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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Préludes Op.28 [42:07]
Mazurkas Op, 17 No 4 in A minor [4:45]; Op. 17 No. 2 in E minor [2:03]; Op. 63 No. 3 in C sharp minor [2:10]; Op. 50 No. 3 in C sharp minor [6:12]; Op. 6 No. 1 in F sharp minor [2:53]
Nocturnes Op. 9 No. 3 in B [6:56]; Op. 27 No. 2 in D flat [5:54]
Ingrid Fliter (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, 9-12 June 2014
LINN CKD475 SACD [73:00]

Ingrid Fliter has made a name for herself as a Chopin player, since the appearance of a pair of discs in 2008-9 on EMI and the two concertos in 2014 on Linn. This new disc from Linn has already collected the sort of praise that can only increase her reputation as an interpreter of the Polish master.

Here we have the set of Preludes Op. 28 and a group of five mazurkas and two nocturnes. This is fiercely contested territory. Recordings of Chopin’s Preludes could serve almost as a single reference point for a history of Chopin playing, from Cortot in the 1920s via Rubinstein in the 1940s, and on to the 1970s: a golden age with recordings from Pollini, Ashkenazy, Arrau and Argerich. There have been many since, but few or none to join such a ‘Preludes Pantheon’. Does Fliter belong in this exalted fellowship? To start to answer that, you need to tolerate a small digression.

It is worth noting at the outset that Fliter takes over forty minutes for the set, whereas for me the benchmark is the Cortot-to-Pollini range of 34-37 minutes. Can overall timing matter in a set of 24 individual pieces? That depends on the degree to which we think it is more than a set of pieces, and designed as an integrated unity. Jim Samson, the Chopin authority, contends in his excellent booklet note for the CD, “the individual preludes make up a single over-arching whole, a real cycle”. There is obviously a strictly organized sequence of all 24 major and minor keys, and an alternation of fast and slow, introspective and extrovert. Some pieces are just too short to stand alone, being 35-40 seconds long (numbers 1, 5, 10 and 11), and some analysts point to certain motivic links across the set. So it is in some sense a continuous single work, and that is how it is almost always played in concert. Therefore on disc I always listen through at a sitting, and expect the experience of the whole to be greater than the sum of its 24 parts. I don’t expect to do that with Chopin’s waltzes or nocturnes or even the two sets of studies.

Fliter’s Op.28 does not yet quite grip me throughout in that holistic way that would admit her to the company of the elect listed above. That said, it is clearly among the most important accounts of recent years, along with Pollini’s second recording of 2012, which challenged, without quite superseding, his younger self from 1975. Take any prelude on its own and you will be struck by Fliter’s technical control, poetic insight, pellucid tone and feeling for the Chopin idiom or perhaps it is better to say one approach to the Chopin idiom. There is always a certain hauteur in Chopin’s music — as there was in the man — and that is why when describing great Chopin playing by Cortot, Rachmaninov, Rubinstein and Michelangeli, critics have so often reached for such adjectives as ‘aristocratic’ or ‘patrician’. Fliter is not exactly of that type, as, with her, overt expression is rather less reined in than with those artists. For example, in the B minor Sixth prelude, she adopts a slow tempo and gets a wonderfully rapt quality in response to the marking Lento Assai - “too assai for my taste” complained The Guardian’s critic. Indeed it is, at points, so halting in its search for feeling as almost to obscure the arc of the piece, but there is no doubt about her total identification with the mood. Again with the 13th prelude in A minor, another Lento, Fliter is quite exquisite but also quite expansive: 3:36 compared to 2:28 in Pollini 1975 and 2:22 in Pollini 2012. In the swifter preludes she is often impressively virtuosic, but the tempi are not at all hectic, so that clarity is never sacrificed for velocity. Both the Molto Agitato 8th in F sharp minor and the great concluding Allegro Appassionato 24th in D minor bring scintillating, dramatic performances.

So a very fine account of Op.28 overall, but there is more to come than mere makeweights. First, the five mazurkas and two preludes account for a good thirty minutes of playing time, so you get a small and very lyrical recital even if you start at track 25. Second, they include some of the best-loved of Chopin miniatures, ending with the great D flat nocturne. Third, they are all superbly done, comparable to the best recent accounts. It is to be hoped that their existence on this issue will not deter Linn from providing complete surveys of the mazurkas or nocturnes from Ingrid Fliter in due course. If you can’t wait for more of Fliter’s Chopin, Linn have made the Trois Ecossaises available as a free download.

The company’s SACD sound is up to its usual high standard, apart from some slight hardness in the treble on occasion - easily tamed unless you are a purist who disdains tone controls. If, like me, you are a purist who sometimes imagines that true Chopin playing — or its recording — died out around 1980, this is a disc to make you think again.

Roy Westbrook