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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Late Works
Barcarolle in F sharp minor, Op. 60 (1845-6) [7:55]
3 Mazurkas, Op. 59 (1845): No. 1 in A minor [3:34]; No. 2 in A flat major [2:22]; No. 3 in F sharp minor [2:58]
Polonaise-Fantaisie in A flat major, Op. 61 (1846) [11:31]
2 Nocturnes, Op. 62 (1846): No. 1 in B major [5:45]; No. 2 in E major [5:01]
3 Mazurkas, Op. 63 (1846): No. 1 in B major [1:55]; No. 2 in F minor [1:50]; No. 3 in C sharp minor [2:00]
3 Valses, Op. 64 (1847): No. 1 in D flat major [1:43]; No. 2 in C sharp minor [3:20]; No. 3 in A flat major [2:40]
Mazurka in F minor, Op. posth. 68 No. 4 (?1849) [2:00]
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
rec. Herkulessaal, Munich, 2015/16
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 6127 [54:37]

Suppose you already have, as I do, the Chopin complete edition in generally recent recordings by several artists (Brilliant 94660). Is it worth getting Maurizio Pollini’s new CD of Chopin’s late works? I will make comparisons through this review and answer the question.

The opening melody of Chopin’s Barcarolle evokes lazy summer days and stays with you. Pollini makes you feel it has stayed with him, as has the elation which results. Pollini’s account has a sleek flow yet is big-hearted in its climactic returns of the themes, all delivered with opulent tone and accordingly roseate. Particularly memorable are the ecstatic reprise of the opening melody and the mini nocturne (tr. 1, 5:10) which transforms the static transition from the central section. Alwin Bär’s approach (Brilliant, recorded 1998) is calmer, as if painting in pastel shades rather than Pollini’s bright colours. Yet his limpid shading makes the subsidiary theme of the opening section (1:11 in Pollini) more distinctive, while his treatment of the accompaniment at the opening theme reprise is stark in its ruggedness.

The Polonaise-Fantaisie thrives on the unexpected, vividly revealed by Pollini. In its introduction, an imposing majesty is offset by limpid reflection, within which the polonaise theme germinates, only fully to appear (tr. 5, 1:35) after we are knocked back by the summons of a fanfare. It has from Pollini a soft yet assured lyricism yet grows in passion and the diversion of fantasy in both its musical and psychological senses. Then the rippling semiquavers of the subsidiary theme (3:06) grow bolder and more exploratory before the opening theme is gradually engulfed in a transforming cloak. The central “slow movement” is a stately parade, yet Pollini’s smoothness gives it serenity. But before you are anaesthetized, a nocturne arrives (7:09). Pollini makes it achingly telling, dispelled by a dazzling gathering of trills played with icy objectivity. The introduction returns, now with a soft opening but the reflections made more portentous by at first now plumbing the lowest depths of the piano. Now you expect the polonaise theme, but it is the nocturne that returns, yet soon swept away by a stormy passage conveyed with tremendous excitement, an unlikely but true prelude to the fiery return of the polonaise theme in an exultant peroration which also takes in the main theme of the “slow movement” now resiliently affirmative. More measured, timing at 13:04 to Pollini’s 11:31, Folke Nauta (1998) is less imposing in the introduction but his polonaise theme has a pleasing lilt, more sadly reflective than Pollini’s more majestic vein. This gives more edge to the passion of its climax. Pollini brings more character to the subsidiary theme. Nauta’s “slow movement” theme has a melancholy poise, the nocturne even sadder than Pollini’s, the gathered trills have a spectral character. Nauta is less exciting in the dramatic, sometimes more telling in the poetic elements.

In Pollini’s hands, the Andante of the Nocturne in B, op. 62/1 (tr. 6) flows calmly yet quite swiftly and neatly. Yet there is a sudden, appreciable freedom when he deftly lightens the texture from 1:10 when the semiquavers come at the first extended use of the upper register, an idyll swept away by the sudden shock of the loud outburst, a late Chopin feature clearly observed as is the later, restful one of the pause mid melody at 1:57. By contrast the sostenuto middle section enters seamlessly but you appreciate its more emotive manner. Pollini brings a glittering realization of the opening theme’s return in trills while the semiquavers in the coda sound nonchalantly improvisatory. Earl Wild (1996) offers a slower, more poised, carefully sculpted Andante, savouring the arpeggios, but less distinctive pointing of outburst, middle section and opening theme return. In sum, Wild’s approach, a little more measured, is more contemplative, the piece pre-digested and conveyed, whereas Pollini’s account feels more spontaneous, realized as it progresses.

