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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
The complete Études
Full track listing at end of review
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
rec. October 1996, Performing Arts Center, Purchase College, State University of New York.
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55380 [67:07]
The Complete Waltzes
Full track listing at end of review
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
rec. 1995, New York.
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55381 [75:30]
The Great Polonaises
Full track listing at end of review
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Kazimierz Kord (Op.22)
rec. 1993, New York, and Warsaw 1997 (Op.22).
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55382 [74:34]
Preludes and Impromptus
Full track listing at end of review
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
rec. 1989, 1993 and 1995
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55383 [71:21]
Chamber Music
Full track listing at end of review
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
Leila Josefowicz (violin Op.8), Carter Brey (cello Op.65, Op.3, Grand Duo)
rec. New York, 25-28 July 2000
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55384 [76:13]
The Complete Mazurkas Vol.1
Full track listing at end of review
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
rec. New York, 1998
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55391 [71:18]
The Complete Mazurkas Vol.2
Full track listing at end of review
Garrick Ohlsson (piano)
rec. New York, 1998
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55392 [69:25]

Experience Classicsonline

We’ve had the original releases on the Arabesque label, the collected complete works in a remarkable 16 CD box, and now Hyperion have released a selection of Garrick Ohlsson’s recordings on their Helios budget label. Looking at the Hyperion website it would appear these seven discs are all the re-releases so far. There may be others in the pipeline, though I should imagine the label will want to keep some powder in reserve, otherwise no-one will want the box set. As things stand these individual discs come out dearer per disc than as they appear amongst the complete works, so if you want the complete Chopin experience then the full set is still an attractive proposition. Not all of us want everything at once however, and so we can now cherry-pick some of the choicest piano solo morsels, and a very fine disc of the chamber music as well.

I’ve been listening to some of Garrick Ohlsson’s recordings from the 1970s on the EMI 200th Anniversary Edition box, and found his playing in the EMI set to be amongst the best, though in some works with some considerably differing interpretations from those we find on the Hyperion discs, in particular with the Preludes. In general, you can expect direct, manly performances, full of technical prowess and a powerful touch which is softened but rarely entirely disguised by the velvet glove Chopin sometimes demands. I appreciate his unsentimental approach, but in casting the net wider to pianists such as Alice Sara Ott on Deutsche Grammophon (DG), realise there are other ways of tackling these works – with a gentler touch, but equally without turning them into fluffy and superficial romances. I’ve dug out my old Rubinstein LPs as well, and while accepting that his Chopin recordings are something of a reference, have also to accept that they will never be all things to all people. Stopping short of the Herculean labour of deciding which recording of what might be all-time best, I can save everyone time by confirming that all of these discs are worth having, and if study or enjoyment is your aim then you could do far worse than having Garrick Ohlsson as your Chopin guide in the works presented here.

Ohlsson’s Études disc is an impressive collection, but for me every recording of these pieces meets almost insurmountable opposition from Maurizio Pollini on his 1972 DG recording. This latter disc is a must-have for all Chopin and piano music collectors, though there are those who would argue that his technical perfection overrides a certain sterility in the performance. Ohlsson is very good in all of these pieces, though only just makes it through the transition before the recapitulation in Op.10 No.1, that particular moment cropping up at 0:59. Supremely difficult in places, Ohlsson sails through all other technical problems in these pieces with ease, as well as singing warmly in those gorgeously expressive melodic lines such as Op.10 No.3 and No.6. I particularly like his touch in the arpeggiated chords with crowning melody of Op.10 No.11, and there is also great fun to be had in the bounce of Op.25 No.4 and No.9, and in charmingly irregular fashion in No.5, reminding me a little of its appearance on Horowitz’s final recording. The central pieces of both collections do not disappoint, such as the massively heroic final Op. 10 and Op. 25 études in C minor. The longest of them all; Op.25 No.7 is captivating: just start by listening to the phrasing of that opening solo line, and you may find you’ve heard the whole piece in a trance, woken only by that final low coda and delightfully delayed cadence. Almost in defiance of their unassuming title, the Études hold some of Chopin’s best music, and this recording will not disappoint. The three Nouvelles études are a pleasant bonus, buy don’t add much after the sheer brilliance of the preceding music.

