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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Impromptus, Waltzes and Mazurkas
Pavel Kolesnikov (piano)
rec. 2018, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, UK
HYPERION CDA68273 [76:40]

In his first Chopin CD, Mazurkas (Hyperion CDA68137), Pavel Kolesnikov chose not to include works in published groupings and he follows the same practice in this second one with regard to waltzes and mazurkas, but in this CD he does feature all four Chopin impromptus, beginning with the Fantasy Impromptu in C sharp minor, op. 66. Composed about 1834, it was only published and given an opus number and title with an unnecessary “Fantasy” prefix after Chopin’s death, because he composed the piece for the sole use of the Baroness d’Este. So, it’s the earliest and simplest of the impromptus. It’s also by far the best-known work on this CD, yet castigated by Chopin expert Jim Samson owing to its “unremitting and undisguised four-bar phrasing” and “the unvaried repetition of its components.” Nevertheless, this straightforward structure makes it readily memorable, plus one of Chopin’s loveliest tunes in its central section (tr. 1, 1:08). The opening of this has had a considerable afterlife in musicals as the song I’m always chasing rainbows, credited to Harry Carroll in 1917, who used Chopin’s harp like introduction and melody’s first and half of its second phrase, completing his song with an easy serenity. There’s a fine 1990 version of this by Mandy Patinkin (Masterworks Broadway download GO100009347671) which you can sample on the Presto website. I’m telling you this because, knowing these words, the melody comes immediately to mind.

Back to unadulterated Chopin, there are four bars of formal introduction and getting used to the sextuplet quaver left-hand, then six bars to get used to the florid right-hand semiquavers usually in groups of four. Kolesnikov plays all this with appreciable smoothness and fluency, the agitato element of this Allegro a disturbingly latent, more than overt, presence. Now, for Chopin, the classy bit (0:20), picking out a theme from the first notes of those semiquaver clusters, because that encased theme is from Kolesnikov one of pleading and yes, unremitting angst. The florid right-hand without theme returns to fester into a climax, relieved by the slower ‘rainbows’ section marked con anima. Kolesnikov treats this in gentle, dreamily idyllic fashion, but does he just a touch lose patience with the unvaried repetition? In his review linked below my colleague Stephen Greenbank admires the additional embellishment Kolesnikov introduces. This occurs in the latter part of the third appearance of the melody from 2:44, and I like its imaginative flair which is consistent with its surroundings; but then Kolesnikov adds tinkling upper tessitura echoes and a dulcet waterfall to the descending phrase of the fourth appearance of the melody at 3:04 and for me that’s a bit over the top. The opening section and climax return with an effective Beethovenian coda but, having shown he can do that, Chopin is more interested in unexpectedly bringing back the ‘rainbows’ in the left hand, for the first time in low register and delivered with beaming warmth by Kolesnikov in a performance grounded in urbanity.

I compare this with the 2018 recording by Mateo Fossi (Hortus 170). Timing at 5:10, he’s a little faster than   Kolesnikov’s 5:32. This produces a more distraught opening section, the semiquavers more agitated, the theme more angular, even despairing, the climax more devastating. The ‘rainbows’ theme, though fluent, doesn’t feel much slower, but rather that of a healthy celebration. In terms of elaboration he provides an extra turn after the third of the descending notes where Kolesnikov has echoing effects, but this turn is as occurs in the first version of the work. Curiously, Fossi omits the turn at this point in the second rendition of the ‘rainbows’, though it’s found there in both versions. Fossi’s closing section is fierier than Kolesnikov’s: you feel it could go off the rails at any moment, his Beethovenian coda is bleaker, his bass register ‘rainbows’ a closing consolation yet still dark grained.
Turning to the other three impromptus which were all published in Chopin’s lifetime I’m selecting the one I found most striking and comparing another interpreter. It’s the Impromptu No. 2 in F sharp major whose presentation is different from the others in that a melody occupies the outer sections with the centre featuring more dramatic material. The melody from Kolesnikov comes gently undulating but soon spiced by written out ornamentation. It has a tailpiece (tr. 12, 1:24) which is itself a procession of roseate chords played with benign smoothness by Kolesnikov. The central section (2:07) is a March in D major, gaining intensity in Kolesnikov’s pounding left hand, after which we seem to face a ghostly, disoriented echo of the opening theme (3:12) which, however, soon returns more calm and flowing, ever varying, getting faster, finally breaking into the abandon of a topping of right-hand leggiero demisemiquavers (4:11) before the tailpiece returns as coda, enchantingly played by Kolesnikov to encapsulate the fundamental contentment.

