Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op.23 (1835) [9:24]
Ballade No.2 in F major, Op.38 (1836-39) [7:47]
Ballade No.3 in A flat major, Op.47 (1841) [7:41]
Ballade No.4 in F minor, Op.52 (1842) [11:58]
Scherzo No.4 in E major, Op.54 (1842) [12:20]
Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op.22 (1830-39) [13:37]
Mordecai Shehori (piano)
rec. April 2011, Las Vegas (Ballades); July 2003 (Scherzo) and August 2002 (Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante)
CEMBAL D’AMOUR CD160 [62:49]
It’s important, and valuable, when considering a performance, to get behind the notes to the conception. To put it another way, why does a musician play in such-and-such-a-way?
In this intriguing recital, pianist Mordecai Shehori is trenchant in his view that the nexus between text and music lies at the heart of these Ballades, and that one ignores the tales, stories and folkloric influences that animate them at one’s peril; the peril is intellectual, and cultural as well as, therefore, digital. Thus he is at pains to describe the ballads that gave rise to Chopin’s inspiration: Conrad Wallenrod, The Switez (The Lake of the Wills), Ondine and The Three Budrys. I will leave you to read his fascinating essay on ‘The Time-Definition Element in Music’ as it relates to these performances, but let me briefly point out just one issue, which is the important use of reminiscence embedded in the Ballades.
Shehori is on combative form here, taking a swipe at ‘‘today’s star performers’ intellectual capacity’’, about the lack of which he is scathing. I’m not wholly convinced that this is a sympathetic line to take, though one appreciates that there must be a considerable amount of frustration (as well as scorn) behind it. No names are mentioned, but the condemnation is sweeping.
The most important thing, clearly, is the nature of the performances. Shehori’s G minor Ballade is a fascinating example of ‘narrative’ musicianship. The novel phrasing, emphases, limited use of the pedal, strong dynamics and deliberately stricken episodes - all perfectly calculated - support his thesis as to the musico-literary basis of the Ballades. To those unsympathetic it will, however, strike one as curiously didactic, and off-hand, with phrases tossed away. To others it will be a welcome injection of cultural sensitivity. For myself, cards on the table, I don’t much like it. One should know better than to think Shehori will perform the canon in some accepted, or standardised or — as he would doubtless see it — homogenised way. The F major explicitly contrasts, in a most unusual way, the sheer stillness of nature (sheets of ice) with the story of the Moors’ grisly revenge against the Spaniards. One understands precisely here what Shehori is trying to convey in the intense pictorial-narrative of the ballad in musical form. Thus he is even more becalmed than Cortot in his famous 1929 recording, though the contrasts between episodes are not quite as violent with Shehori as they are with Cortot. Shehori might well reply that in the ballad, Count Wallenrod is speaking of this incident, it’s not being cinematographically relayed, thus a degree of restraint is in order, indeed it is possibly the more sinister for being withheld slightly.
The seductive Ondine haunts the third Ballade where Shehori seems reluctant to replicate the kind of sense of fantasy that Rachmaninoff and Cortot both sought and located in her depths. The dry studio acoustic doesn’t help, nor the drily phrased opening section. Here I feel a want of flexibility. In the F minor Ballade I don’t feel the kind of bardic heroism espoused by such as Moiseiwitsch, Rubinstein or Cortot. Rather, I feel the influence of Mindru Katz, in Shehori’s deeply poetic but not indulgent unravelling of The Three Budrys. It contains something of Katz’s own natural sense of rubato and whilst it is somewhat faster than Katz’s very measured performance, it shares distinct aesthetic links. It serves the music in Shehori’s own terms, even though my own tastes lie elsewhere — Ivan Moravec’s limpid poetry, for example, as well as the trio already cited.
The difficult element of these performances does no more than to throw up challenges to received thinking. For Shehori is a thinker, and clearly scorns the idea of music performed in a cultural vacuum. His thesis is well argued and his performances are grounded in a strong sense that the Ballades are narrative, literary creations conceived in a richly cultivated milieu. The corollary is sometimes a lack of expressive nuance and bravura.
The remainder of the programme was recorded a decade or so earlier. The Scherzo No.4 in E major and Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante have plenty of digital legerdemain but the slightly ascetic approach is rather objectified, I feel.
This has been a challenging review because Shehori has recorded a challenging set of the Ballades. They deserve to be listened to, considered, agreed with, dissented from, accepted or rejected, or combinations thereof. I hope I’ve set out his case as succinctly as I can. Admiring Shehori as I do, I can only say that he has given me several very problematic weeks mulling over these performances.
Jonathan Woolf
Shehori has recorded a challenging set of the Ballades.

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