You have doubtless worked this one out for yourself: ‘mazurki’ is the Polish for mazurkas, though in his very accessible and informative booklet note Vladimir Feltsman uses the English term, but he is Russian. More significant nomenclature is raised in Feltsman’s note when he considers the Polish word żal the key to Chopin’s work. He compares the Russian zhalost or toska, but that writes the German Sehnsucht or English ‘nostalgia’ are not entirely a match because “żal is more personal and involves a high degree of guilt and responsibility”. I would suggest ‘yearning’ might cover this, and it is something to bear in mind as you listen. My thought: do nationality and age affect the playing of such personal pieces? I note these, not to follow up particularly but for you to consider when listening to specific performers. To identify the three themes the mazurkas have: ‘the main theme’ is the one opening the first part of the first section and the one that keeps returning; ‘the subsidiary theme’ is the one opening the second part of the first section; ‘the contrasting theme’ is the one opening the second section, like that of a trio were the mazurka a minuet.
In 1832 came Chopin’s first published set of mazurkas, the four of op. 6, composed between 1830 and 1832. All the dates I give in this review are from Grove. The key of op. 6/1, F sharp minor, is a surprise. The piece sounds at first to be one with a latent sadness of experience. Feltsman, age 66 when recording, conveys this in firmly measured tone. But the triplets in quavers also give the piece a jauntiness, a wry humour which Feltsman exploits. He is more wilful in the repeat of the main theme. His rubato lingers on the higher tessitura material, as if gazing out in hope and sweeping through the more mundane. This prepares you for the crashing ff chords that define the subsidiary theme as if humour has inspired a cry, but of pleasure, not protest. The contrasting theme (tr. 1, 1:35) has both hands largely in the treble clef. It is marked scherzando, which suggests a lightness of intent. Feltsman brings to it a certain abandon, perhaps daydream. Whatever, the final return of the main theme seems to have come to terms with life, the yearning assuaged, though one wonders for how long.
My comparison is the 2015 recording by another Russian pianist, Pavel Kolesnikov, then age 26 (Hyperion CDA 68137). Kolesnikov is at the outset quieter, more inwardly musing and playful, philosophic yet not at all sad, and with sleek touch. His higher tessitura material is distinctive but not savoured. His subsidiary theme is turbulent, a crisis and response, the cry and section here a stance defining identity, his contrasting theme a headily triumphant statement of identity. Kolesnikov is a deal faster than Feltsman, taking 1:59 to Feltsman’s 2:30, once allowance is made for Feltsman not repeating the first section second part, i.e. the subsidiary theme and return of the main theme. I feel he ought to have: my ABRSM edition marks it and the concentration on the ‘crisis’ explains the nature of the rest.
Op. 6/2 in C sharp minor begins with an introduction of exotic crocheting in the inner parts within monotone outer parts. Why? I think Feltsman establishes that ornament is everything. It also makes the main theme the more welcome, albeit a little gawky. However, Feltsman’s upper tessitura airy nonchalance is brought down to earth literally by the tail of a con forza descent. Is this just a hearty joke or a rebuffal of meandering thoughts? Feltsman has a certain ambivalence: he is vehement without being violent. The subsidiary theme, marked leggiero, is rather louchely played by Feltsman who prefers to obtain more contrast in a creamier presentation for the return of the main theme, now thereby more urbane. The contrasting theme (tr. 2, 1:35), marked gajo, merry and faster, is freer owing to shorter melodic spans and more repetition. Feltsman makes it sound folksy and open-air. The main theme returns, growing more considered and musing, perhaps hoping to lose that rebuffal: it does not wholly succeed. Feltsman therefore suggests that where op. 6/1 traces emotions within one individual, op. 6/2 sketches the conflicts between individuals owing to different approaches to life. These are shown ultimately to be polarized positions incapable, unlike in op. 6/1, of resolution.
I will contrast this reading with the 2018 recording by the Italian pianist, Mateo Fossi, then age 40 (Hortus 170). He observes the introduction’s sotto voce more markedly, giving the whole piece a dreamlike atmosphere. The main theme is floated as a beguiling melody shattered by the sudden waking up of the con forza. Fossi’s subsidiary theme has a solid, everyday workmanlike character. The return of the main theme, however, is now more worldly as is repeat of the subsidiary theme and the introduction, while Fossi’s contrasting theme has a shapely bucolic manner. In the reappearances of the main theme after the contrasting one, Fossi clarifies that the con forza is not marked f, so it becomes tempered somewhat, and thereby his interpretation suggests that all the contrasts within the piece can be reconciled.
