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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
CD 1: Piano Concertos: No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11a (1830) [39:49]; No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21a (1829/30) [31:47]
CD 2: Fantasy on Polish National Airs, Op. 13a (1828) [14:20]; Grand Concert Rondo in F, Op. 14 “Krakowiak”a (1828) [13:32]; Introduction and Variations on “Der Schweizerbub”b (1826) [9:14]; Variations on the March from Bellini’s I Puritanib (1837) [1:49]; Rondo in C minor, Op. 1c (1825) [8:17]; Rondo à la Mazur in F, Op. 5c (1826) [8:17]; Introduction and Rondo in E flat, Op. 16d (1832) [10:32]; Rondo in C, Op. 73, version for two pianose (1828) [8:40]
aGarrick Ohlsson; bPaolo Bordoni; cdeDanielle Laval; eTeresa Llacuna (pianos); aPolish Radio National Symphony Orchestra/Jerzy Maksymiuk.
rec. aKatowice, 20-28 June 1975, Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London, b16-17 October 1978, Salle Wagram, Paris, ce1978 and d23 September 1976. ADD
[71:47 + 75:48]


Experience Classicsonline

This twofer is neatly divided into Concertos on one disc and lesser-known works on the other. Actually, it is the second disc that provides the real interest here, so I propose to review the discs in reverse order.

Roger Nichols, in his booklet notes, suggests that both the Fantasy on Polish Airs and the Krakowiak Rondo be heard as warm-ups for the concertos. The Fantasy was written as a third-year submission at the Warsaw Conservatory. It displays an unhurried exuberance of invention. Ohlsson, a New Yorker, born 1948, of Swedish father and Italian mother, was a pupil of Tom Lishman, himself a pupil of that Chopin God, Alfred Cortot. In 1970 Ohlsson became the first American to win the Chopin Competition. Despite this pedigree, he is not a pianist associated in my mind with great levels of subtlety but here proves me wrong with a wide variety of tone and a natural feeling for Chopin’s characteristic figuration. If invention seems to flag around ten minutes in, this remains a most appealing piece. The Polish orchestra’s accompaniment is deeply sympathetic, although the recording itself, appealingly warm though it is, tends to lose some detail. An Opus 111 disc issued in 2000 included an illuminating performance on period instruments: the piano used was an Erard: Janusz Olejniczak was the pianist, with  Das Neue orchester under Christoph Spering, OPS2008.

The Krakowiak Rondo begins beautifully simply, with the piano delivering a theme in octaves. It is clearly a more developed work than the Fantasy. It develops considerably into a piece of some substance. There is even a passage - just after seven minutes in - that prefigures, to my ears, Dvořák. Again, Ohlsson is imaginative in his tonal variety, and his agility is beyond question. His actual engagement can be questioned, though – he seems at a slight remove until the final few moments, when he finally settles in. Arrau (Philips 4383382, with LSO/Inbal) remains top choice here. 

The Introduction and Variations on a German air “Der Schweizerbub” for solo piano was new to me. Paolo Bordoni is the pianist here, and it is exactly his sort of music; his EMI Gemini twofer of Schubert Complete Waltzes is a delight, 3508942. In this Chopin, he enjoys the sparkle and flourish of the Introduction before presenting the theme simply. And what a simple theme (the title means “Cattle Boy”) it is. Fixated purely on tonic and dominant, Chopin effectively has carte blanche to do what he will. Immediately Chopin seems to introduce echoes of yodelling; the sostenuto fourth variation tacks on some melancholy to the slowed-down theme before a final waltz. 

The Variations on the March from Bellini’s “I Puritani” (1837) takes the bass/baritone duet “Suoni la tromba” from Act 2.  It is so short as it was Chopin’s contribution to a charity concert that also included such luminaries as Liszt, Thalberg, Pixis, Czerny and Herz. Apparently everyone had to stick to the aria’s original key of A flat, except for Chopin who got special dispensation from Liszt to cast his variation in E major. It is a lovely - albeit brief - outpouring that Bordoni plays most attractively. 

The remainder of the set - heard in programme order - is played by Danielle Laval, an artist more often found on the Naïve label, where one can find his recording of the Rosza Piano Concerto. The Rondo in C minor, Op. 1 is one of those slightly stiff early pieces that nevertheless could have come from no-one else’s pen. Unfortunately EMI’s proof-readers come a cropper and refer to it as in E minor on the jewel case back and the booklet track-listing while the notes return it to its proper key. Laval’s performance is charming indeed. The Rondo à la Mazur is a little more adventurous, and Laval engages fully in the sparkling passagework. 

It is difficult to credit why some Chopin is not heard more often. The inventive Introduction and Rondo in E flat, Op. 16 is one of those pieces; mature Chopin that reveals the Master in all his majesty. The recording itself is on the light side – some more bass depth would have been appreciated, but this is well worth hearing.

Finally, we hear the Rondo for two pianos in C, Op. 73, an arrangement by the composer of the solo piece written in the same year. Danielle Laval is joined here by Teresa Llacuna in a delightful performance of a free-flow piece. Its undemanding demeanour is a highly effective way to end the set. Connoisseurs will already own the Bruk/Taimanov performance on Philips 4567362.

And so, as promised, on to the concertos. Jerzy Maksymiuk, a BBC Radio 3 regular during my formative years, has the Polish RSO shape the orchestral exposition of the first concerto remarkably affectionately. Amongst the angst, there are swellings of real joy. Like the Fantasy on Polish National Airs and the Krakowiak, the concertos were recorded in Katowice. Ohlsson’s approach is notably subtle at lower dynamic levels – his figuration sometimes sounds as if it is bending naturally in a breeze. Only at forte to fortissimo does his tone threaten to break. In terms of excitement, Ohlsson/Maksymiuk have a long way to go before they can threaten, in the First Concerto, Pollini/Kletzki (EMI); neither can Ohlsson approach the imperious Krystian Zimerman on DG. The overall problem is that with Ohlsson this does not sound like the great music it so clearly is. Take the left-hand trills around 18-19 minutes in. Instead of buzzing, they merely sound drab. The Romance is fine and intimate, but it still dances on the surface somewhat; neither is there a sense of mystery or discovery at Chopin’s progressive textures - around eight minutes. It is in the finale that one becomes most aware of the difference between pianist and accompanists. In the brief moments when they are allowed to shine, the Polish orchestra sounds completely at home. Ohlsson never quite attains this, even threatening at a couple of points to slow the momentum down. The theme in octaves near the end comes close to having character, but the Ohlsson spoils it right at the last moment. Gossamer passagework in the very final moments is not enough to rescue this lacklustre performance.

The orchestral exposition of the Second Concerto is frankly rather workaday; apt enough, in fact, given that Ohlsson can, too, be remarkably pedestrian. Try Ohlsson’s passagework a minute or so prior to the ten-minute mark. It sounds like he’s practising exercises, and there are some remarkably unmusical thuds there, too.  The slow movement, like the First Concerto, a Larghetto, is a curious mixture of tender moments spoiled by the occasional wooden phrase. Neither do the recitative-like passages against tremolando strings make their effect. The finale is the most successful movement, although even here excitement fails to take wing. Preferences here are Argerich/Dutoit (EMI) and Arrau (Philips, with Inbal), and as a supplement the live Arrau  10 June 1950 U.N. Human Rights Day Concert from New York conducted by Fritz Busch on Music & Arts CD1158.

If you are going to buy this, do so for the “extras”, which provide much delight. The concertos are better served elsewhere.

Colin Clarke 




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