Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor Op. 11 * [40:38]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21* [33:31]
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 35 ** [23:59]
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor Op. 58 ** [24:26]
Barcarolle in F# minor Op. 60 ** [8:47]
Polonaise in A major Op. 40/1 “Military” ** [4:43]
Nocturnes Nos 1-21 *** [2:7:15]
12 Études Op. 10 ****[29:44]
12 Études Op. 25 ****[31:53]
3 Nouvelles Études Op. Posth. ****[6:44]
Maria João Pires *, György Sebök **, Elisabeth Leonskaja ***, Boris Berezovsky **** (piano)
Orchestre National de l‘Opéra de Monte-Carlo/Armin Jordan*
rec. Opéra de Monte-Carlo, June 1977*, 1956, 1963, 1969**, October/November 1991, January 1992***, Teldec Studios, Berlin, February 1991****
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 68714-7 [5 CDs: 74:11 + 61:56 + 66:06 + 61:09 + 68:16]

This slim inexpensive box, one of two from Warner devoted to Chopin in his anniversary year (the other 5 CD set is 2564-68717-4), follows a similar pattern to those celebrating the works of Mendelssohn in 2009. That is, it includes the most important, or at least the best known of the composer’s works, and draws widely from the company’s back catalogue, in this case from 1956 to 1992. Once again an interesting choice has been made, including players not generously represented in the current catalogue. In particular I welcome the inclusion of a disc including two of the Piano Sonatas played by György Sebök, whose current representation otherwise is mainly in chamber works. There are many ways of approaching the works of Chopin, but for me there is much to be said for avoiding too much lingering on the admittedly astonishingly beautiful surface decoration and colours of the music. Chopin’s structural devices may at times seem crude on the surface, but the resulting structures do work and I much prefer performers who allow the works to speak for themselves without additional languishing whenever the opportunity might seem to allow it. The main point concerns the nature of rubato in playing Chopin. I believe strongly that it is best applied in moderation, largely to the right hand only whilst keeping the left hand essentially close to a strict time except where the composer indicates otherwise. These performances of the Sonatas are to me just about ideal in such an approach, although I accept that some might find them a little dry or even insensitive.

Similar comments apply to the Nocturnes as performed by Elisabeth Leonskaja. Perhaps I am simply a heretic where Chopin is concerned but I do not think that it serves him well to listen to all twenty-one of these works in succession. Mind you, this is perhaps something only a reviewer would contemplate doing, but if you do want to do it this is perhaps the kind of performance which works best, with the variety between the various pieces strongly emphasised. Other pianists may have extracted greater pure pianistic beauty at particular moments in these works, but for me at least this approach reveals more of their essential character.

The remaining discs are less controversial. Boris Berezovsky’s version of the Études is well known and rightly admired, and it has been a great pleasure listening to it again. The recordings of the Piano Concertos by Maria João Pires are also well known, and are certainly full of sheer pianistic beauty. For me, however, the lingering at incidental moments, however lovely they are, and a somewhat reticent and at times inexact orchestra do reduce their impact. They are nonetheless very characterful accounts of the works, and even if I might have chosen a different version their choice for inclusion here is understandable.

Overall I would regard this as a very worthwhile set, especially at the low price at which I have seen it offered. It would be worth adding it to your collection even if you already have other versions of these works.

John Sheppard