Again, I compare this with Mateo Fossi, whose Hortus CD, like this one, presents all four impromptus. Timing the second at 5:39 to Kolesnikov’s 6:05, his slightly greater insistence on direction brings an authority to his account which is comforting in its dependability, but in place of Kolesnikov’s smoothness, Fossi brings a certain weightiness which makes his phrasing less flexible. His March is grand and sonorous, the resultant disorientation a sudden alien experience, after which his calm resumption of the theme has a smoothness not heard before. Fossi’s leggiero section is more startling in its abandon than Kolesnikov’s while his tailpiece coda has an engaging wide-eyed openness. But overall, I prefer Kolesnikov’s gentler touch which brings a dreamier, reflective quality, his more diaphanous leggiero and sense of farewell in the coda.

Kolesnikov presents four waltzes on this CD. Again, I’m selecting the one I found most striking and comparing it with another interpreter. It’s the Waltz in A flat major, op. 69/1, another work not published till after Chopin’s death and the best known and most extended of the waltzes Kolesnikov has recorded on this CD. Effectively its main theme is an aria in waltz form. From Kolesnikov it comes delicately melancholic yet with a lovely cantabile line. Its second section marked sempre delicatissimo (tr. 2, 1:12) he makes sparkling, the high notes floating beautifully. To the contrasting theme (2:13), more typical of a waltz, Kolesnikov brings some bounce and a satisfyingly straightforward but never overstated thrust to its climax. Throughout graceful sureness of touch, rubato and poise are evident.
I compared it with Martin Ivanov’s 2017 recording (Gramola 99146). At 4:37 he’s marginally slower than Kolesnikov’s 4:15, yet the sorrowful smooth flow he achieves very beautifully doesn’t have quite the poise and therefore character of Kolesnikov. His second section pirouettes rather than floats, which is to say one is conscious of effort. However, he makes the contrasting theme dreamier, like the memory of a waltz and then gives effective breadth to its climax.

Kolesnikov presents the mazurkas on this CD in two sequences. I’m selecting the one I found most striking in each sequence and then comparing it with another interpreter. In the contents list at the end of this review you’ll see the first sequence is of five Mazurkas. The most striking for me in Kolesnikov’s hands is the Mazurka in C sharp minor, op. 41/4, but if you have a score, check out the numbering. Hyperion uses that derived from the first Paris and London editions, whereas some books and recordings use the numbering of the first Leipzig edition, op. 41/1. Kolesnikov makes the opening main theme sound like a folksong being created, toyed with as it’s taking shape. Does this relate to the marking Maestoso? No, but I don’t care. Kolesnikov’s rubato is spellbinding, achieving at the same time spontaneity and relaxation. Nevertheless, the arrival of the subsidiary theme (tr. 11, 0:34) still has the éclat of a sudden injection of a flowering of happiness and increasing exultation as quaver runs turn to quavers in triplets. To the contrasting theme (0:59) he brings something of the wry or droll out of its chromatic spicing, yet this is banished by the serene dreaminess of its second part where Kolesnikov’s silkiness of touch is wonderful. From 2:01 in the very soft transition to the return  of the main theme he conjures a trance-like state, yet an agreeable one in which consciousness can be restored without fuss and what seems like a whole new world readily appreciated, so that by 3:24 he’s fully into skipping mode and able to work himself up to the main theme’s stentorian apotheosis in triple octaves. Then it’s softly, musingly deconstructed as Kolesnikov resumes his original nonchalance, but it doesn’t sound like to nothingness as much as to a new blank canvas.

