Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op.11 (arr. for piano and string
quintet) (1830) [39:59]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op.21 (arr. for piano and string
quintet) (1830) [32:40]
Gianluca Luisi (piano)
Ensemble Concertant Frankfurt (Peter Agoston, Klaus Schwamm (violin),
Wolfgang Tluck (viola), Ulrich Horn (cello), Timm Johannes Trappe
rec. March 2010, Ehem. Ackerhaus der Abtei Marienmünster. Hybrid
The orchestration of Chopin’s piano concertos is not perfect.
Everyone will agree. It’s not even known whether Chopin himself
did the orchestration. We do however know that he prepared versions
for piano and string quintet and published them even before
the orchestral ones. These are the versions performed here.
Certainly, clarity of texture, is one of the advantages of this
approach. The piano is not drowned under the heavy-handed orchestral
tutti any more. Therefore, there is no need for the pianist
to over-shout the accompaniment. The ensemble is more flexible.
Some inner voices are better heard. I especially loved the cello
lines that resurface from the background and intertwine with
the piano. The slow movements attain a “honeyed” quality – à
la Tchaikovsky Second. At the end of the day, these piano concertos
are not about dialog between the soloist and the orchestra.
They are piano showpieces, with the orchestra added to punctuate
and set off some sides and corners. The piano part is still
there; does it really matter much whether you place your diamonds
on black velvet or black silk?
There are disadvantages too, besides the expected “we are just
not used to it”. Some corners that are “rounded” when many instruments
play the part become sharp when there is only one voice to a
part. I really miss the woodwind in some places, like the first
movement E minor coda. Also, when playing forte, the
strings sometimes seem to be trying to impersonate the full
orchestra and just strain and “squeeze” the voice out.
The sound of the restored 1901 Steinway is certainly attractive,
but not especially powerful. This lends fragile beauty to the
slow movements and gentler places. It also brings real quicksilver
colors to more mercurial episodes, as in the coda of the E minor
finale. On the other hand, the sound lacks weight in the more
tempestuous places. For example, the mighty cascades at the
end of the E minor 1st movement development lose
the overwhelming effect they usually have. In the slow movement
of the same concerto, the piano sound is too sharp for real
poetry to awake. The climax of the finale - before the last
return of the refrain - leaves the feeling of “what if”. I probably
cannot be a fair judge here: I am a Martha Argerich fan, and
happen to love her “thundering” approach to this concerto. I
always return to the evergreen Pollini/Kletzki on EMI. The latest
live performance by Argerich and Kaspszyk from the 2010 Lugano
box is also excellent.
The chamber approach suits the F minor concerto much better.
Although it resembles the Op.11 concerto, as a twin sister resembles
her brother, it is gentler, less dramatic. Also, the role of
the piano is greater here, and Luisi’s playing is especially
expressive and subtle, so it compensates for any discomfort
you may feel from the “adventurous” accompaniment. The coda
of the first movement is as sensitive and beautiful as ever.
The piano is deeply poetic in the slow movement, with strings
murmuring softly. This movement probably benefits the most from
the reduction of forces. The rich piano part of the finale feels
good in chamber clothes. It glitters and flutters like a butterfly
in the sun. The mood is light and relaxed. Unfortunately, it
also means that the excitement is gone. It is beautiful – but
Chopin is Chopin, and if you love his piano concertos you’ll
find a lot to love here. Also, it is interesting to envision
what it was like when he played his concertos in Parisian salons,
with reduced forces. I wish I could be more enthusiastic. Indeed,
I hear more inner lines, but these lines are thin and sharp,
as if I saw on an X-ray the skeleton of a beautiful ballerina.
I understand that there is a lot on both sides of the weighing
scales, and probably your own head needs to be added to the
equation. So I advise to listen to excerpts online, if possible.
I cannot appraise the SACD sound quality, but on a regular player
I do not feel any especial depth of sound. Quite the contrary,
strings sound shallow, although the piano voice is captured
The booklet contains an engaging essay by Elisabeth Deckers
in English, French and German about the history of creation
of the concertos in their various arrangements, as well as advocacy
for the chamber version of these works.