This may also be said of the Nocturne in E, op. 62/2 (tr. 7) whose mellifluous theme has three variations. The first (0:30) transforms it through flights of fancy, making it both more decorative and aspiring. The second (0:56) brings harmonic contrasts. Hence there is a fusion of thematic variation and music development. And trickery: what looks at 1:48 like a warm coda turns into an agitated middle section. The return of the theme soon evolves into a fourth variation, reprising the earlier variations’ features before the middle section opening returns as a true coda. Pollini’s account is characterized by warmth, a flowing steadiness yet individuality to the variations and sections. The closing returns of theme and middle section opening have a satisfying sense of both summation and retrospection.

The dominant impression of Pollini’s Waltz in D flat, op. 64/1, the Minute Waltz, is its joyous flow. The opening is a glistening challenge with its 4 leaps evenly placed to which the repeated second strain is a freer, rippling relief. The central section is warm and blithe, the return of the opening one strikingly athletic. Alessandro Deljavan (2015) opens more spikily without Pollini’s lightness but finds a pleasing lilt in the central section and spotlights the chromaticism in the left hand.

The Waltz in C sharp minor, op. 64/2 opens with a sigh, a couple of shrugs and wistful parade of quavers. Pollini’s nonchalance beautifully catches the paradox of needing to reveal yet wishing to hide feelings, extended by the tripping lightness of his second strain, in the midst of its second and third appearances delicately glossing over moments of it. The central section is firmer in its emotion. Slightly slower, Deljavan contrasts a more deliberate, morbid basic manner with a capricious second strain and toying central section.

The Waltz in A flat, op. 64/3 is more typically late Chopin in its unexpected piquant harmonic and melodic twists, regularity established then placed on shifting sands. Pollini presents it as a gently moving kaleidoscope energized by its own momentum. Its central section is more restful. Its melody in the left hand enigmatic before Pollini brings more abandon to the return of the opening section. Again slower, Deljavan emphasises the rhetorical elements of the outer sections which I find a drier, less satisfying approach; yet to the central section he brings more strength, skimming desperation.

Pollini’s opening melody of the Mazurka in A minor, op. 59/1 is both poised and progressive, his second strain more ebullient. His middle section joyfully expands. His return of the opening melody is more austere before the coda ends poignantly. The slower Rem Urasin (2014) treats the opening more deliberately. I miss Pollini’s softer, more polished tone though Urasin makes the kinship of the second strain to the first clearer. In the middle section, he charts the cascading descents from right to left hand more distinctly with a more powerful climax and ominous coda.

Pollini begins the opening melody of the Mazurka in A flat, op. 59/2 with an engaging homeliness which becomes heartiness in its repeat. After a plainer, more relaxed melody in the middle section the close subsides into a friendly parade of chromaticism and affectionate sequences of fragments of the opening melody, presented smoothly and with equanimity. The glory of Urasin’s account is his soft touch in the middle section but his slower savouring of the opening melody and the lingering nostalgia of his coda I find overblown.

Pollini’s opening section of the Mazurka in F sharp minor, op. 59/3 is the marked Vivace but the speed seems to prevent it being compelling. Not so the blithe, skipping central section nor the expanded chromatic tail of the opening section reprise and delicious, surprisingly serene coda. The slower Urasin achieves a fiery opening section but his central section then becomes too diffuse.

Pollini’s Mazurka in B, op. 63/1 is more rustic, a homespun Vivace with bounce but also a diaphanous second strain of running quavers. The middle section also has bounce with folky accents on the final beats of the bar, all stylishly tempered by Pollini where the slower Urasin rather bludgeons them, his preference from the start being a heavier, grander manner.

Pollini’s Mazurka in F minor, op. 63/2 is particularly beautiful: a sighing song for its opening section, with a warmer middle one as if a rejoinder that things are not that bad. The slower Urasin is more contemplative and at times sonorous but his approach seems comparatively stiff, not gliding over the keys like Pollini, as if caressing them.

The Mazurka in F sharp minor, op. 63/3 is from Pollini livelier in rhythm yet still wan in melody. After a laid-back central section in which Pollini still finds warmth, the return of the opening cumulates to a climax. Here the slower Urasin makes more of the recurring descending three-note phrase where Pollini is content to allow the listener to observe it within his overall rounded presentation.

The Mazurka in F minor, op. 68/4 is a reconstruction from sketches. Pollini uses the standard printed edition. Haunting, characteristically chromatic but seeming more than usual, it gauntly stares sorrow in the face and finds beauty in it, especially in Pollini’s graceful account. Urasin, who uses a more fully realized but for me less convincing reconstruction, is harder edged.

It is time to answer my opening question. Is it worth acquiring Pollini’s accounts even if you have other artists in the Brilliant box set? I would say an emphatic yes, as his playing is generally faster, smoother and more varied. Nevertheless, having two recordings is itself illuminating with regard to the different yet equally valid nuances of interpretation possible. Enjoy!

Michael Greenhalgh



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