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Fréderic CHOPIN (1810-1849)
CD 1
Piano Concerto No.1 (1830) [41:30]
Variations on Mozart's “Lá ci darem la mano” (1828) [15:00]
Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise (1831-34) [13:35]
CD 2
Piano Concerto No.2 (1829) [34:38]
Fantasy on Polish National Airs (1828) [13:47]
Krakowiak (1828) [14:10]
CD 3
Piano Sonata No.2 (1839) [24:02]^
Piano Sonata No.3 (1844) [28:43]#
Polonaise-fantaisie Op.61 (1846) [13:53]$
Alexis Weissenberg (piano)
Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, 11-15 September 1967 (CD1); 4-9 September 1967 (CD2); 15-18 September 1975, 7-8 April and 13 October 1976^; 5 September 1977#; 9 October 1967$. ADD
EMI CLASSICS 5009062 [3 CDs: 70:32 + 52:34 + 66:59]
Experience Classicsonline

Generally EMI Classics has packaged up in its Triples series recordings that can be safely recommended to newcomers. This EMI Triple, however, is a box of controversy. Any novice who is tempted by this release as a means of sweeping up Chopin's works for piano and orchestra with a couple of piano sonatas into the bargain is likely to be very puzzled. “I thought Chopin was a Romantic poet. What is this blood and fire stuff? There must be some mistake!”
 
There is no mistake, at least not as far as the identity of the composer is concerned. This is Chopin, yes, but not the noble, poetic Chopin of the Rubinstein school. Alexis Weissenberg is an uncompromising and almost cruel Chopin pianist, deploying his powerful technique to devastating effect. Weissenberg's tone has been described as flinty. To me it sounds like ringing steel.
 
I'll start with the final, piano solo disc in this Triple. Listening to it straight through is an almost overwhelming experience. The second piano sonata – famous for its funeral march third movement – is terrifying, violent and headlong. Chopin's poetry is glimpsed in scattered passages, but for the most part is ousted by an angry Lizstian bravura. The opening movement is heavy-handed and the scherzo veers from suggestions of beauty to relentless build up. The presto finale flies by in a disorientating whirl. There is feeling in the funeral march though: Weissenberg's powerful fingers reach deep into the keys for a unique sonority that seems to have been dragged out of the earth itself.
 
The third sonata is cut from the same interpretative cloth. Knuckleduster chords and coruscating cascades of notes sparked by brute force jostle with flashes of lyricism and charm, which appear more to highlight their general absence than for contrast or to relieve the frightened listener.
 
The Polonaise-fantaisie that closes the disc and the set is thankfully a little gentler. It was recorded in 1967 at the same time as discs 1 and 2 and almost a decade before its stable mates on disc 3. Though the younger Weissenberg was just as strong-fingered, chord-focused and unsentimental as the punishing Weissenberg of the 1970s, he is not quite so angry.
 
This is true in the concertos too, which also benefit from the contribution of the orchestra. The Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire under Stanislaw Skrowaczewski offer a heavy-footed but full-bodied accompaniment which sounds well, if a bit old fashioned, and importantly provides contrast to the cold brilliance and forceful drive of Weissenberg's playing. He does find more to wax lyrical over in the concertos. On the other hand, his heavy hands, occasionally pointillistic playing - for example, around the five minute mark in the first movement of the second concerto - and  lack of interest in Chopin's faux operatic cantabile lines - for example the slow movement of the second concerto – the slow movement of the first fares better. Add to this his odd tempo choices - the allegro vivace finale of the second concerto, for example, is more of an allegretto – and I am afraid the best that can be managed is a qualified recommendation.
 
The shorter concertante items fare better again, as if Weissenberg has decided that less important works are less in need of a working over. He is more volatile in Variations on Mozart's “Lá ci darem la mano” than in the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise, the Fantasy on Polish National Airs and Krakowiak, but as it was the Mozart Variations that inspired Schumann to proclaim Chopin a genius – as the liner-notes remind us – then perhaps it is important enough for a little fire.
 
Weissenberg's Chopin is not for the faint hearted, but it does have its fans. No less a pianist than Glenn Gould commented parenthetically in an article in the May 1976 issue of High Fidelity that: “I always felt that I could live without the Chopin concertos and managed to until Alexis Weissenberg dusted the cobwebs from Mme. Sand’s salon and made those works a contemporary experience.” Gould brands Weissenberg's Chopin as a “unique example of the rite of re-creation”, alongside Barbara Streisand's Classical Barbara album. Take from that what you will. In any case, those jaded listeners who cannot bear talk of the warmth of Chopin's limpid beauty will probably enjoy Weissenberg's bracing bucket of ice immensely.
 
Tim Perry
 

 


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