Op. 6/3 in E major has a holiday from żal, an extrovert oasis in a sequence of introvert mazurkas. The monotone parade of a brief introduction is just in the left hand preceding two downward sweeps in the bass clef in the right before a brawny rising main theme in the spirit of the famous Military Polonaise with those downward sweeps reappears as a quieter but jolly tail. The subsidiary theme is in the same mood but more thunderous, and then more quickly interchanged soft passages. It is nice that Feltsman finds time for some rubato and an extra ornament in the repeat. The contrasting section (tr. 3, 0:55) begins with a cadenza-like linking passage of comely musing as a lead-in for its theme (1:06), its emphasis on descents making it a counterpoise to the main theme. It too acquires the jolly tail, but the surprise is the coda which mimicks the octave leap ending the contrasting theme. Feltsman has a whale of a time throughout.
The 2010 recording by the French pianist, Cédric Tiberghien, then age 34 (Harmonia Mundi HMC 902073), is my choice for comparison. He is more scrupulous than Feltsman in displaying detail, but this is not always to advantage. For instance, the flow of the monotone parade is rather interrupted, and the nuanced downward sweeps are for me self-conscious. In detailing the trees, the sense of the wood is lost. Tiberghien’s main theme is something of a roller-coaster ride in danger of being carried away by its exuberance. Yet the dynamic contrasts in the subsidiary theme are vivid, and the ‘cadenza’ link to the contrasting theme is all poise and charm. In sum, Tiberghien is dangerous and exciting; Feltsman is stalwart and enjoyable.
Op. 6/4 in E flat minor is the shortest in this set, without a contrasting theme. Marked Presto ma non troppo, the main theme is more restless mood than melody, a rising and falling motif heard four times with subtle alterations in pitch and rhythm. The subsidiary theme (0:26) sounds like a mirror response. Its melody, bristling with written-in ornaments, proves to be the moment of climax before the opening returns, and then you realize that must have been a theme. Feltsman shows it to be a wonderful piece of rippling sleight of hand, and sounds as though he is enjoying it every bit as much as its predecessor. ‘Enjoyment’ is not a word that can be applied to Matteo Fossi’s account. Its main theme is quieter, sadder, and his greater emphasis on Chopin’s accents brings a sense of unremitting labour to its repetitions. Where Feltsman makes the embellishment of the subsidiary theme a triumph of graceful contortions, with Fossi it is an arduous obstacle course to stumble around. For Feltsman you have admiration, for Fossi sympathy.
This is a review, not an article, so I will no longer survey every mazurka in as much detail. I do hope I have indicated the range and variation of Chopin’s mazurkas, as well as their hospitality in providing for very differing yet equally valid interpretations. For the other sets I shall pick one mazurka I feel is outstanding for comment on Feltsman’s and others’ performances. Had I been doing this for op. 6 I would have chosen op. 6/2 in C sharp minor.
Also in 1832, Chopin published the five mazurkas of op. 7, composed between 1830 and 1832. Op.7/2 in A minor stands out as a classic treatment of coping with sadness and coming through it. For me, it is the first truly great mazurka. In Feltsman’s hands, its main A minor theme has a glowing, full-toned sadness and eloquence of line. There are two interpretive issues to note. First: the gesture at the end of the first phrase marked f stretto. Feltsman plays it as a passing moment of protest. Second issue: the pause just before the end of the second phrase. Feltsman makes this only the slightest, halting moment of reflection. The subsidiary theme (tr. 7, 0:56) is a continuation, a deepening of the same mood, its sustained notes expansively treated, an indulgence of grief. In the repeat, Feltsman makes telling use of rubato, bringing a more sorrowing simplicity in facing the experience. The contrasting theme (1:53) is in A major as if to say “this is what it was like before”, then a crisp variant of the same says “pull yourself together”. At this point a ritenuto, another key moment of halting, says “just ease yourself back into that earlier normality”. Feltsman plays this latter as a wonderfully natural flow, like a gentle but all resolving rebuke, then the main theme can return magically as a thing of becalmed beauty, its pause slightly longer.
