Concerto in F minor, op. 21 (1829)
(arr. two pianos) [35:03]
Concerto in E minor, op. 11 (1830) (arr. two pianos) [44:11]
Soo Park, Mathieu Dupouy (pianos)
rec. 2012, Conservatoire de St-Maur, Paris. DDD LABEL-HÉRISSON LH11 [79:25]
Briefly stated, this is a recording of the Chopin concertos in a version for two pianos. Most listeners will have one or more sets of the concertos in the familiar version for piano and orchestra. The two piano version, however, reveals facets of these works — and of Chopin’s teaching of the piano — that will be new to most.
The practice of performing a piano concerto effectively as a piano duet recreates Chopin’s methods of teaching his concertos, and those of Hummel, Beethoven, and perhaps other composers. The edition used in this recording was prepared from a reduction in Chopin’s hand of the tutti passages. Other sources used for this purpose include manuscript versions by his contemporaries Franchomme and Fontana for the passages in which the tutti is accompanying the solo part. The notes by Dupouy are given in English and French.
The concertos are here played on two Pleyel pianos of Chopin’s time by Soo Park and Mathieu Dupouy, the solo part on a conventional instrument, and the tutti on a pianino. The latter is single strung on its bass notes, with the rest of the notes double strung. As the name suggests, pianinos are small in size, but with a “pure, mellow, harmonious sound” (Claude Montal, The Art of Tuning Your Piano, 1836). The back of the jewel-case identifies the instruments simply as “original Pleyel pianos, as played by Chopin himself in private concerts”. Other than this there are no details of the instruments used in this recording.
So what is it like? The two Pleyels have a sound that falls somewhere between that of a Viennese fortepiano and a modern instrument. Within these parameters, they are both harmonious with and distinguishable from each other. The extra fullness, weight and relatively brilliant treble of the solo instrument stand out against the softer-grained pianino. Compared to a modern concert grand, listeners will notice a lack of “ping” in the treble notes, but this is only noticeable in passages such as the octaves in the finale of Op. 21. Playing the two concertos one after the other might, however, prove a little unrelieved for all except diehard piano fans.
Park and Dupouy alternate solo and tutti duties between the concertos, Park having the solo part in the F minor concerto and Dupouy in the E minor. The players combine well, and have obviously established a modus vivendi such that neither has a noticeably different approach to the other. The scoring of the orchestral recordings being somewhat austere, the fuller sound of the conventional version is not missed as much as it might be in other concertos. Tempi are fairly deliberate, perhaps to facilitate synchronisation of the parts. The overall effect is therefore a bit leisurely, with an intimate feel that is worlds away from the glare and tension of the concert platform. This suits and recreates the domestic world of the salon and teaching studio for which these versions were intended. One does not have to be a fortepiano fanatic to enjoy the refined sounds of these pianos. The recording is well balanced between the instruments and does not catch the sounds of their mechanisms.
Familiar recordings of the orchestral version of the set include those of Rubinstein, Barenboim, Pollini, Argerich and Ax; Ax re-recorded them on an Erard. Some pianists have only left us a single concerto, such as Neuhaus and his great pupil Richter. There have recently been a couple of recordings of an arrangement for piano and string quartet, one of which was made on a fortepiano by the Japanese player Kikuko Ogura. I haven’t heard either of these, but it is difficult to compare this version, billed as a world premiere, with any other recording. It is best to regard it as a completely different take on familiar repertoire, and one that shows the works in a new and intimate light.