Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano concerto no.1 in E minor, op.11 (1830) [41:16]
Piano concerto no.2 in F minor, op.21 (1830) [33:23]
Edward Auer (piano)
The Shanghai Quartet
Peter Lloyd (double bass)
rec. Culture/Demain Studios, Bloomington, Indiana, USA; 7-8 July 2010
CULTURE/DEMAIN no catalogue number [74:45]
The chamber versions of Chopin’s piano concertos, reworked for piano, string quartet and double bass, have made occasional appearances on disc in recent years. My own shelves hold the 1996 world premiere recording by Fumiko Shiraga/the Yggdrasil Quartet/Jan-Inge Haukås (BIS-CD-847), as well as one of the E minor concerto only that was set down two years later by Jean-Marc Luisada/the Talich Quartet/Benjamin Berlioz (RCA Red Seal 74321 632112). There may be others of which I am unaware.
Now comes this new version from Edward Auer who became the first American to win a prize at Warsaw’s International Chopin Competition when he took 5th place in 1965, the year that Martha Argerich emerged as winner. Mr Auer currently teaches at Indiana University and is producing a series of discs of Chopin’s music, of which this is the third.
For those unfamiliar with these arrangements, it’s worth noting that their provenance is authentic. Chopin’s own words describe how he utilised chamber performances of his concertos for rehearsal purposes - presumably for section leaders - before performances by full orchestra: “I am to practise my concerto with the quartet in order to make myself clear to them … for otherwise … the orchestra rehearsal would not run smoothly from the outset” [quoted in David Montgomery’s fascinating booklet notes for the BIS recording.] Canny publishers also saw that there was an opportunity, in an age of widespread amateur music-making, to market the concertos in a form suitable for domestic performance.
The most obvious characteristic of these accounts by Edward Auer and his colleagues is that they adopt a rather more relaxed and leisurely approach than do their competitors. That observation is true in five of the six movements under consideration. Using the stopwatch approach gives, it is true, only a crude pointer to overall musical performance but, when the results are as consistent as we have here, it is certainly worth noting the point.
Concerto no.1 Shiraga et al., 1996 Luisada et al., 1998 Auer et al., 2010 Allegro maestoso 19:05 19:59 20:53 Romance (larghetto) 9:47 9:32 9:45 Rondo (vivace) 9:50 10:16 10:38
Concerto no.2 Shiraga et al., 1996 Auer et al., 2010 Maestoso 14:08 14:59 Larghetto 8:59 9:24 Allegro vivace 8:47 9:00
Of the recordings in competition with this new release, the Shiraga is characterised by a degree of enthusiastic energy and impulsiveness that points forward to the Romantic age, while Luisada creates a more refined effect that takes a glance back towards the Classical era. The sound that their respective engineers have given them tends to emphasise that difference in approach: the BIS is more immediate and in-your-face while, for Luisada, RCA’s technicians have created a more mellow, “drawing-room” acoustic.
Auer and his colleagues tend to fall somewhere within that interpretational gap, though inclining more to Luisada, who was, coincidentally, another fifth prize winner of the Warsaw International Chopin Competition - in his case in 1985 when the top prize went to Stanislav Bunin. The very opening of the E minor concerto offers a telling example: while Shiraga joins in enthusiastically to support and add weight and colour to the strings during the long “orchestral” opening, both Lusaida and Auer remain silent until the piano’s traditional point of entry. Interestingly enough, although in his own booklet notes Mr Auer concedes that “it was customary, in Chopin’s time, for the pianist to play along with the orchestra” he rather vaguely explains that he has opted not to do so in these recordings because “somehow my ear wouldn’t allow me to follow this practice”.
In general, the Auer performances are slightly more forward and big-boned than those from Luisada but certainly not as impetuous and spontaneous-sounding as those from Shiraga. I confess that I find the latter’s extrovert approach very compelling. Perhaps an awareness that they were setting down world premiere recordings was responsible, but they very successfully communicate a sense of real excitement and discovery. It is also worth pointing out that Ms. Shiraga specialises in this sort of repertoire. Her other recordings have included several of Hummel’s chamber arrangements of Mozart’s piano concertos as well as Beethoven’s first and third concertos in versions for chamber forces.
Even so, it is impossible to deny that Edward Auer and his fellow artists offer performances that are both technically extremely assured and very enjoyable in their own right. I have no doubt that listeners will respond to their approach, especially in the concertos’ many passages of delicacy and limpid beauty where they successfully avoid the danger of sounding effete or enervated.
The disc is not presented in a jewel case. Instead it comes - along with a few pages of notes about the music and the performers - in a sturdy cardboard sleeve that will take up a little less space on your shelf. You may have noticed, incidentally, that there is no catalogue number. That need not, though, cause any problems because the discs may be ordered direct from www.edwardauer.com.
Technically very assured and very enjoyable.