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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 (1830) [41:34]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21 (1829-30) [34:34]
Alexis Weissenberg (piano)
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
rec. Salle Wagram, Paris, September 1967
CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 5218472 [76:28]
Experience Classicsonline

This is a frustrating album. Technically, Alexis Weissenberg had the makings of an outstanding Chopin player. His dexterity was unquestionable - trills, arpeggios, runs at any speed, all posed him no problem. His reserves of power were immense: not only was the man built like the proverbial Russian bear, but his hands, at rest, easily covered a tenth or more of the keyboard, as I noticed watching an Evening at Symphony telecast back in the 1970s.
 
The technical equipment was all there, but musicality was too frequently in abeyance. Again and again in these two concertos, Weissenberg plays as if oblivious to any expressive potential inherent in the notes beyond their mere realization. He serves up cascades of notes, each with pingy articulation, in the filigree, loudly or softly as the score prescribes, but without any sense of impulse, so they sound unmotivated. He makes deep, imposing sounds at the climaxes - where lighter-weight players strain - but the chords can be harsh to the point of clangor. The soloist may have understood the need for flexibility - his playing isn't robotic - but his unflowing attempts at rubato actually impede the sense of progress towards a musical destination. It's as if the man had no poetry in his soul.
 
One might think that Weissenberg simply lacked empathy for Chopin, but his EMI recordings of other concertos, from Beethoven to Prokofiev, were similarly unintuitive and underfelt - his Brahms D minor with Giulini was an especially ferocious example. And the surprise is that, near the end of each concerto's slow movement, Weissenberg suddenly catches on. In the F minor's Larghetto, he sets up the final recapitulation magically at 7:30, although another of those fitful rubatos early on almost dispels the fragile hush before it's established. At an analogous spot in the E minor's Romance, he scales down from the peak at 7:33 sensitively, changes the color for the surprise harmonic shift at 8:33, and weaves the decorative figurations around the orchestra's melody with a welcome delicacy. Many more passages in these performances would have benefited from such treatment.
 
Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, unobtrusively abetted by Salle Wagram ambience, gives his soloist unexpectedly big-boned, full-bodied support in the fast movements - a framework suitable to Weissenberg's large-scaled pianism - and offers an effective, cushioned atmosphere in those slow ones. Playing so forthrightly, the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra sounds rather better than the second-rate group it actually was. The woodwind principals occasionally go wheezy, and the string basses have their sclerotic moments, but the overall sonority is solid. On the other hand, the bigger sound also unhelpfully calls attention to the composer's thick, clunky orchestration in the tuttis of the F minor.
 
Mind you, these performances aren't actually bad - the playing is too accomplished, even abstractly beautiful, for that. But they're mostly lacking in the very expressiveness and color that, I suspect, most Chopin devotees will want - the kind of thing that Ax (RCA), Perahia (Sony), and Zimerman (DG), not to speak of Rubinstein (RCA), offered in spades.
 
Stephen Francis Vasta
 
see also review by Tim Perry of the same performances on EMI 5009062

 


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