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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op 23 [9:26]
Ballade No. 2 in F, Op 38 [6:51]
Ballade No. 3 in A flat, Op 47 [7:15]
Ballade No. 4 in G minor, Op 52 [10:51]
Mazurka in A minor, Op. 17 No. 4 [4:48]
Mazurka in C, Op. 68 No. 1 [1:50]
Mazurka in A minor, Op. 67 No. 4 [3:06]
Waltz in D flat, Op. 64 No. 1, “Minute” [1:55]
Waltz in A flat, Op. 69 No. 1 [4:01]
Largo in E flat [2:02]
Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op. 44 [10:43]
Jean Muller (piano)
rec. 25-27 May, 2010, Luxembourg Conservatory
FONDAMENTA FON 1005008 [62:48]

Jean Muller’s Chopin recital comes with two CDs containing identical performances. One is mastered to sound best on hi-fi stereo equipment, the other “adapted” for computer and car speakers. I have never seen anything like this before. So when I opened the package, I put the “mobility” CD into my $720 (£450) laptop, set the computer next to the sink, and began mopping the floors.
 
Now, anybody who’s reviewed a CD, or honestly anybody who’s read a review, knows that it’s unfair to write a review of a disc you’ve heard out of laptop speakers while mopping the floor in the benevolent acoustic of your bathroom. It’s almost unethical. No recording will sound good in these circumstances.
 
Except that Jean Muller’s Chopin did sound good. Good enough, certainly, that halfway through Ballade No. 1 I started thinking, “this is very good Chopin playing”. The engineers made sure that the recording sounded full, rather than tinny, partly by taming the treble, which can pierce your eardrums on a cheap system. They also upped the volume baseline so everything is clearly audible - for road noise in a car - producing the sad side effect that there’s no genuinely quiet playing. Regardless, I can’t think of a piano recording that sounded better on my laptop.
 
Naturally, I then attempted to listen to the “adapted” CD with audiophile headphones. If you do so, turn down the volume or get ready for miking so close that you can hear Muller’s feet pushing against the pedals. Back-to-back comparison with the high-fidelity CD reveals that the loudest bits are just as loud, but on the top-quality disc the dynamic range is significantly wider, and Muller’s playing much more varied. He makes great use of different volume levels; you just wouldn’t notice while mopping the floors.
 
Anyway, Jean Muller’s Chopin is very good. These are very solid performances of the four ballades, plus a powerful polonaise and some very nicely done mazurkas and waltzes. Those latter works place more emphasis on rhythm and dance than on soft-touch lyricism. The second ballade and mazurka Op. 17 No. 4 reveal that Muller isn’t quite as poetic as the very best, especially in softer passages like the ballade’s opening, which he takes too literally. The fourth ballade’s coda doesn’t hold together either, if we’re being honest. However, overall his Chopin impresses with its good taste, straightforward eloquence, smart pacing and fleet (but unrushed) fingers.
 
Yes, this recital is good enough to justify release even without acoustic gimmicks. It’s not just a novelty to have the two discs. Although novelty may well have been good enough in this case, because there’s nothing like Chopin to cheer you up when you’re mopping the bathroom floor.
 
Brian Reinhart


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