Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano concerto no.1 in E minor, op.11 (1830) [40:59]
Piano concerto no.2 in F minor, op.21 (1830) [33:02]
Joseph-Maurice Weder (piano)
rec. 3-6 August 2015, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem OEHMS CLASSICS OC 1831 [74:18]
As I pointed out on a previous occasion when I reviewed an identical coupling, performances of Chopin's two concertos in versions for piano, string quartet and double bass are not a modern gimmick. Not only was it common practice in the nineteenth century to produce scaled-down versions of orchestral works so as to make them playable by enthusiastic domestic ensembles, but in this instance the composer himself referred to rehearsing the works in this form in preparation for full orchestral performances.
The state of play as I left it in 2012 was that, of the three recordings I had encountered thus far, the 1996 world premiere recordings from Fumiko Shiraga/Yggdrasil Quartet/Jan-Inge Haukås (BIS-CD-847) had impressed me considerably with their urgently dramatic approach; the account - of just the E minor concerto - from Jean-Marc Luisada/Talich Quartet/Benjamin Berlioz (RCA Red Seal 74321 632112) had, on the other hand, successfully found a different perspective by placing more emphasis on the music's elements of reserve and lyricism. A similarly restrained approach had also characterised a privately-produced recording of both concertos from Edward Auer/Shanghai Quartet/Peter Lloyd (Culture/Demain). While all three versions were technically assured, very well recorded and hugely enjoyable, my final preference inclined to BIS for the manner in which the players communicated a striking sense of spontaneity and enthusiastic rediscovery.
This new recording from Oehms Classics successfully manages the difficult feat of maintaining its predecessors' uniformly high standards. The adaptation of Chopin's scores used on this occasion was made skilfully and with sympathy in 2003-2005 by Polish pianist Bartłomiej Kominek. He, however, may justifiably feel somewhat short-changed by the otherwise useful booklet notes which, after informing us somewhat airily and vaguely that he "has competed successfully at several piano competitions", appear to consider his credentials bolstered because he once "played the role of the composer in a film about Chopin produced in Japan".
From an interpretative point of view, the award-winning young Swiss pianist Joseph-Maurice Weder and his colleagues - five members of the Berliner Camerata chamber orchestra - are at their most distinctive in the extra air they inject into both concertos' slow movements, extending, in that respect, the E minor's Romance - larghetto by more than a minute over the account of their closest competitor. They can also play with great spirit, however, and their propulsive performance of the E minor's opening Allegro maestoso, for instance, comes closest to the sparkle and vivacity of my favoured Shiraga/Yggdrasil/Haukås account.
It is becoming rather repetitious these days to draw attention to the superb quality of the sound achieved by Oehms's recording engineers. The acoustics of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, well appreciated and utilised by the Berlin Philharmonic during the Karajan era, prove no less flattering to performances from a smaller ensemble. It is a pleasure to listen to such warm, finely detailed and exquisitely balanced recordings.
This is clearly becoming a very competitive - if a somewhat select - field. The enduring hold on my affections exercised by the BIS disc may in part be because that's where I first came across these delightful arrangements, but there is also no denying the compulsive quality of those premiere recordings. I willingly concede, though, that others might easily prefer the alternative perspectives offered by the subsequent RCA and Culture/Demain recordings. Now, with this expertly executed new release, captured in state-of-the-art sound quality, we have a fourth contender that is certainly well up there with those others.