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Ignacy Jan PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 17 (1888) [33:21]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto in E minor, Op. 11 (1830) [42:14]
Claire Huangci (piano)
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie/Shiyeon Sung
rec. 2018, Emmerich-Smola-Saal, SWR Studio Kaiserslautern
BERLIN CLASSICS 0301196BC [75:33]

Claire Huangci has made some very fine recordings on the Berlin Classics label, including Scarlatti and Chopin, as well as a concerto outing with Kabalevsky’s slightly dodgy Fantasy in F minor for piano and orchestra on the Capriccio label (review). Here she goes full-on with two Romantic war-horses linked by their Polish origins.

We need have no fears in terms of the quality of performance or recording in either concerto. Paderewski’s only Piano Concerto is winner for its verve and inventiveness rather than the memorably nature of its themes, but this is a performance that takes these qualities by the scruff and delivers every ounce of fun in the music, making it easy to appreciate and enjoy in equal measure. Huangci’s spectacular technique joins with an orchestra that is clearly having a terrific time in the lively first movement, whose tender moments emerge as refined moments of reflection in a sea of wind-whipped swell. The expressive slow movement is beautifully played: not so slow that the melodies lose their song-like character, but with plenty of breathing room for the orchestra around which the piano weaves colourful threads. The final movement is again full of that wide-awake quality, the folk-like strings allowed their edge in the opening, the brass nicely warm and uplifting in the chorale that slows things down in the second minute – and indeed there’s never any shortage of event in these outer movements. The piano balance with the orchestra is a vital aspect of recordings of this work, the orchestra has to have as much presence as the soloist, and I’m glad to say this is the case here, with plenty of give-and-take between the two.

Claire Jackson makes comparisons between the Paderewski and Chopin’s First Piano Concerto in her booklet note, and there are indeed many points at which the elder’s influence on the younger musician can be felt. Paderewski was his own man however, and the pairing of these concertos works as well as much through their differences of mood as through their connections. Huangci and Sung don’t strain to sound original in this performance, but nor do they lack character. Timings are almost as broad as Daniil Trifanov’s (review), whose recording attempts to throw in some Beethovenian heft with Mikhail Pletnev’s orchestration. With no affected mannerisms and a sense of onward momentum at all times Huangci’s recording doesn’t drag. Chopin’s music is allowed to speak for itself, as well as being played with clear affection and superb musicianship by all involved. The central Romance has that balance between fragility and gorgeousness of expression that is all you could wish for, and the final Rondo, while measured in tempo, has a sparkle and dancing wit that reminds us of Chopin’s Polish origins.

There are quite a few recordings of Paderewski’s Piano Concerto around now, and Ian Hobson with the Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by Jerzy Maksymiuk (review) has been one of the best in recent years. Huangci and Sung are more bracing and energetic in the first movement, with their competitor a touch more lushly romantic in terms of orchestral sound. Hobson is more of a tease with his rubato approach, especially in the central Romanza, though Huangci is lyrical and expressive enough, and such subtle contrasts in interpretation will always boil down to taste. I would happily live with either, but really relish the fresh-air clarity of Huangci and Sung’s outer movements, so would give them a margin of preference for something to cheer you up on a dull day. Chopin’s First Piano Concerto is too popular for comfort when it comes to alternative versions, and again it is taste rather than absolute quality that will take you in one direction or another. Krystian Zimerman’s highly rated second recording of this concerto with the Polish Festival Orchestra on Deutsche Grammophon goes for passion, wringing out every ounce of expressive weight through rich orchestral vibrato and extremes of contrast both dynamic and in terms of tempi, the slow central movement a good two minutes longer than Huangci’s. Huangci seeks and finds beauty in a more crystalline communication, and to my ears wins with just enough reserve and restraint to make you lean into the music rather than delivering impact over depth.

Attractively presented and with a personal anecdote from Claire Huangci in the booklet, this is a top-notch release and one to put on your wish-list. If you’ve ever worried about the Paderewski being a bit too heavy for your liking try this recording to have your opinion turned on its head, and if you already have too many Chopin concertos then maybe this one will encourage you to downsize – it certainly ticks all the boxes for me.

Dominy Clements

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