Having received Alice Sara Ott’s new recording of the Complete Waltzes on DG it seemed logical enough to compare her approach with Garrick Ohlsson’s. I came to the conclusion that her approach sought to present the pieces as Chopin might have played them himself, or at least would have appreciated hearing them – no doubt with a few helpful suggestions to add to a very fine recording indeed. By contrast, Ohlsson’s playing is more that of the concert hall than the drawing room, projecting all over the place and delivering a more steely touch. This is a case of swings and roundabouts, and my Libran nature finds it hard to come down either way in stating a preference for one over the other. Ohlsson is more butch, but has his own subtleties of contrast and touch, and certainly gives more of a feel of these as dances as well as piano pieces, whipping up a whirling storm wherever possible. As with the Études he manages to balance that line between rubatoid romanticism, beauty of touch and directness of musical message in lovely pieces such as Op.34 No.2. Pieces such as the famous ‘Minute’ Waltz Op. 64 No.1 and others which Chopin seems to have written with the intent of hearing the pianist trip up or the music to roll headlong down a steep hill such as Op.42 are never overcooked by Ohlsson, and he precipitates reams of notes with absolute control and impeccable phrasing, as well as providing considerable excitement at times. All the old favourites are played with a lovely touch, and this is a recording which, while perhaps on occasion more of the forceful and masculine school of Chopin, will live happily amongst others as one of the best.

‘The Great Polonaises’ disc presents, as its title would suggest, a selection of Chopin’s best works in this genre, a type of piece which had developed from a popular rural dance to a form demanded in aristocratic ballrooms and, as far as Chopin was concerned, far beyond. The fantastic and sometimes epic material which Chopin invested in these pieces is played with grand style by Ohlsson, with fine resonant energy and pregnant pauses in the Polonaise in E flat minor Op.26 No.2, and noble character in the famous and patriotic ‘Military’ Op.40 No.1. Impressive pianism and dignity of a different order appear directly following, in the more darkly expressive Op.40 No.2, clearly deeply felt by Ohlsson. Pianist Jeremy Denk in his online blog ‘Think Denk’ thankfully tuned into my search for the elusive qualities in the Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat major Op.61 in his ‘Chopin’s for Dummies’ entry, and I am grateful for his pointing out of numerous vital aspects in a piece which can seem confusing in its 15 minute or so sprawl. Ohlsson is on top of these crucial moments, and creates a fascinating and indeed poetic atmosphere in the work. The orchestral contribution in the final Grande Polonaise jumps out as a bit of a surprise, but a welcome one. The piano balance is rather huge in relation to the orchestra, the softer contributions of the string and horn being rendered more or less superfluous, but this is still a fine performance with a piano bass to rattle your porcelain.

The Preludes Op.28 were a point of comparison between the Ohlsson of the 1970s and that of the late 1980s and 1990s. His earlier recordings are rather straighter, and there are some surprising differences of tempi between the two. These more recent Hyperion recordings are a somewhat richer diet in terms of expressive flexibility. Again, I initially found myself unable to chose between the two, preferring the simplicity and directness of the earlier recordings, bemoaning some of the added slowness and dragging of such as Op.28 No.4 in the later version, but appreciating some of the expressive limpidity and added sense of poetic expression in other pieces. As with many such things, taken in isolation these are fine performances on the whole, but the feeling that everything is about to ground entirely to a halt is too close to the surface in preludes such as the beautiful Op.28 No.6, whose melody is left abandoned and bereft of direction over an accompaniment which simply refuses to get up off its sickbed and walk. In all, Ohlsson seems to have gone too far in terms of experimental slowness in No.7, marked Andantino and where time is perhaps intended to stand still, but in fact the effect of a musical clockwork which is running its final flagging cycle before giving up the ghost altogether is closer to the mark. There are many fine things in this performance, but a few too many eccentricities to make it a first choice. The Impromptus are nicely done, and the witty No.2 in F sharp minor Op.36 is a delight.

