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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No.1 in e minor, Op.11 [39:57]
Piano Concerto No.2 in f minor, Op.21 [33:22]
Ingrid Fliter (piano)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Jun Märkl
rec. Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 7-9 June 2013
LINN CKD455 SACD [73:21]

The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’ most recent recording for Linn finds them joining forces with two artists with whom they are not automatically linked. The results are fresh and exciting and propel this disc of the Chopin concertos towards the very top.
 
The first thing that strikes you is the excellent clarity of the orchestral sound. The bloom on the Usher Hall acoustic is just right, giving a lovely sense of presence to the overall sound, and the soundscape created for the orchestra gives great precision to the instruments. The trombone, for example, is beautifully captured in the opening tutti of the First Concerto – present and important but never dominating – and when the second subject enters the blend between the strings and winds is just right. The Linn engineers have consistently shown themselves to be among the very best in the business for this sort of thing, but this recording impressed me most particularly. When the SCO played the second concerto as part of their 40th birthday concert, some commented that the subordinate role of the orchestra made it a poor choice for such an occasion, but these recordings show how much can be made of Chopin’s orchestral texture when it is in the right hands. In fact, this music is ideally suited to being played by a chamber orchestra, especially one with the SCO’s historically informed experience, as anyone listening to the translucent, unburdened string sound at the opening of No. 1’s slow movement will be able to tell you.
 
When she enters in the first concerto, Fliter strides onto the scene with assertive power but no sense of being overbearing, and throughout the disc, while there is little doubt that it is the piano that the composer was most interested in, the overall sense is of a reciprocal conversation between two equals. Her treatment of the second subject is delicate and nuanced and in the development she darts delicately over the keyboard, as if she is trying not to dominate and to draw out the more subtle nuances of this music. Fliter’s playing style is perfect for Chopin, combining muscular, precise technique with a rhapsodic sense of letting the melody flow. Listen to the way she unfurls the piano line in both the slow movements, delicately, gently letting the music breathe so that the bar lines seem to dissolve and the gorgeous harmonies take flight. The Larghetto of No. 2, in particular, is to die for, Fliter seemingly creating it spontaneously beneath her fingertips while the orchestra gently look on, as if in benediction.
 
For all the proviso that these are not especially orchestral concertos, Jun Märkl shapes them very well. The modulation into the major key at the onset of the development section of No. 1’s first movement, for example, is beautifully handled, as is the rhythm of the finales, both of which move with a careful combination of energy and tact. More generally, Märkl manages the transition so that these concertos, which can sound episodic in some hands, flow naturally from one component to another. Importantly, he allows the individual orchestral instruments their moment in the sun when the score gives it to them — the extremely characterful winds, for example, and most especially a knockout bassoon — and the second concerto is particularly well served by the orchestra’s sense of interplay with the piano.
 
I’m very fond of Rubinstein’s RCA disc of the concertos, albeit from a completely different sound world, and Zimerman’s recording with the Polish Festival Orchestra has an atmosphere and flair that is impossible to replicate. Fliter’s disc is a winner all-round, however, and its freshness, clarity and beauty means that it’s the one I’ll be coming back to most readily when next I want to hear these works.
 
Simon Thompson

Previous reviews: Paul Corfield Godfrey and Brian Wilson


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