I have encountered relatively few instances in which an artist’s sensibilities have seemed perfectly attuned to the music presented. Here is one such case. Bernd Glemser grasps the full measure of the Chopin Scherzos and Ballades like no other pianist in memory. Lise de la Salle’s recent recording on Naïve was certainly compelling, even if the tempos were stretched a bit. Kissin (RCA), however, was my previous favorite in the Ballades, in a field that includes Ashkenazy (Decca), Zimerman (DG), Pollini (DG), Biret (Naxos), Gavrilov (EMI) and many others. But Glemser clearly trumps Kissin and probably all other individual performances of the Ballades and Scherzos that I can ever recall hearing.
Glemser, who has recorded all the Rachmaninov concertos and Prokofiev sonatas for Naxos—and much else, besides — is an extraordinary pianist, an artist I have found consistently excellent over the years. Here, in my first exposure to his Chopin, I can say this is astounding playing and not just from the technical point of view. Glemser’s dynamics are rich in graded nuance, his tempo choices centrist and always a natural fit, his phrasing sensitive to the minutest emotional tic and his overall interpretive grasp of the music incisive and fully convincing. If all his Chopin is this good, he can stand with or ahead of Rubinstein, Cliburn, Perahia and other icons in this repertory.
The disc’s layout is a bit unusual, but follows the chronological order given in the headnote: scherzos and ballades are presented in ascending order according to opus number, not in an alternating pattern, as it might first appear. But whatever order Glemser had chosen, his deft interpretations would have worked.
Notice the fleet but troubled agitation in his Scherzo No. 1, played as if to express a burst of negative energy that always slackens to recall painful memories. Glemser’s dynamics and phrasing here consistently capture the roller-coaster emotions and heartrending drama. His coda is utterly thrilling. The First Ballade is filled with equally troubled emotions, all expressed so deftly by Glemser: the main theme is lovely in its neurotic longing and poetry, and the big love theme brims with hope, but ultimately false hope, that is utterly disarming and beautifully sad.
Glemser’s Second Ballade opens with a lovely serenity that yields to angry agitation, the pianist once more capturing the mood swings with such a convincing grasp on Chopin’s expressive soul as to mesmerize the listener, as if no other way with this famous music is possible. The lovely Third Ballade, the only work here mostly free of troubles, gets a perfectly balanced mixture of serenity and vigor, the whole keeping the listener smiling and comforted. The other performances are similarly convincing and Oehms Classics’ sound is vivid and powerful. All in all, then, this disc is a treasure, a rarity to behold.