The ‘Chamber Music’ CD in this series is one of the highlights, with gorgeous cello sound from Carter Brey in a nicely shaped Cello Sonata. The stirring themes which crop up in the Scherzo are powerfully done, and the Largo has a perfect tempo and weight, the slow conversation between piano and cello developing inexorably over a forward momentum which is neither static nor rushed and superficial. This was Chopin’s last large scale composition, and becomes all the more moving in this recording if one keeps this in mind. The same instrumental synergies in performance apply to the Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major Op.3, with some delightful piano touches in the opening flourishes, Carter Brey colouring the arguably over-long phrases in the melodic line. The independence of parts in this piece at times foreshadows the even more ambitious Grand Duo in E major and the two pieces go well together. With the Piano Trio in G minor Op.8 we get to the real treat on this disc however, with some cracking chamber-music making from an ensemble which now adds violinist Leila Josefowicz to its number. This is a work which has been criticised for its lack of equality in the parts, and there are indeed swathes in which the piano has a leading role and the strings act as a kind of filler. There is much to be enjoyed here however, and it’s one of those pieces that, once heard in a performance as fine as this one, holds a kind of spell over the listener, drawing you back to hear more of this warmly genial and cleanly appealing music.

Finishing up with the two volumes of the Mazurkas, we arrive pretty much where we set off. Garrick Ohlsson’s performances of these wonderful pieces are rarely over-controversial, but many of his interpretations have a hard-hitting quality which has the notes ricochet off your walls. I quite like most of these; Ohlsson combining his pianistic fireworks with some wonderfully expressive moments of balance and repose. He doesn’t hit us over the head too hard and too often, and utilises his wide dynamic range to tease and cajole the little dramas and poetic corners into our awareness by stealth. There are a few works where the sense of extreme rubato might seem too mannered, but I didn’t find myself sliding off the stool in the same way as with some of the Preludes. In his booklet notes Jeremy Nicholas mentions the encounter with Chopin and Meyerbeer, in which the latter composer was convinced Chopin was playing in 2/4 rather than 3/4, so extreme was the composer’s own rubato, so who am I to complain about Garrick Ohlsson’s performance style. There are some pure nuggets as well. Op.17 No.3 for instance, which holds a strange intensity in its minimal means, Ohlsson’s performance reminding me of something from Janacek’s ‘Overgrown Path’. Op.17 No.4 immediately following is an example of what you might love or hate about these performances; the left hand sometimes pushing forward, even giving the impression of being in front of the melody at times, and restless – not boringly square by any means, but determined to defy stability where expressive doodling will do. With Volume 2 we hear Ohlsson having great fun with the ‘bagpipes’ with Op.56 No.2, and this set is full of very nice touches. Delicacy is a positive feature of the later Op.67 and Op.68 sets, Op.68 No.4 being Chopin’s ‘final inspiration’, the composer too ill even to try it out on the piano. Ohlsson is sensitive to the gentler characteristics in these pieces, and the ride here is both vibrantly lively and poetically restrained.

Given useful booklet and apparently new notes by Jeremy Nicholas, these budget releases only lack vibrancy in the rather beige cover presentation. These are fragments of Chopin’s autograph manuscripts which give the discs a family identity, if not exactly having them leap out at you from the shelves. With such top class recordings you certainly won’t be disappointed by the production values on these discs, and the performances are all of a very high standard. My minor gripes about tempi and rubato here and there are subjective opinions, but based on niggles which I know would disturb me on returning to those particular recordings. Unreserved recommendations go out for the chamber music disc, and Ohlsson’s solo work is never less than superbly played and exquisitely interesting.

