Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Opus 21 for piano and string quartet (1829/30)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Quartet in C major, Wo0 36 No.3 (1879)
Roger Woodward (piano)
Alexander String Quartet
rec. dates and location not provided: co-production with Radio Bremen.

The cover of the booklet for this release gives the description of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.2 in this form as ‘original’, but the publishing of music with the option of using chamber music forces for domestic use was common at the time. It is however likely that the first private performance would have sounded not dissimilar to this recording – in terms of string weight of sound if nothing else. Talking about weight of sound, I was a bit concerned about the entry of the piano in the opening Maestoso, which gives all the impression of embarking on a performance of full-blown soloistic projection. Roger Woodward is entirely sensitive to the setting however, and, while giving plenty of the usual pianistic fireworks where the music demands, fills his chamber-music role with a fine balance and synergy between solo instrument and string quartet accompaniment.

Roger Woodward and the Alexander String Quartet have worked together before, and he appears in the Piano Quintet in G minor Op.57 on their excellent complete Shostakovich String Quartets set on Foghorn Classics. Even if you are not already familiar with their warm and expressive sound, putting this CD on is like immersing oneself in a nice steaming bath full of your favourite soothing essences. The central Larghetto of this concerto is a wonderful piece wherever you encounter it, but in this recording it takes on a really magical feel, like time suspended. The outer movements might not have the power provided by an orchestral backing, but win by a long stretch in terms of transparency. In fact, if you didn’t know this music incidentally you might not even recognise it as Chopin’s second piano concerto, such is the adjustment in sonorities and mood. In other words, even if you have a much loved favourite version of this piece it’s very much worth considering having this one as well. You can discover the work anew, and have a wonderful performance and recording into the bargain.

While the Piano Concerto No.2 belongs in the category of the 19 year old Chopin’s ‘early works’, Beethoven was an even younger 15 when he wrote the remarkably mature Piano Quartet No.3. Roger Woodward’s own extended and scholarly booklet notes put this piece into context, and points out that, despite the classical style of the music, the fascinating inventiveness of the structure in this and the other piano quartets of the period point towards the creative spirit which would later establish and ensure Beethoven’s immortal fame. Especially beautiful is the central Adagio con espressione, taken at a very restrained pace by the musicians here, coming in at 8:09 in comparison to a more typical 6:32 with the New Zealand Piano Quartet on Naxos. This fits in well with this generally warm and amiable performance, sustaining melodic line and harmonic shape without overtly seeking dramas in the music which were yet to become a significant part of Beethoven’s compositional voice.

This is one of those CDs which feels ‘right’ from start to finish, and one which I can imagine playing endlessly without feeling the slightest fatigue. Throw in the superb booklet notes and that dreamy painting by J.M.W. Turner on the cover, and you have a package to treasure for very many years to come.

Dominy Clements