My comparison is the recording made between 2013 and 2015 by the English pianist David Wilde, then aged between 78 and 80 (Delphian DCD 34159). His main theme has an aching, even but intense, flowing sadness which also shines with the quality of a memorial. The f stretto phrase then becomes a natural peak, the pause just the swiftest intake of breath. Wilde’s sustained notes in a more urgent subsidiary theme make a soft, it seems unending, sequence of sighs, also more sustained in the repeat, and Wilde makes the pause at the end of this section a little longer. He gets a markedly different atmosphere in the contrasting theme by playing it a touch softer to observe the dolce marking, so it is like a dream in the most comfortable bedding. His ritenuto in the third section is less natural than Feltsman’s, but he too makes the final pause longer. His tone throughout is smaller and drier than Feltsman’s, which gives the whole experience an antique flavour.
The four mazurkas of op. 17, composed in 1832-1833, were published in 1834. Again, for me the outstanding mazurka, another masterpiece, is op.17/4 in A minor, with a very different take on sadness that that of op. 7/2. From the restlessness of its four-bar introduction, this is a more volatile but fascinating piece. Feltsman gives us exploration with a combustible feel. The long-breathed main theme is beauteous despite its rather indulgent languor of grief. Sighs are incorporated then tossed aside, elaborate ornamentation is written in and there is the tantrum of its closing gesture. The repeat maintains expressiveness undeterred, with gentler, more playful throwing away, but is the continuing ornamentation an attempt to cloak an underlying desolation? The subsidiary theme (tr. 13, 1:27) starts caustically but becomes calmer. The contrasting theme (2:20), marked dolce, is in a warmer, more natural-seeming state of A major, but it is marked poco piů mosso too. Feltsman catches its urgent restlessness well, growing more emphatic to climax in pain, which can only be soothed by the return of the opening material. Paradoxically, this now seems happier until crushed by the return of the violent outbursts and the sequences of the close are despairing, capped by the return of the introduction as coda, now more darkly meaningful, as if stating “mania is inexorable”, the tantrum is you.
Again, I will compare with Tiberghien’s account from 2010. Timing at 4:23 to Feltsman’s 5:02, his more flowing continuity of line instils this mazurka’s with sad beauty, and makes the ornamentation seem more intrinsic to the state of mind. With Feltsman, I feel it part of the character’s extravagance. Tiberghien is less playful and more sad than violent at the end of the first part of the first section, more introvert, more concentrated on the state of sadness than gestures that emerge from it. With his subsidiary theme, the thoughts flood in more chaotically, but his contrasting theme is more jocund, its climax a stark fulfilment, without Feltsman’s pain. Tiberghien’s return to the main theme is hauntingly beautiful, and his faster treatment of the closing sequences is just as heart-wrenching as Feltsman’s. I find Tiberghien’s account overall more disturbing, with glimpses of a soul in torment, whereas with Feltsman I feel I have heard an actor playing a role to perfection melodically, rhythmically and harmonically, which both I and he can observe from a little safer distance.
The four mazurkas of op. 24 were also composed in 1833, and published in 1836. From this set, I have chosen op. 24/2 in C major. It stands out in being, quite rarely for Chopin, a totally carefree piece. After a brief, easily ambling introduction, we are straightaway in high tessitura, vivaciously taken up by Feltsman. The first part of the main theme is a lightly tripping ballerina in a twirling dance, the second part is for heavier-footed countrymen to join the festivities, and here Feltsman is suitably robust. In the dolce subsidiary theme (tr. 15, 0:21) the ballerina’s tessitura is higher still, to glittering effect but in the repeat, marked rubato, can still muse coyly on the outcome of her own prowess. Feltsman is delightfully deft with the rubato. The contrasting theme (1:00) brings a change of key to D flat major where a cheerily flowing right hand is periodically weighed down somewhat by a stomping left-hand accompaniment. In the second half a left-hand melody, another rarity, basks in the yawningly repetitive ease of sequences in gradual descent. Then it is quickly back to the main theme before a coda in which the mazurka’s introduction is elaborated then deconstructed, all with a blithe nonchalance.
Here is yet another comparison with Tiberghien. His approach is, as before, generally quieter, so the ballerina is less preening, yet the countrymen are crisply responsive while also on their best behaviour: no stomping here. With the subsidiary theme, Tiberghien’s ballerina is assuredly on Cloud Nine. In the contrasting theme, Tiberghien makes more of the wide contrasts in dynamics, so what begins dreamy is suddenly wide-awake and hitting you. The left-hand theme is more expansive in its musing. It is the reverse of what happened in op. 17/4: now Feltsman comes with all guns blazing, while Tiberghien’s stands more aside.