Dominy Clements

Full track listings

The complete Études
Études, Op 10 [28:55]
Études, Op 25 [31:38]
Nouvelles études, KKIIb/3 [6:32]

The Complete Waltzes
Waltz in E flat major, Op 18 [5:38]
Waltz in A flat major, Op 34 No 1 [5:54]
Waltz in A minor, Op 34 No 2 [7:00]
Waltz in F major, Op 34 No 3 [2:40]
Waltz in A flat major, Op 42 [4:03]
Waltz in D flat major 'Minute', Op 64 No 1 [1:54]
Waltz in C sharp minor, Op 64 No 2 [4:02]
Waltz in A flat major, Op 64 No 3 [3:15]
Waltz in A flat major, Op 69 No 1 [4:36]
Waltz in B minor, Op 69 No 2 [3:56]
Waltz in G flat major, Op 70 No 1 [2:26]
Waltz in F minor, Op 70 No 2 [3:45]
Waltz in D flat major, Op 70 No 3 [3:07]
Waltz in A flat major, KKIVa/13 [1:46]
Waltz in E major, KKIVa/12 [2:48]
Waltz in E minor, KKIVa/15 [3:04]
Waltz in A minor, KKIVb/11 [2:16]
Sostenuto in E flat major 'Waltz', KKIVb/10 [2:18]
Waltz in E flat major, KKIVa/14 [2:51]
Waltz in F sharp minor 'Valse mélancolique', KKIb/7 [3:37]
Contredanse in G flat major, KKAnh.Ia/4 [2:11]
Ecossaises, Op 72 No 3:
     No 1: D major [0:53]
     No 2: G major [0:38]
     No 3: D flat major [0:42]

The Great Polonaises
Polonaise in C sharp minor, Op 26 No 1 [8:11]
Polonaise in E flat minor, Op 26 No 2 [7:51]
Polonaise in A major, Op 40 No 1 [3:48]
Polonaise in C minor, Op 40 No 2 [8:30]
Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op 44 [10:40]
Polonaise in A flat major, Op 53 [7:00]
Polonaise-Fantasy in A flat major, Op 61 [14:20]
Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise, Op.22 [14:09]

Preludes and Impromptus
Twenty-Four Preludes, Op 28 [41:52]
Prelude in E flat minor Op 28 no.14: Largo [1:08]
Presto con leggierezza 'Prelude in A flat major', KKIVb/7 [0:40]
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op 45 [5:48]
Impromptu No 1 in A flat major, Op 29 [4:21]
Impromptu No 2 in F sharp major, Op 36 [6:21]
Impromptu No 3 in G flat major, Op 51 [5:54]
Fantasy Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op 66 [5:12]

Chamber Music
Cello Sonata in G minor, Op 65 [25:51]
Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major, Op 3 [9:27]
Grand Duo in E major on themes from Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable, KKIIb/1 [14:19]
Piano Trio in G minor, Op 8 [26:34]

The Complete Mazurkas Vol. 1
Four Mazurkas, Op 6 [7:56]
Five Mazurkas, Op 7 [9:16]
Four Mazurkas, Op 17 [13:09]
Four Mazurkas, Op 24 [11:31]
Four Mazurkas, Op 30 [9:58]
Four Mazurkas, Op 33 [10:31]
Four Mazurkas, Op 41 [8:57]

The Complete Mazurkas Vol. 2
Three Mazurkas, Op 50 [7:56]
Three Mazurkas, Op 56 [9:16]
Three Mazurkas, Op 59 [13:09]
Three Mazurkas, Op 63 [11:31]
Mazurka in A minor, KKIIb/5 [2:19]
Mazurka in A minor, KKIIb/4 [3:29]
Four Mazurkas, Op 67 [10:31]
Four Mazurkas, Op 68 [8:57]
Mazurka in B flat major, KKIIa/3 [1:07]
Mazurka in G major, KKIIa/2 [1:24]
Mazurka in D major, KKAnh.Ia/1 [1:21]
Mazurka in B flat major, KKIVb/1 [1:08]
Mazurka in C major, KKIVb/3 [2:27]
Mazurka in A flat major, KKIVb/4 [1:17]

 


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