Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Fantaisie in F minor, Op. 49 [13:31]
Nocturne in D flat, Op. 27 No. 2 [6:33]
Sonata No 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35 [22:10]
Barcarolle in F sharp, Op. 60 [9:34]
Waltzes in F (Op. 34/3), A minor (Op. 34/2), C sharp minor (Op. 64/2) [12:51]
Berceuse in D flat, Op. 57 [4:48]
Polonaise in A flat, Op. 53, “Héroïque” [7:21]
Waltz in D flat, Op. 64 No. 1 [2:23]
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
rec. live, 28 February 2010, National Philharmonic Concert Hall, Warsaw, Poland
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 9519 [79:07]

Daniel Barenboim’s Chopin recital sometimes feels warm and lyrical, and sometimes feels cautious. His Nocturne Op 27 No 2 is both at once: very pretty, with understated left-hand accompaniment, but too much effort: one can only hear so many tiny pauses, hesitations, and underplayed notes before one grows to expect them. The darker passage at the nocturne’s center initially seems to take Barenboim by surprise, but he is in full regal command by the return of the main theme.

If that sounds like a lot of good, bad, and indifferent in one short piece, be informed that such is Barenboim’s way on most of the disc. The Fantaisie in F minor has a few transitions which are too literal, not dreamlike (try 3:10), and a lot that is done well if not distinctively. It’s broad, serious-minded, and at the same time strangely compelling, with huge climaxes. The Sonata No 2’s first movement is dispatched largely in fleet, vicious manner, but the tempo of the opening statement of the theme veers wildly from oddly slow to unplayably quick, and why does Barenboim omit the repeat? The two inner movements both wrestle with significant reductions in tempo for their central sections — poetic, I’m sure, but a little unsatisfying structurally, especially when heard on disc rather than live.

Some of the shorter works fare much better. The barcarolle is a tender serenade but with a little bit of occasional banging about; the four waltzes tease and wink (in fact are pretty much nothing but teases and winks, except a rather heavy 34/2 and a very elegantly dispatched C sharp minor); the berceuse flows like an absolute dream and might be the CD’s best track; the “Heroic” polonaise is, like the live concert approaches of, say, Kemal Gekic, less hard-edged than its nickname implies. I can’t help feeling, though, that Gekic and others are in firmer control of the rhythms which here, in an early passage or two, come off slightly awkward and stiff. Once Barenboim gets to the flashy downward chords at about 3:15, though, it’s smooth and pleasing sailing with his virtuosity alternatively flashy and restrained.

There is applause at the end of tracks 1, 2, 6, 10, 11, 12, and 13; only the last encore, the ‘Minute’ waltz, really sounds “live,” with audience noises and a faint light murk of crowd movement behind the piano. Warsaw’s National Philharmonic Hall is as blessed an acoustic for the piano as it is for orchestra, though, and Daniel Barenboim’s piano sounds beautiful throughout: microphones are not too close or clinical, nor too far back either.

One more odd fact: Deutsche Grammophon has actually licensed this recording from Daniel Barenboim himself, and from an outfit called Accentus Musik Leipzig. Accentus are an independent label and production company which already released this recital on DVD and Blu-Ray, in co-operation with NHK. I’m not sure what it says about Deutsche Grammophon that they can’t even produce new recordings of their house artists anymore, but resort to licensing them from independent labels which do not make CDs. How exactly is this a DG album?

But back on-topic: Daniel Barenboim’s Chopin is good. It demonstrates affection for the composer which may not have always been clear in his studio Chopin for EMI, and it’s always very pretty and solidly done. There’s not much risk-taking except for some questionable exaggerated rubato. If I had been in the audience for this concert, I would have thoroughly enjoyed it and considered it a highlight of my concert-going year. If I heard this on the radio, though, I wouldn’t be able to say, “this sounds like Barenboim.” He’s a great pianist and he plays everything enviably well, but this is not the Chopin of a master.

Here’s a tip: if you want to hear a really spellbinding recital containing the Second Sonata, Fantaisie in F minor, and Berceuse, it’s Ivan Moravec’s glorious 2002 recording on Vox. If you want to hear the live Op 53 polonaise to end all live Op 53 polonaises, root out the rare and little-known CD “Kemal Gekic Live in Tokyo 2002.”

Brian Reinhart

Barenboim is a great pianist and plays everything well, but this is not master Chopin.