The pianist Luiza Borac has already made a name for herself through
her superb performances of Enescu: AV0013, the three suites, and
AV2081, the two sonatas plus sundry other items. In mainstream
repertoire, her disc of Schubert and Liszt entitled “Wanderer”
(AV2061) spoke of a mature, searching musician.
This superb disc of Chopin only serves to underline her excellence. Her programming skills are laudable, also, in prefacing the Etudes (Opp. 10 and 25 only, no Nouvelle ones) with the Chopin/Liszt Chants polonais
. She is recorded in stunning sound, which brings me round to the other purpose of this disc. It acts as a tribute to John Barnes (1934-2008). Some readers may know his name via his archive of Glyndebourne performances for the Christie family. Barnes approached Avie in 2003, suggesting he recorded artists he particularly admired. The present disc is the last of these efforts. What makes Barnes’ achievement doubly impressive is that he was a full-time director of a (non-musical) company all the time he worked on these recordings. It is impossible to criticise the recording here. The placement seems perfect, there is just the right amount of ambience and yet we hear all detail - without any mechanical additions, however - pedal noises and the like.
The recording here was produced, engineered and edited by Barnes. We hear the six Liszt transcriptions of Chopin songs first. Admirers of Cortot will be familiar with several of these delights, and know his inimitable way with the music. The highest praise I can give Borac is that she does not suffer in comparison. Her reading of “Wiosna” (Spring) is a pianistic, intimate whisper. Liszt’s presence is perhaps most evident in the virtuoso gestures of the third song we hear, “Narzeczony” (The Bridegroom). Borac’s performance of the fourth, “Moja Pieszczotka” (My Darling) is a model of style and her final “Hulanka” (Drinking Song) nearly bursts its studio bounds and enters into the realms of a spontaneity one would more likely associate with live performance.
Hearing the Chopin/Liszt items first means one is already in a frame of listening to hear the Etudes more as music than as studies. Borac’s technique is never in doubt (her articulation in the A minor Op. 10/2 is exemplary), but one really does hear these pieces as beautifully-shaped entities. Her cantabile sings sweetly and beautifully in the famous E major, Op. 10/3; the contrast with the C sharp minor is bold indeed. She loses out nothing to Pollini in sheer virtuosity, but Borac’s warm sound and character somehow sound more inviting. It is in the lyrical Etudes that Borac is most impressive and memorable. The E flat minor, Op. 10/6 has surely rarely sounded as intimate an utterance as here. One of the dangers of blind booklet-note writing comes out with the very next Etude, Op. 10/7 in C. Malcolm Macdonald refers to this as a “lively toccata”; Borac takes the “lively” description down a notch or two, finding more mysterious shadows than one might expect. The F minor, Op. 10/9 exemplifies perfectly Borac’s reflective approach, an approach that works extremely well. She makes us forget that these studies address specific technical issues in a way few others manage. Turbulence is there, too, when appropriate, (the C minor, Op. 10/12 being a case in point), although perhaps the B minor Etude (Op. 25/10) could have more vehemence.
Borac’s identifying of and use of subsidiary lines in Chopin’s textures is subtle and appropriate (listen to the E flat, Op. 10/11, or to the A flat, Op. 25/1, where not only does she negotiate this element with expertise but, in the latter example, she beautifully varies her touch for the important, guiding bass line). These “extra” lines are never forced into our consciousness, they are more like complementary shadows of the main line. Borac’s staccato is beautifully rounded (Op. 25/4). Her impeccable musicality is most reminiscent of Perahia (Sony); I have to say I prefer Avie’s piano recording, though.
It is difficult to image a more eloquent testament to the life of John Barnes.