I compare it with Vladimir Feltsman (Nimbus Alliance NI6386), also recorded in 2018. Timing at 4:09 to Kolesnikov’s 4:46, Feltsman’s ‘folksong’ comes fully formed, even with a carefree jaunt, while his rising through the gears, as it were, into running quavers and then quaver triplets is more emphatic, albeit at the cost of being a more deliberate, less spontaneous sounding progression than Kolesnikov’s. The contrasting theme of Feltsman’s seems rather arch, yet certainly distinctive while he’s more comfortable than Kolesnikov in the rich suaveness of its lower tessitura second part. His transition to the return of the main theme is lullaby rather than Kolesnikov’s state of trance, soothing but not magical. But his work-up to the climax is heady and the climax itself thrilling. Interestingly Feltsman’s tone in the coda is more elegiac, as if with regret at falling away to nothing but rhythmic pulse.

The Mazurka in A minor, op. 7/2a (tr. 9) merits a brief mention as this is a novelty on this CD. Kolesnikov plays the earlier version which begins with an introduction of 16 seconds of bagpipes music in A major that Chopin cut before publication. This original version makes for a smoother transition to the contrasting theme in A major, but it’s debatable whether this is an advantage. Kolesnikov repeats the introduction at the end. I suspect however this is more about creating a good attacca transition to the most bucolic of his mazurkas, that in E major, op. 6/3, which he presents next.

Kolesnikov’s second sequence of mazurkas presents four. The most striking of these for me is the Mazurka in B major, op. 56/1. It suits the relaxed musing that Kolesnikov seems to like. Its main theme, in low tessitura, hardly moves melodically though its rhythm has life. Its second phrase rises gently, hopefully, so the piece moves from inwardness to outwardness and soon a confident, affirmative statement, followed by a calming down. In the return to the main theme you notice the left hand more - not that it’s any different; somehow you just listen more as again Kolesnikov’s playing seems to cast a spell. The contrasting section (tr. 13, 1:33) marked leggiero is faster and flighty in the right-hand continuous quavers, after which the return to the main theme seems in Kolesnikov’s hands more assured. A second leggiero section ripples gently along, after which the main theme seems less warm than originally yet an accepted, permanent fixture. So, it briefly goes into higher tessitura and starts to celebrate and, before you know it, has found a trail of ecstasy, from Kolesnikov of a quiet variety which is more compelling. This takes in not much more than a deal of repetition and a couple of leaps. It’s just sleight-of-hand, but Kolesnikov proves a master conjurer. 

Again, I compare this with Feltsman, whose approach is more measured, timing at 5:58 to Kolesnikov’s 5:06. Chopin’s marking is Allegro non tanto with the leggiero sections Poco più mosso. There are dangers here for both approaches. A slower Allegro can sound more deliberate and Feltsman doesn’t avoid this, partly because he nevertheless makes the gradual affirmation of the melody satisfying. A faster leggiero can sound very gossamer and Kolesnikov doesn’t avoid this, because it suits his gentler approach overall and creates greater contrast, so from intimate opening the end of the piece is like a flower unfolding and the whole atmosphere suddenly illuminated. Feltsman’s manner is throughout bolder, which creates a very bright first leggiero section but a second that stresses virtuoso display. His final return of the main theme is more distant and retrospective, but it grows cogently in majesty.
The Fantasy in F minor is by far the longest work on this CD and therefore demonstrates Chopin working on a broader canvas. It’s headed ‘March’ but begins softly and Kolesnikov makes it nonchalant with a relaxed, even playful procession in the left hand to which the right hand responds cheerfully. When the procession turns to minor mode the right hand offers an uplifting march tune (tr. 17, 1:07). That should settle things, but Chopin doesn’t accept easy solutions as this march doesn’t return. Instead we get the first of recurring passages of rising and quickening arpeggios (2:26) which act as a ruminating refrain through the piece. The outcome is the first impassioned theme, the work’s paramount one, marked agitato (3:36) and Kolesnikov leaves us in no doubt of its serious import. But not for long: it has a running-quavers, high tessitura flight of fancy, as if a vision of escape and freedom, bolstered by some wrestling chromatic descents, after which it streams into quaver pairs, really rollicking from Kolesnikov, and culminating in heady, rising rhetorical flourishes and fanfares. All this is to introduce a Quick March (5:09), but this is short-lived, as it’s back to the bridge passage and the paramount theme, now morose, but not preventing the returning flights of fancy. The wrestling is more protracted, yet equally so is the following calm, oases of stillness between the rising arpeggios, these too rising in tessitura and graphically realized by Kolesnikov. This is the introduction to the slow central section in B major (7:43) which is where the stillness becomes absolute. It’s played with Kolesnikov’s wonted poise and is something more than serene. It has a rarefied spiritual quality, as if any hope might be satisfied. The sempre legato marking is well observed, so that it’s both expansive yet moving smoothly forward. Yet it ends in an unresolved void of a chord and back to the bridge passage. The most turbulent presentation of the paramount theme follows. The running quavers, quaver pairs, rhetorical flourishes and fanfares all come with more tension and excitement, but the Quick March, marked sempre più mosso and Kolesnikov faithful to this, does have a hint of the Keystone Cops. Chopin of course hadn’t seen the Keystone Cops, so what was he thinking of? Perhaps a manic zenith of exhilaration to bring the greatest contrast to the adagio sostenuto (12:29) whose four brief eloquent phrases epitomize human capacity for feeling and the poetry of Kolesnikov’s playing.

