Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Etudes, Op. 10 (1829-1833) [30:02]
Etudes, Op. 25 (1833-1837) [32:41]
Ronald Smith (piano)
rec. 8-10 November 1989, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth
NIMBUS NI 5223 [62:43]
There are so many recordings of Chopin's celebrated Etudes that comparison is a difficult (but pleasurable) occupation. Maurizio Pollini gives a magisterial reading on DG, but his cool performance of the more lyrical Etudes (such as Op. 10 No. 3) will certainly not be to every listener's taste. Murray Perahia's recording (on Sony Classical) is probably the yardstick by which all versions should be judged. For me, he is the great Chopin interpreter of the age, at least on disc. Everything about his interpretation of the Etudes seems absolutely right, both in the brilliant showpieces and in the more reflective outpourings.
Ronald Smith (1922-2004) was one of the most distinguished British pianists of the immediate post-war era. These recordings, made for Nimbus when he was in his late sixties, show that his technical command was still formidable at this stage of his career. As a whole, these are very fine performances, without quite matching Perahia's magical recording. The first two Etudes of Op. 10 are somewhat lacking in fire (No. 2 is rather pedestrian) but, from this point on, the interpretations grow in stature. Op. 10 No. 8 is wonderfully spontaneous and the first set closes with a splendid performance of the 'Revolutionary Study'. Throughout this disc, Smith's rubato is consistently well judged, with none of the expressive mannerisms that spoil other Chopin recordings, such as those by Martha Argerich.
The Op. 25 set also receives a superb reading. Op. 25 No. 3 is played with real panache. The lyrical central section of Op. 25 No. 5 is lovingly presented. The ninth study (in G flat major) is played with real humour, something decidedly lacking in Pollini's version. The performance of the final study has real grandeur and brings the disc to an imposing close.
The joy of these performances is that they are old-fashioned in the best sense. The interpretations are deeply musical and are clearly the fruit of considerable experience. Smith may not have possessed the invincible technical perfection of Perahia, but he was a pianist who clearly put the music first, stubbornly refusing to intrude between composer and listener. This is increasingly rare today.
The sound is good, without being quite as fine as some of the other issues on the same label. The booklet contains valuable notes by Ronald Smith himself. While it would be futile to put this disc forward as the definitive version of the Chopin Etudes, it is certainly worth investigating, because Smith's way with this music has a special charm of its own.
David Jennings
Smith's way with this music has a special charm of its own.