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