I compare this with Krzysztof Książek recorded in 2016 (Dux 1319). His opening March is more conventional than Kolesnikov’s: more deliberate, everything properly in place, weighty, imposing, a bit pompous. Yet his refrain is more startling and his paramount tune more searing, especially lustrous in its high tessitura flights, while its quaver pairs gather breathlessly, and rhetorical flourishes exult. His Quick March has a jaunty sweep. I find Książek more exciting than Kolesnikov in the loud passages but less compelling in the quiet ones, such as the oases of stillness before the central section which Książek gives less inspection. Both characteristics are explained by Książek’s faster overall timing at 13:09 against Kolesnikov’s 14:19. Książek’s central section doesn’t have Kolesnikov’s dreaminess but it has warmth and a sense of homage, though its progression doesn’t have Kolesnikov’s assurance. Książek’s Quick March, even at its speedy climax, remains disciplined and his adagio sostenuto suitably distinctive. Arguably there’s more majesty in Książek’s account and at times of tension more visceral excitement, but in moments of calm less sheer, transfixing beauty that Kolesnikov effects. For this recording Kolesnikov chose a Yamaha CFX concert grand piano, a choice vindicated, as in his playing of Chopin here Kolesnikov conjures many magical moments.

Michael Greenhalgh
 
Previous review: Stephen Greenbank


Contents
Fantasy Impromptu in C sharp minor Op 66 (c. 1834) [5:32]
Waltz in A flat major Op 69 No 1 (1835) [4:15]
Waltz in D flat major Op 70 No 3 (1829) [2:50]
Waltz in A flat major KKIVa/13 (1830) [1:27]
Sostenuto in E flat major 'Waltz' KKIVb/10 (1840) [2:03]
Impromptu No 1 in A flat major Op 29 (1837) [4:12]
Mazurka in C minor Op 30 No 1 (1837) [1:52]
Mazurka in C sharp minor Op 30 No 4 (1837) [4:46]
Mazurka in A minor Op 7 No 2a (1829, early version) [3:42]
Mazurka in E major Op 6 No 3 (1830-32) [1:47]
Mazurka in C sharp minor Op 41 No 4 (1839) [4:46]
Impromptu No 2 in F sharp major Op 36 (1839) [6:05]
Mazurka in B major Op 56 No 1 (1843-44) [5:06]
Mazurka in B major Op 63 No 1 (1846) [2:19]
Mazurka in F minor Op 63 No 2 (1846) [2:40]
Mazurka in A flat major Op 41 No 3 (1839) [2:06]
Fantasy in F minor Op 49 (1841) [14:19]
Impromptu No 3 in G flat major Op 51 (1842) [6:44]



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