The four mazurkas of op. 30 were composed and published in 1837. From this set I have chosen op. 30/4 in C sharp minor, a study in grimness in both its active and passive manifestations. The passive is first heard in the brief, melancholic introduction, the active in the bouncy main theme energized by its triplets in semiquavers and spiced by its rising, then rising and falling arpeggios. Feltsman makes both these elements vivid and distinctive. The subsidiary theme (tr. 21, 1:10) is a calmer, more selective version of the main theme in the right hand, and the earlier section’s rhythmic swing is transferred to the left hand. Feltsman keeps these in fascinating equipoise. The contrasting theme (2:01) with a tune marked con anima is the heart of the mazurka. The warmest appeal and climax are well gauged by Feltsman, who makes the return of the main theme now at first more intensive in its discipline. This makes the contrast of the coda more marked, as the basic motif winds down to a despondent descent into nothingness.
I will return to Fossi’s 2018 disc. Timing the mazurka at 4:06 to Feltsman’s 4:40, his main theme is more alluringly opulent than energetic; the more marked pedalling provides a luxurious but rather sinister ambience. Fossi’s subsidiary theme is jauntier yet more keenly feels the inability to shake off the earlier section rhythm in the bass. The contrasting theme, though impassioned and well climaxed, at Fossi’s slightly faster tempo lacks Feltsman’s breadth. In both accounts you are conscious of the fixation in the repetition.
The four mazurkas of op. 33 were composed and published in 1838. If today you use an English edition like the ABRSM I do, or a German one, you will be puzzled by the placing by Feltsman of the C major mazurka as op. 33/2 and the D major as op. 33/3 rather than vice-versa. This CD’s order is that of the very first 1838 edition, the French one and the one preferred by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Poland. As it happens, the first English edition (Wessel) also follows this order, but not the German. Notwithstanding, from this set I have chosen op. 33/4 in B minor. Although marked mesto, sad, there is an intriguing dialogue in the presentation. It begins softly yet quite glitteringly in high tessitura in the right hand with an emphatic downward leap. There follows a loud, low tessitura response by the right, echoed by right and left hands, which falls and rises. Feltsman makes this response livelier, and his judicious treatment of the copious marked trills suggests the sadness is a cultivated one. This is more evident at the second playing when the response in the bass takes over and mulls over a fragment of itself, in doing which Feltsman becomes almost jolly. A change of key for the subsidiary theme (1:18) to B flat major brings a bracingly loud, bouncy wake-up call. After that, the return of the main theme seems calmer, the dialogue more cordial. The subsidiary theme unusually returns but, in anticipation we might be getting too much comfortable repetition, the contrasting theme arrives with a change of key, this time to B major (3:17), a gorgeously urbane theme, smoother than its predecessors and chromatically enriched. After its repeat, it springs into the highest, most ecstatic tessitura of this mazurka, given full heady force by Feltsman. The final return of both elements of the first section material seems somewhat chastened, rather soberly reflective, until Feltsman’s sharp attention to the rinforzando marking and clarity in the mordant closing chords reveals a bitter sadness.
Fossi again: timing the mazurka at 5:16 to Feltsman’s 6:02, he looks a deal faster but is not. He cuts the repeat of the main theme between the two appearances of the subsidiary theme (bars 87-110), so the equivalent timing is really 5:16 to 5:23. For me, Feltsman’s opening has more dramatic urge and spontaneity. Fossi is more considered, pleasantly cool. He brings to the left-hand material a dark-grained quality closer to the pensive ambience of the right-hand. Fossi then makes the subsidiary theme more startling, a sudden resolve to ‘snap out of it’, having been daydreaming before. But at his slightly faster tempo Fossi’s contrasting theme is less telling than Feltsman’s, its climax rather tinselly and the mazurka’s sardonic closing chords relatively thrown off.
The four mazurkas of op. 41 were composed in 1838 (No. 2) and 1839, and published in 1840. My choice is op. 41/1 in C sharp minor. I got hooked on the marking maestoso because you cannot, even if you are Feltsman, achieve majesty with a soft, unaccompanied main theme opening. He makes it lightly probing, rather like a folksong. But as soon as he gets to the subsidiary theme (tr. 26, 0:31), it is fiery and increasingly so as quaver runs turn into quavers in triplets. The contrasting theme (0:54) is another of those ardent, flowing tunes chromatically spiced. The lyricism just seamlessly pours out with a warmly emotive second part. Enjoy, too, Feltsman’s poise in the lullaby state of transition (1:48) to the return of the opening. The subsidiary theme is more significant and featured than usually, for repetition now has higher tessitura climaxes. The whole mazurka works up to a true maestoso with the ‘folksong’ in triple octaves, only to fall away to nothing but rhythmic pulse. This mazurka contains the most contrasted moods of all.
The Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska recorded this mazurka between 2012 and 2013, aged 61-62, in her complete set (Atma Classique ACD 22682). Timing at 3:26 to Feltsman’s 4:09 makes the maestoso marking, which implies stateliness, more difficult to achieve, but I appreciate the distinctiveness of her interpretation. Her soft opening is playful, the loud subsidiary theme attractively open-hearted, the triplets’ version almost abandoned. The contrasting theme has a compelling yearning and regret, while there is almost a jollity in its tripping continuation as the dotted quaver + semiquaver rhythm becomes constant. In this subsection, Feltsman gets a bit bogged down. The transition to the return of the opening is restful, if not quite as magical as Feltsman’s, then off Fialkowska sprints to the finishing line. Although the high tessitura climaxes of the subsidiary theme repetition are not quite as effective as Feltsman’s, you will hear on to her sterling climax of the opening theme. Yet for me her closing bars remain too fast for the marked smorzando, dying away, to have an impact. Overall, I prefer Feltsman’s reflective breadth, even if by comparison his headier passages seem a mite calculated.
The three mazurkas of op. 50 were composed and published in 1842. My choice, op. 50/2 in A flat major, boasts a warming introduction to a dainty, rather quaint main theme, a tune that lingers with just enough variation to gratify your attention. Feltsman’s seamless presentation of this continuity is also a factor. With the subsidiary theme (CD2, tr. 2, 0:42) the lingering becomes rather wilful dawdling, but that makes the return of the main tune more welcome. The contrasting theme (1:30), marked con anima, brings a change of key to D flat major. It is very different: merry, then boisterous in its trim but rather rigid rhythms. Feltsman enjoys being crisp, sometimes even quite raunchy, and bracing. He does not make the second strain repeat, but once is, I would agree here, enough before the return of the delightful flow of the main tune which doubles as a postlude. This is a mazurka of refreshing simplicity.
Polish pianist Rafał Mokrzycki recorded this piece between 2018 and 2019, aged 27-28 (Dux 1558). He soon puts his mark on the piece. He arpeggiates the second of the fourth pair of chords and then appropriately lingers a touch on the second of the sixth pair at the apex of the introduction. This makes it more portentous, but Feltsman is arguably just as effective in considering such nuances unnecessary. Mokrzycki brings a pleasant flow to the main theme. He is only very slightly slower, timing the equivalent of 2:58 to Feltsman’s 2:51, when I subtract his repeat of the contrasting theme second strain, yet Mokrzycki’s seems a more studied than easy gait. This does make for a serious approach to the subsidiary theme which more naturally arises from his care of articulation of the first part. You can consider this sensitivity or caution. His approach to the contrasting theme for me veers overmuch towards caution. Admittedly Feltsman throws caution to the winds in being loud before the marked crescendo towards the end of the first strain, but I feel Mokrzycki treads rather on eggshells regarding the marked accents. He saves an effective real increase of volume until his repeat of the second strain, but delaying that increase till then weakens the impact and contrast I feel the section should provide.
Of the three mazurkas of op. 56 – composed in 1843-1844 and published in 1844 – I chose op. 56/2 in C major. I like it as an attractively different Vivace mazurka. To be sure, Feltsman gives it to us as a loud, vigorous, earthy folk dance to start, but even in its second strain, because in higher tessitura, he finds some humour. The subsidiary theme (tr. 5, 0:29) varies the tone. There is more suave rising movement in left-hand quavers which become more graceful and evenly flowing in the right hand in the contrasting theme (0:48). Then there is a transitional passage with ethereal elements of the main theme (1:06); continuous quavers are exchanged or jointly delivered in both hands, and Feltsman makes them gossamer and mercurial. The main theme returns equally softly to close the piece, except for a final sforzando chord to remind us how it started. Feltsman takes us on this journey of transformation with appreciable poise.
