventionally applied to the score at that time.] That pattern is, in fact, pretty consistent throughout Schmidt’s performances. In the E minor’s second movement and the opening movement of the F minor concerto, for example, only Kissin and Argerich’s 1999 versions are faster, and in the F minor’s finale it is only Kissin’s. 

That “Chopin-lite” approach may not, of course, be to everyone’s taste. Indeed, for many listeners those wonderful melodies just call out for the application of maximum emotion with all the stops fully pulled out. It’s the sort of music that you can easily imagine listening to under the stars on a balmy California summer’s evening at the Hollywood Bowl - a point well understood in the movie capital itself where Chopin has unwittingly provided a great deal of effective mood music over the years. Keep an eye open on daytime TV for the 1940 swashbuckler The Son of Monte Cristo, where the main musical theme is actually one of the E minor concerto’s melodies. 

One is sometimes led to believe that Chopin’s rather conventional and heavy orchestration do his two concertos little service. But that is by no means always the case in performance where many conductors, such as Paul Kletzki on the Pollini recording, rise successfully to the challenge of making it sound more imaginative and exciting than it appears on paper. Kurt Masur, who must in his time have accompanied many soloists in these works, shows particular sensitivity in adapting his style to fit in with Annerose Schmidt’s conception. Thus the orchestra plays, at times, with rather more delicacy and discretion than one is sometimes accustomed to. That, in turn, allows several soloists – the flautist in the E minor’s first movement, for example - a little more space to make their contributions heard more clearly. Both works are, by the way, well recorded in a comparatively warm, natural and entirely appropriate acoustic. 

The disc comes in an attractively designed and sturdy cardboard/plastic case that will take up less shelf room than a normal jewel case. Unfortunately, there are no notes whatsoever on either the music or the artists. 

In a very competitive market, this is not, it must be admitted, a disc likely to supplant an existing favourite version. It can, though, be commended in its own right as an interesting and enjoyable account that offers a slightly different perspective on these much-loved works. 

By the way, if you enjoy the Chopin concertos in their usually-heard form with orchestral accompaniment, do remember the alternative versions for piano and string quintet. According to a few of musicologists, Chopin himself regarded them not just as second-rate substitutes but as compositions of equal validity in their own right. Although not widely accepted, that theory has precipitated a couple of discs that are well worth hearing, if only as a supplement to Pollini, Argerich, Kissin or perhaps even Ms. Schmidt. Pianist Fumiko Shiraga, with the Yggdrasil Quartet and Jan-Inge Haukås (double bass) made the world premiere recordings of both concertos in that form in 1996 (on the BIS label, BIS-CD-847) while, two years later, Jean-Marc Luisada recorded just the E minor no.1 with the Talich Quartet and Benjamin Berlioz (RCA Red Seal 74321 632112). Taking up yet more space on my crowded Chopin shelf, the BIS version is, in particular, a real eye-opener.

Rob Maynard


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