Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Etudes, Op. 10 (1829-1833) [26:35]
Trois nouvelles Etudes (1839-40) [5:14]
Etudes, Op. 25 (1833-1837) [29:41]
Hardy Rittner (piano - Conrad Graf c. 1835)
rec. 14-16 November 2011, Konzerthaus der Abtei Marienmünster

Chopin’s Etudes played on historic instruments is not an entirely new phenomenon, and this recording by Hardy Rittner comes up against one for which I have a particular fondness, Opp. 10 and25 played by the late Tatiana Shebanova on the Fryderyk Chopin Institute label, NIFCCD007. This is a performance with a good deal of soul and poetry, richly recorded with what feels like warmth and affection and in a fine acoustic. This is not part of her cycle for the Dux label by the way (see review).
This said, you’ll hunt long and hard for recordings of Chopin’s piano works played on historical instruments, and while I am sure there must be others around I’ve been hard put to find comparisons. Hardy Rittner’s choice of a period instrument by Conrad Graf is based on Chopin’s own enthusiasm for these instruments and its historical plausibility and suitability for the repertoire. Chopin’s preference for Pleyel pianos is well known, but the technical aspects and other arguments in favour of the Conrad Graf are well made in Hardy Rittner’s additional notes.
Rittner’s performance is good, and starts well with a full blooded Allegro in C major, the first of the Op. 10 set. Technical prowess is here in abundance, but as the cycle progressed I was always being reminded of the emotional connection with the music I have from Tatiana Shebanova, and which is much less apparent with Rittner. The third Etude Op. 10, Lento ma non troppo is a case in point, with the melody being compressed through unsettling rubato mannerisms. If you were to sing it this way they would send you out of the audition pretty quickly. The fast etudes are all fine, and Rittner’s blisteringly impressive abilities are not in question. I nearly cried hearing the sheer beauty in Shebanova’s Op. 10 No. 6, Andante again, and nearly threw the CD out of the window hearing Rittner suck all of the eloquence from the music with his perverse rushing. This aspect of his playing recurs all too often, and, historic interest or not, I’m afraid in the context of my collection dooms this recording to the cardboard box under the bed, which is even lower status than the difficult to access cupboard behind the sofa.
It is good to hear the heroic Allegro con fuoco final etude of the Op. 10 on a historic instrument, but this piece shows up a ‘deadness’ in the treble which might have something to do with tuning, but certainly makes it hard to give credibility to the singing line. Moving on to the Etudes Op. 25 and the less expressively complex music makes for less stressful listening. There is a rather undifferentiated quality to many of these etudes in this recording however, and Rittner chews up the E minor Vivace in a way which makes even Horowitz seem conventional. The C sharp minor Lento has a beautiful central section here, but the main theme is smudged and indistinct. Chopin’s stormy forcefulness is delivered convincingly, such as in the opening Allegro con fuoco of the B minor etude and the A minor Lento, and there are indeed many impressive moments in this recording. 

Having admired Hardy Rittner’s Brahms recordings I was all revved up and ready to go all the way with his Chopin. Alas the reality has let me down with a bump. Returning to this recording in uncritical mode, allowing it to roll along whilst doing spring cleaning in July, on can sense how there can be plenty of uncritical enjoyment to be found from Chopin’s genius on this recording. The troubling treatment given to some of the most tender moments remain however, and only if you think you might like Chopin played in a way which provides sensations akin to going down a steep hill in a shopping trolley would I suggest this for a try. There is excitement to be had in the etudes where bravura playing is to the fore, and the sound of the Conrad Graf piano is distinctive enough to give the project plenty of historic value. The recording is up to MDG’s usual high standards, but Hardy Rittner’s concertina approach to some of Chopin’s most beautiful melodies is too crushingly depressing to put this release anywhere near the front rank of choices for these etudes.
Dominy Clements
Crushingly depressing at crucial moments.