RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Fantaisie in F minor, Op 49 [12:03]
Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op 27 No 1 [4:49]
Nocturne in C minor, Op 48 No 1 [6:01]
Mazurka in F minor, Op 7 No 3 [2:23]
Mazurka in D, Op 33 No 2 [2:42]
Mazurka in B minor, Op 33 No 4 [5:12]
Ballade No 3 in A flat, Op 47 [7:18]
Mazurka in B flat minor, Op 24 No 4 [4:34]
Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op 50 No 3 [4:53]
Nocturne in E flat, Op 55 No 2 [4:22]
Ballade No 4 in F minor, Op 52 [10:53]
Yevgeny SUDBIN (1980-)
À la minute (paraphrase of Chopin’s “Minute” Waltz) [4:38]
Yevgeny Sudbin (piano)
rec. February 2009, July 2010, January 2011, St George’s, Bristol, England
BIS Hybrid SACD 1838 [69:44]
Downloads available from eclassical.com: http://www.eclassical.com
I’ve had a great deal of pleasure from playing Yevgeny Sudbin’s new Chopin recital and really thinking about how he performs this music. Make no mistake: these are thoughtful, immensely intelligent performances all, and with each successive listen my admiration increases.
How to describe Sudbin’s Chopin? It can be brisk, at times, and at others can be as hefty and powerful as Liszt. It can be as still as a lone cloud in the sky, too. There is always a sense of momentum which makes transitions especially clear and which may make the fastest passages - such as the central agitations of the Fantaisie in F minor - feel rushed on first acquaintance. After a while, though, these aren’t rushed any more; they feel natural. One gets the sense of a keen performer doing his best to understand how this music flows, how it can be communicated at its clearest.
Compare, for instance, Daniel Barenboim’s rather square Warsaw recital, released on DG in 2011. Barenboim’s Fantaisie in F minor is 13:31 to Sudbin’s 12:00. More than anything else Barenboim feels studied. His playing is heavy, as if he had sat before the piano spending too much time thinking the interpretation out. There are fiddly pauses and chords which feel pulled down by weights. Sudbin may dash through certain of the faster episodes, but he understands the relationships between the work’s parts, and his performance sounds off-the-cuff. It really captures the work at its most impressionistic, successfully conveying a sense of exploration, of journey, of – there’s no avoiding the word any longer – fantasy.
It wasn’t until my fourth complete listen that I finally read the liner-notes. It shouldn’t have surprised me, but Sudbin has written one of the best essays I’ve read on Chopin, explaining his performance philosophy better than I could: “the music’s raw, direct appeal to human emotions presents huge dilemmas when it comes to execution … It is not easy to articulate these interpretative challenges properly but, simply put, the notes as they stand have such an incredible power of expression that imposing yourself can often diminish the piece’s expressive impact. This can make our job (as interpreters) deceptively easy or impossibly difficult.” He also quotes a remark by Chopin: “Simplicity is the highest goal, achievable when you have overcome all difficulties. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”
This should give us an idea. Sudbin, turning 32 this year, could play this music as a young(ish) firebrand, with hotheadedness and a penchant for emotional extremes; he could go to the opposite extreme and aspire to cool objectivity. He does neither: he doesn’t quite let the music speak for itself, but he doesn’t impose himself either. Sudbin amplifies Chopin. He never seems disconnected from Chopin’s spirit. I know this is extremely high praise; it’s meant to be.
A few moments stand out as especially powerful: the self-assured but prayerful major-key line at the end of the nocturne Op 27 No 1, the urgently shattering reprise of the main theme in the nocturne Op 48 No 1, and the whisper-soft darkness of the final notes of the B flat minor mazurka. Another of my favorite mazurkas, Op 33 No 4 in B minor, receives a suitably mysterious reading. Sudbin clearly has a penchant for Chopin’s dark side: there are only three works here - most notably the third Ballade - in major keys, and the program’s bookends are in F minor, the Fantaisie and the Ballade No 4, the second theme of which has unusual poise and gentleness without being still. Sudbin brings crystal clarity and emphatic finality to the ballade’s stunning coda, a combination achieved by Richter, Moravec, and few others. Then there’s the encore, in which Sudbin takes the famed “Minute” waltz and imagines how it might have sounded if it had been written by Rachmaninov: a combination of mad virtuosity and playful wit which sets the cap on a tremendous listening experience.
Is this a ‘classic’ Chopin recital? I’ve wavered back and forth on the question; after all, ‘classic’ suggests something rather beyond reach, beyond the pale of criticism, and I do wish Sudbin had been just a little less headstrong in the Fantaisie and a nocturne or two. This is a consistent, deeply felt approach to the music which seems always to bring out the best in composer and performer. Sudbin’s Chopin achieves what he intends: he allows himself entry into the deepest and darkest of the composer’s emotions, but without imposing himself upon them. “Deceptively easy”, indeed, for one might think, listening to this disc, that playing so naturally and fluidly must be the simplest thing in the world. Quite the reverse is true, and if Sudbin’s Chopin is viewed as a classic in coming years, this will be the reason why.
A clear viewpoint on Chopin, intelligently expressed; this may well be a classic.