Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 (1830) [41:11]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21 (1829/30) [32:21]
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Staatskapelle Berlin/Andris Nelsons
rec. live, Ruhr Piano Festival, July 2010, Philharmonie Essen, Germany
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 9520 [73:34]

"When I play Chopin I feel a kind of purely physical pleasure that I get from no other composer's music." Daniel Barenboim (booklet notes to DG 477 9520)

I cannot think of a greater name in the music world today than Daniel Barenboim. He has spread himself between roles as a concert pianist/recitalist and as a conductor most notably since 1992 as General Music Director of the Staatskapelle Berlin - the orchestra of the Berlin State Opera. In 2000 the Staatskapelle Berlin appointed him their ‘Chief Conductor for Life’. As Staatskapellmeister - holding the same post with the Berlin State Opera - Barenboim is in illustrious company with past music directors of the Staatskapelle Berlin having included: Meyerbeer; Richard Strauss and Karajan. A tireless worker, Barenboim never seems to stop. I recall in 2008 attending a chamber music recital at Rykestraße, Berlin and saw Barenboim, on one of his rare nights off between conducting Wagner’s demanding Tristan und Isolde, serving as page-turner to pianist Elena Bashkirova.

The Ruhr Piano Festival is the cultural jewel of Initiativkreis Ruhr, a group of German companies formed to encourage commerce and industry that area. Founded in 1988 this privately funded project attracts the world’s finest. It was there in July 2010 at the Essen Philharmonie that Barenboim and the Staaskapelle under Andris Nelsons gave these performances of the Chopin piano concertos. They are captured live here.

An inveterate maker of recordings it was back in 1954 that Barenboim made his first. For their lyrical tone and elegant virtuosity these two works could have been made for Barenboim. So it came as a surprise to read that this was the first time he had recorded them. It is fitting that he recorded the scores in 2010 which is the two hundredth anniversary of Chopin’s birth. Chopin often comes in for criticism for rather lacklustre orchestration. I have never understood this tendency having always found Chopin’s orchestral accompaniment to be highly agreeable if certainly playing the supporting role. A great virtuoso himself Chopin was always going to give the principal role to the soloist.

Composed in 1830 shortly before Chopin left Poland for Vienna the First, although written later than the F minor has an earlier publication date. Chopin dedicated it to the renowned pianist Friedrich Kalkbrenner. In the lengthy opening Allegro maestoso I was immediately struck by the beautiful accompaniment. I have heard this orchestra several times at the Berlin State Opera and I know them to be impressive. The tone is set early by the firm and extrovert piano part. Barenboim plays the enchantingly lyrical second theme with moving expression.

In the development section we hear a fresh and astonishing palette of colours. Chopin’s fragrantly charming music in the Romance - Larghetto conjures up beautiful vistas with a strong suggestion of cool mountain landscapes. The assured playing is tenderness personified. Beamingly vivacious, with a flurry of passionate outbursts, the final Rondo - Vivace sparkles like a display of brilliant cut pavé-set diamonds.

Chopin was still receiving tuition at the Warsaw Conservatoire when his Piano Concerto No 2 from 1829/30 was commenced. Bearing a dedication to the Polish Countess Delfina Potocka, Chopin had to wait another seven years until it was published. The F minor was the centrepiece of Chopin’s first concert tour in 1830 going down a storm in Warsaw and later in Paris. In the opening movement marked Maestoso Barenboim creates a dreamy almost Mendelssohnian sound-world. The initial stern theme gives way to busy and rather hectic music of a predominantly searching quality. The heart of the F Minor is the affecting slow Larghetto a striking nocturne. It seems that Chopin was composing the movement at the time of declaring his love for singer Konstancja Gladkowska. Like a musical love-letter Barenboim fashions music of tearful yearning that easily represents his deep love and the painful sorrow of separation. Demonstrating Chopin’s debt to Polish folk-music the concluding Allegro vivace is a glittering Mazurka. Impassioned and spirited, Barenboim is totally at home with the sparkling dance rhythms. At 6:52-6:59 the attractive solo horn heralds a brilliant Coda.

Of the alterative versions of these two works probably the finest accounts are from Krystian Zimerman and the Los Angeles Phil under Carlo Maria Giulini. Recorded in 1978/79 Zimerman exudes tenderness and assurance on Deutsche Grammophon 415 970-2. It is difficult not to admire Martha Argerich in the versions she recorded in 1998 at L'Église de St-Eustache, Montreal. Her characterful playing combines impressive control with the poetry of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit on EMI Classics 5 56798 2. Another personal favourite is from Tamás Vásáry and the Berlin Philharmonic. These were recorded in 1963 and 1965 respectively. The confident and sparkling Vásáry uses a different conductor for each concerto; Jerzy Semkov in the E minor and Janos Kulka in the F minor. Vásáry’s playing of the Larghetto from the F minor has never been surpassed. He creates an ethereal mood where time almost stands still such is the beauty and the playing of the music. My copy of the Vásáry recording is on a French edition Collection du Millenaire Deutsche Grammophon 459 202-2.

Barenboim’s playing is masterly throughout and this Deutsche Grammophon release is a fine testimony to a truly great artist. Conducted with calm assurance by rising star Andris Nelsons there is much beautiful playing from the Staatskapelle Berlin providing Barenboim with sympathetic support. Recorded live at the Essen Philharmonie the audience applause at the end of each concerto has been retained. The only time that I was aware of any unwanted noise was a series of thumping sounds on the final track, the Allegro Vivace. In the recording balance Barenboim’s piano is set a touch forward but not at the expense of the orchestra. This is a desirable disc that will attract many listeners such is the quality of Chopin’s writing and Barenboim’s playing.

Michael Cookson

A desirable disc that will attract many listeners.