Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 [43:22]
Grigory Sokolov (piano)
Münchner Philharmoniker/Witold Rowicki
rec. November 1977, Bürgerbräu München, Germany
SONY 88875194722 [43:22]

This is a very welcome release from Sony. I originally got to know this recording of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in its first incarnation on LP. In 2006 it was released on CD in Japan by Denon, coupled with Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 played by Shura Cherkassky (COCO-70842). Set down in November 1977 in Munich when the pianist was 27, it has added value in the fact that Sokolov has never subsequently recorded it. Neither, as far as I know, are there any live airings of him in this work doing the rounds.

Rowicki takes the first movement tutti with great nobility and breadth, and when the pianist enters the fray, his opening chords are similarly heroic and magisterial. In contrast, the lyrical passages are imbued with poetry and elegance. All the while, Sokolov’s impressive and flawless technique is taken as read. The central Romanza is more broadly paced and measured than most, but works very well. In this deeply probing account, Sokolov caresses the bel canto line with a translucent, gossamer touch, giving it an otherworldly and ethereal quality. Rubato is never excessive but is sensitively applied, with Rowicki instinctively responding to the subtleties and nuances with flexibility, allowing the music to breathe. The Rondo, in the form of a Krakowiak, has vim and vigour and sparkles with energy. The pianist’s mercurial playing has rhythmic drive and buoyancy.

This performance stands up with the best in the catalogue, including those by Pollini/Kletzki (review ~ review) and Zimerman/Giulini (review).

Sound quality throughout is up to the mark and balance between piano and orchestra is ideal. At 43 minutes, this may seem a meagre offering but, for me, music-making at this level is worth the cost. Sokolov has made it clear that there will be no more studio recordings, and he no longer plays with orchestras, explaining that he doesn’t get enough rehearsal time, so what we have here is priceless.

Stephen Greenbank

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