Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Four Ballades [34:21]
Four Impromptus [19:54]
24 Preludes, Op. 28 [41:40]
Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy (piano)
rec. September 2011, School of Music and Theatre, Munich, Germany (Preludes), 5-6 January 2015, Verienshaus Fraulautern, Saarlouis, Germany BRILLIANT CLASSICS 95210 [54:15 + 41:40]
Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy is one of Brilliant Classics’ most remarkable artist discoveries. He contributed invaluably to their Schumann and Brahms series, and now Brilliant has offered him the chance to show off his skills in a small collection of Chopin favorites. This set doesn’t give great value, perhaps - one CD is 54 minutes, the other 42 - but the quality of performance is certainly high enough to justify a purchase.
What’s most striking about Schmitt-Leonardy’s pianism is its vibrancy and immediacy. Take the Preludes: he tackles the quicker ones with aplomb, and generally allows only very short pauses between them. The more lyrical works, like Nos. 4 or 13, are not shortchanged in this vision. Nor is the famous “Raindrop” prelude, here stretching out to nearly six minutes, a marvel of fragile beauty with a powerful central climax. One mark of the pianist’s style is an especially strong left hand (the bass notes in No. 17 ring out ominously).
In other words, unlike some artists, Schmitt-Leonardy doesn’t try to impose a single style on Chopin’s music. Prelude No. 20, maybe my favorite of all, has a steely resolve and in its pulse it has a classical rigor. But for all that precision, the profound softness the pianist achieves in the second half is breathtaking.
That combination of seriousness and sensitivity carries over to the Ballades, unusually cogent in structure and not prone to wallowing. Indeed, nobody I’ve ever heard rushes through the beginning of No. 4 the way that Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy does. And “rush” is the right word. But he’s not wrong: Chopin’s score says “Andante con moto,” not “Largo,” and when the brief intro passage reappears mid-movement (5:50), its tempo fits seamlessly into the fabric. Plus, Schmitt-Leonardy phrases the themes of this work like a barcarolle, or maybe a song without words. Only the final coda feels studied, lacking intensity.
The Impromptus are not my favorite Chopin works, but these are winning performances of them, in part because they are fleet-fingered and light-hearted. There’s no attempt to puff these pieces up with profundity, aside from the heroic central climax of No. 2. Schmitt-Leonardy instead applies his usual clarity of vision, and his usual combination of precision and empathy.
Recorded sound on both discs is state-of-the-art. The second disc, containing the Preludes is licensed from Piano Classics, which released the performance a few years ago, coupled with a piano sonata. Why Brilliant licensed only half that CD is a mystery to me; there is plenty of room in this set for both of the Chopin sonatas, had they wanted to include them. The new recordings (2015) sound just as good as the licensed ones. Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy has proven himself a splendid Chopin pianist with original ideas and technical prowess too. I look forward to whatever he chooses to record in the future.