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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Complete Piano Sonatas
Piano Sonata No.1 in C minor op.4 [22:53]
Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor op.35 [25:34]
Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor op.58 [28:28]
Joseph Moog (piano)
rec. January 2016, SWR Studio Kaiserlautern, Germany
ONYX 4152 [77:10]

I’ve been very impressed with Joseph Moog’s previous recordings for the Onyx label – especially his superb account of Moszkowski’s Op.59 E major 2nd piano concerto (review) and so I was most interested to hear what he would make of Chopin’s 3 Sonatas. Of these works, the second and third remain frequently recorded while the first (written when the composer was only 17) remains poorly known and often only found in boxed sets of this composers’ complete works

The first sonata had a complex history which is nicely recounted in the notes for this disc – it was initially turned down by publishers before later being acknowledged and published. I must say that I actually rather like this little work and fail to understand its lack of popularity. The first movement is, on the whole rather jolly and gambols along well, even if it is not exactly vintage Chopin. I particularly like the way Mr. Moog points up the end of phrases so that it adds momentum to the piece as it progresses. This is not easy music and there is plenty of room for virtuosity, all of which is coped with splendidly. There is some similarity in this piece with Chopin’s other early Rondos – especially in the flourishes which occur frequently in this movement. The second movement, a rather cheerful little Minuetto and trio (in 5/4 time) is really rather fun, despite the notes referring to it as derivative. There is more of Chopin’s early style capriciousness here, this outlines a more four square march like piece (or perhaps I should say 5 square, bearing in mind the time signature!). The Trio is more mournful but not overly so before it cheers up in the section which leads back to a reprise of the initial march like part. All is excellent played here and there is a driving force behind the music which helps make the music more exciting. The third movement is much more characteristically Chopin – there is a questing nature to this and it is a really lovely little piece which sadly seems to end too quickly. The Finale is a powerful jumpy scherzo-like creation, again with much work for the pianist to do. This also possesses a rhythmic drive here and is marvellously played. There are hints here and there of more mature Chopin which add to the interest in this piece and lead up towards a violent conclusion which works very well. Well played!

The second sonata is much more famous – if only for the ‘Funeral March’ movement. This has been recorded many times and I am sure everyone must have their favourite version. This recording starts powerful and rapidly (the tempo marking is ‘Doppio movemento’) and does not let up. There is plenty of nicely contrasted playing here – the growling sections (for example at 4’09’’) are discreet from the other, less aggressive music although the whole movement holds together very well. I like the fast tempo taken - it really is twice the speed of the opening phrase. There are some nice contrasts in dynamics as well as tempo here but these are very well judged and do not impede the way the music flows from one idea to the next. There is some truly cataclysmic playing around 5’00’’ where the atmosphere of the piece becomes more agitated before settling down again. The movement ends powerfully and positively. The ‘Scherzo’ follows next with numerous repeated notes and some nasty leaps. Again, all these difficulties are dispatched with no apparent difficulty. The slower central part of the movement is beautifully played, it’s like a Nocturne and with some really rather ravishing playing. This doesn’t last long though, as the bouncing theme returns to disrupt things before itself being interrupted by the Nocturne-like section which ends the movement quietly and wonderfully. The Funeral March is not played at all histrionically, it is calm, cool and detached; even the phrases marked FF are not played that loudly, they just seem to have a more solid quality to them than other quieter parts. The contrasting middle section in D flat is again another Nocturne omitted from the canon; it is simply amazing and makes for an excellent contrast to the grim march. I should say that this is not a tragic march; there is more of a sense of resignation and Mr. Moog’s way of playing really does work very well with this music. Then follows the weird final movement which (as the notes point out) Tausig referred to as “like the wind blowing over my grave”. There are only 75 bars here, marked ‘Presto’ and they whip past in under a minute and a half. All the details are present and correct and this all rounds off a compelling performance of this piece and one that I shall listen to often.

The third and final Sonata is again a different type of thing – much more classically constructed than the other two and considered one of the finest romantic sonatas written. Here, the opening is suitably heroically dispatched. I like the way the left hand gradually ascends the keyboard to meet the right hand about 0’50’’ in, and this is superbly done. The whole first movement is tightly constructed and very well played, there is plenty of room for virtuosity as well as some rather lovely moments (e.g. 1’30’’ in) all of which are dispatched with aplomb. Following the more relaxed writing, the tension gradually increases towards some rather delicate arabesque like playing around 2’50’’ before slowly increasing in power and agitation level for a recap of the start of the movement. Despite this slightly unwieldy-sounding description, the whole movement flows well, with a sense of purpose. The central section is more agitated and leads to a rather interesting key change which is very well handled and it is in this part that the home key is slowly established before the end of the movement. There is a lot of very difficult piano writing here all of which is perfectly played. Following further outbursts and quieter sections, the movement winds up nicely towards a rather positive sounding and rousing conclusion in a major key. The ‘Scherzo’ is another bouncing manic little piece (lasting under 2 and a half minutes) with the intricacies of Chopin’s writing adhered to in every detail, despite the difficulties. The contrasted slow middle section from 0’33’’ to 1’48’’ is especially well done, with the numerous voicings very well delineated. This movement ends powerfully with a return of the music heard at the outset of this little piece. I’ve always liked the ‘Largo’ movement of this work and here it is played very beautifully with plenty of nuanced playing and there are times when it seems to stand still. I particularly like the way it starts, very understated and sotto voce. The bass accompaniment to the theme in the right hand is not overdone and sounds lovely. The gradual introduction of additional harmonies as the piece becomes more developed is extremely accomplished and this is performed in an almost reverential way, giving the whole movement the atmosphere of a meditation and it works extremely well in this regard. There is some wonderful playing here and it is a shame this movement doesn’t last longer! The Finale is marked ‘Presto’ but here it seems a little bit cool and restrained for my taste (having said that, I’ve yet to hear a recording of this movement which really makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up on end in terror which is what I would like!). However, there is plenty of amazing pianism here and the movement does certainly go very quickly. There are some very nice contrasts in dynamics here throughout and Mr. Moog has a habit of pulling back the ends of phrases which is a good way to increase the tension still further. The tricky section just prior to the ending is especially good with whirling right hand and the bass jumping about, all very exciting. Despite my very slight reservations due to my being rather picky about the finale of this work, overall this is an excellent performance of a masterpiece.

The recording is clear and bright and very well captured. The cover notes are a little short but are written by the ever reliable Jeremy Nicholas. I am looking forward to Mr. Moog’s next recording with anticipation.

Jonathan Welsh

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank



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