Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Fantasy in F minor, op. 49 (1841) [13:36]
Ballade in A flat major, op. 47 (1841) [8:04]
Nocturne in C sharp minor, op. 27 no. 1 (1835) [6:28]
Nocturne in D flat major, op. 27 no. 2 (1837) [6:43]
Mazurka in C minor, op. 30 no. 1 (1837) [1:46]
Mazurka in B minor, op. 30 no. 2 (1837) [1:27]
Mazurka in D flat major, op. 30 no. 2 (1837) [3:03]
Mazurka in C sharp minor, op. 30 no. 4 (1837) [4:26]
Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor, op. 35 (1835) [26:01]
Polonaise in A flat major, op. 53 (1843) [7:23]
Marek Szlezer (piano)
rec. 17-19 August, 2010, Music Academy Hall, Cracow. DDD
DUX 0792 [78:55] 

First, a clarification. If you are looking at this CD in a store or online, it describes the instrument as “fortepian/piano”. I am assuming that “fortepian” is the Polish word for piano - the notes are in Polish and English, but I am using the Anglicised titles throughout. Regardless, Marek Szlezer is definitely not playing a fortepiano in this Chopin recital. The instrument is not described, but it sounds like a modern grand piano.
Marek Szlezer is a young Polish pianist who won the Grand Prix of the Rome International Piano Competition at the age of 12. He has won several awards for his Chopin interpretations, including that of the Foundation for the National Edition of the Works of Fryderyk Chopin “Arthur Rubinstein in memoriam”. On the evidence of this recital he is a well equipped player who interprets Chopin in the romantic tradition.
The disc begins with the F minor Fantasy, op. 35. The piece has an overall ternary structure, opening with a slow introduction, leading to a more rhapsodic fast section and back to the opening tempo; all these transitions are seamlessly managed. Szlezer adopts a deliberate tempo at the opening; the phrases are carefully shaped, and feature fine legato playing. His tone is attractively full, with a wide range of colours and dynamic contrasts. I felt Szlezer remained at fortissimo a bit too long in the alla marcia section.
Chopin was a pioneer of the Ballade form; this one is the third of four at this opus number. The performance exhibits Szlezer’s gift for rhythms that are flexible without becoming shapeless. The gradual crescendo into the animated finale is also impressive. The first of the op. 27 Nocturnes is also carefully built up from the desolate opening. The melody in the second Nocturne is spun out with a bewitching variety of tone colours, particularly in the right hand.
A legend attached itself to Chopin’s Mazurkas that they were based on Polish folk music. In fact they were about as Polish as Brahms’ Hungarian music was Hungarian, being based on music that the composer would have heard in the urban areas of his homeland. Chopin replaced the rustic element of the original dance form with sophisticated mood painting. Szlezer establishes his mastery of these little pieces in the first of the op. 30 set, which prances around like a spirited colt. The second again exhibits his flexible but springy rhythms, and the tempo fluctuations in the third are well managed. The fourth is the longest of the set, and opens in an indecisive mood painted by a melody in thirds. The repeated two note motif in the left hand subtly propels the music to a rather uncertain resolution. This is superbly sensitive Chopin playing.
The opening movement of the second Sonata proceeds at a well chosen pace; Szlezer resists the temptation to play the Doppio movimento too fast, taking the second subject quite expansively. The melody in the right hand is always well brought out against the accompaniment, and the pianist’s tonal range adds excitement to the final climax. The Scherzo is taken more con brio, and there is beautiful legato playing in the mid-section. Unfortunately Szlezer relaxes the tempo too far at this point, to the stage where it begins to feel like a slow movement, with a resultant loss of tension. The Marche Funèbre exhibits more masterful phrasing and tonal variety, and the major key section grows out of the march with great naturalness. Cortot likened the Finale to a wind whistling over grave-stones, and it is certainly one of Chopin’s most extraordinary inventions. In Szlezer’s recording it flashes like a comet before our eyes, achieving tremendous rhythmic dynamism in its brief passage. 
Szlezer finishes his recital with the A flat major Polonaise, op. 53. The nickname “Heroic” suggests its extraverted character, and its familiarity. The pianist plays it in an optimistic and celebratory style that goes some way to overcome the burden of that familiarity and make us hear the piece anew. The recorded sound is extremely good, with realistic piano tone.
In the notes to the CD Szlezer pays tribute to the great Chopin performers Cortot, Rubinstein, Małcużyński and Czerny-Stefańska. Rubinstein’s stereo performances certainly make a rewarding comparison. In the Fantasy Rubinstein avoids being stuck at fortissimo in the march theme; he gets through this piece in 11:59 to Szlezer’s 13:36. The Ballade is strongly characterised, and is again quicker (7:15 against 8:04). The Nocturnes have great concentration, and show this pianist’s immaculate legato playing. Rubinstein’s way with the Mazurkas is justly celebrated; the rhythms have just the right amount of elasticity. In the last of the op. 30 set in particular, the sophistication of the setting seems to gnaw away at the sturdiness of the native form. Rubinstein is quicker than Szlezer in this Mazurka (3:41 against 4:26). The Sonata sets off like a Polish knight riding to some heroic quest; impulse, however, is definitely at the service of experience. The tempo relationships in the Scherzo are superior to Szlezer’s, without the sag in the mid-section; Rubinstein gets through this movement over a minute faster (6:35 against 7:46). The Marche Funèbre is againquicker, although it never feels rushed (8:56 against 10:44).

Marek Szlezer clearly reveres the great Chopin players of the past, and his performances are not diminished in the comparison. This is an enjoyable recital featuring playing of taste, conviction, and great tonal and dynamic variety. It would make an ideal introduction to Chopin for someone fortunate enough to be discovering his music.  

Guy Aron 

This is a generous and impressive Chopin recital that gives as good a sampling of this composer’s genius as any single disc possibly could.