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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
24 Preludes Op. 28
Maxence Pilchen (piano)
rec. 2014, Ferme de Villefavard
PARATY PTY115131 [34:40]

Chopin was, I think, the first composer to publish a set of preludes without anything to follow, but so successful is his set that others have followed his example. They are none of them long – the longest is less than five minutes – and many are less than a minute duration. More than a few are in ABA form with a contrasting middle section but some are brief uncomplicated statements with a repetition. Several of them are technically quite simple and within the grasp of amateurs who seize them eagerly, but some are as virtuosic as the Études. They are very varied in their moods. Some seem to be evocations of other composers’ styles, for example 18 of Schumann and 21 of Liszt. They work their way through all the major and minor keys, in a manner modelled on Bach’s 48, but it is not clear whether Chopin intended them to be performed as a set. The pianist who does so must be adept at establishing the different mood and world of each piece immediately and also at taking us on a convincing journey through them.

At this point we come to Maxence Pilchen. He has won various prizes and comes garlanded with praise. You can read about him on his own website. He is said to have a vast repertoire and to be interested in historic pianos. This is his first recording and is on a normal modern piano. Obviously he has the technique for these pieces, and I liked his playing of the virtuosic ones best. So 5 has a pleasant chunky kind of touch, and in 8 the whirl of notes surrounds the main theme without making the texture heavy. 10 is tossed off lightly, as it should be. 12 is vigorous – it made me think of Albeniz or Granados rather than Chopin. However, 14, which is like a capsule version of the finale of the B flat minor sonata, seemed heavy rather than demonic and 16 took off like a rocket but rather lost impetus in the middle. 18 was fluent rather than violent and savage and 22 got lost in a blur of pedal without a clear sense of the piece as a whole. 24 was not at all clear, though I liked his cascade of double thirds at bar 55.

I was less convinced by his playing of the slower and simpler pieces. 2 was prosaic and in 4 both the rubato in bar 12 and the stretto in bars 16 to 18 seemed exaggerated. In 13 he rather lost the line in the middle section. 21 was efficient rather than songful. However, in compensation I should praise Pilchen’s playing of the passages of filigree ornament which occur in several of the pieces, such as 15, and his account of 7 was charming and delicate.

If you heard this performance in a concert you would be well satisfied. As a recording this is up against the many fine pianists who have set down their versions of the set. Argerich and Pollini are among the mainstream contenders and Sokolov and Olsson among the outsiders. Add to that that they usually include several other works while this CD plays for less than 35 minutes and you have an issue which is frankly not competitive. The sleeve-note is an interview with Pilchen about the pieces. The recording is good.

Stephen Barber


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