Fryderyk CHOPIN
Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor Op 21 [30:46]
Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni Op 2 [17:22]
Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante in E flat major Op 22 [14:22]
Eldar Nebolsin (piano)
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Antoni Wit
rec. Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, Warsaw, Poland, 1-5 September 2009
NAXOS 8.572336 [62:53]

All too often when playing Chopin pianists seem to concentrate more on producing their own individual performances rather than on playing what is in the score. Conductors and orchestras do not bother too much, relying on the received wisdom that Chopin could not write for orchestras. As is clear from this disc, he could, but he did it in a very individual way, albeit one which is essentially to support and encourage the soloist. The tuttis are rightly firm and unmannered here, whilst the various solo voices rising from the orchestra - in effect secondary soloists – emerge as distinct characters. The bassoon in particular has this role in the Concerto, and here he (or she) is made sufficiently audible to achieve this without being artificially spotlit. Even better, the section near the start of the third movement where the upper strings play a rhythmic pattern col legno - with the stick of the bow - whilst the lower strings play arco is balanced just right. The effect is neither inaudible nor just bizarre but rather evokes some kind of folk-dance. Similar care over balance and phrasing appears throughout the disc, and adds enormously to the listener’s pleasure and understanding.

It may seem odd to start this review by talking about the orchestra rather than the soloist, but Eldar Nebolsin is such a superbly musicianly player that I am sure that he would not complain. Although he plainly has the technique to tear through simply showing off his virtuosity, and he is certainly not afraid to do so when that is required, he is more interested in the changing character of the music, and of its line. Rather, of its lines, as over and over again I was delighted to be able to hear details of inner voices and details that are usually submerged in the texture. The slow movement is taken at a flowing speed that allows the phrases to breathe naturally. There is rubato in all three movements, but not to such an extent that the basic pulse is hidden. Naxos refer to these performances on the sleeve as being “fresh” and that is exactly the right word although I would add “musicianly and enjoyable”. I do not want to suggest a slavish devotion to the letter of the text. There is freedom, but allied to real rhythmic control, and with a delightful variety of tone colour and lightness of touch.

The performances of the two shorter works share similar virtues to the Concerto and for once I can understand Schumann’s famous comments after hearing the Variations. They come across as having real imagination and wit rare in sets of virtuoso variations of the period.

With excellent and well balanced recording this goes straightaway to the top of my preferred performances of the Concerto. There is no sense of self-indulgence or of empty virtuosity; instead, we hear what the composer has written projected with beauty, wit and imagination. For me this is near the ideal in the performance of Chopin.

John Sheppard

Near the ideal in the performance of Chopin.