I will again compare with Kolesnikov’s 2015 account. Timing at 1:33 to Feltsman’s 1:47, he is from the start lighter, and he brings out more the humour of the piece. He is smaller scale but more intimate and engaging. The start has a sense of swing and abandon, not as folksily robust as Feltsman. I like Kolesnikov’s left-hand rising quavers in the subsidiary theme being like a roguish but comic infiltrator from among the dancers. Kolesnikov also brings out more wittily the contrast of quiet motif and sforzando cadences in the subsidiary theme. In the contrasting theme, Feltsman’s suaveness better characterises the dolce marking for its motifs than Kolesnikov’s simply mellow dynamic. In the transitional passage Kolesnikov is airier, not with the magically evanescent continuity of Feltsman yet with a lovely gentle touch.
Among the three mazurkas of op. 59 – composed and published in 1845 – I settled on op. 59/2 in A flat major. I like its ambivalence. Feltsman starts it off simply tripping and happy, the marking is dolce. But come the fifth iteration of its head motif, the closing leap and descent bring a touch of poignancy, a tincture of sorrow. There follows a rhetorical flurry of descending quavers which also acts as an introduction to a loud robust version of the main theme. The subsidiary theme (tr. 8, 1:10), marked mezzo voce, more fanciful and volatile, quickly reaches a passionate outburst. As you find yourself wondering what you might do if you encountered this, you are relieved not by any contrasting theme but the reappearance of the main theme in what vocally would be a rich mezzo register before passing to the soprano and using a trail of chromaticism for its own resuscitation in quaver runs after sighing reminiscences. Feltsman catches all the contrasts with seamless aplomb.
Kolesnikov, timing at 2:16 to Feltsman’s 2:59, makes this a piece of swift moving comic jollity as a smokescreen for its bittersweet core. I admire the dexterity of Kolesnikov’s playing but feel the emotion is somewhat short-changed, especially the climax of the subsidiary theme, so that the return of the main tune, while bubblingly jocular, is not assuaging as it is with Feltsman.
From the three mazurkas of op. 63, composed in 1846 and published in 1847, I look at op.63/3 in C sharp minor. For me, it is one of the greatest mazurkas in its rapid progression to an emphatic climax. Feltsman begins the main theme quite brightly yet there is also intensity and brittleness. In its subsidiary theme (tr. 12, 0:31) you can feel the adrenalin being pumped in. The contrasting theme (0:43), in D flat major, beginning sotto voce in low tessitura, looks as if it will offer warmth and restoration. But soon it rises in tessitura and, before you know where you are, it is flipped back to a tenser return of the main theme, C sharp minor again. Feltsman makes the two quavers and crotchet that close its phrases like a returning curse. In the coda, the theme’s key elements are presented (from 1:32) in canon at one beat’s distance between the ‘soprano’ and ‘alto’ parts, with eventually thrilling high notes from the ‘soprano’. Feltsman makes this seem a grim but triumphant fulfilment.
Tiberghien’s 2010 version, timing at 2:08 to Feltsman’s 1:54, is more sorrowing in cool reflection from the outset. He relies on scrupulous observation of the marked range dynamic contrasts. His subsidiary theme is suddenly angry with this mazurka’s first marked crescendo. Making the beginning of the contrasting theme more sotto voce, Tiberghien sets an atmosphere of conciliation. The rise in tessitura and the crescendo into the main theme return seems like a mediator’s increase in hectoring, but the main character’s response is initially as quiet and sad as at the mazurka’s beginning. Nevertheless, it grows in volatility to make the high notes a fitting climax of that anger glimpsed earlier, yet it does not have Feltsman’s bite.
At this point, in Feltsman’s complete set come two mazurkas, both in A minor, without opus numbers. I have chosen the one called Emile Gaillard after its dedicatee, Chopin’s friend and pupil. It was composed in 1840 and published in 1841. The other, composed and published in 1841 is Notre temps, the name of the magazine in which it appeared. The fascination of Emile, in A minor, lies in the interplay between right and left hand. Effectively the main theme, an ostinato in the left hand and ‘subsidiary’ theme (tr. 13, 0:17), a kind of descant commentary in the right, are of equal significance and alternate. Feltsman reveals well the calm of the right against the bundle of energy edged with agitation of the left. In the A major contrasting theme (1:10), the right has beatific control, Schubertian, yet more ecstatic. Timing at 4:00, Feltsman’s is a leisurely interpretation of the Allegretto marking, but I feel the piece, for me the most haunting of all the mazurkas, benefits from this breadth and clarity. Again, I take Fialkowska for comparison. At 2:26, her performance seems to me perfunctory, especially in its chord progressions. If you would prefer an account that is a fair middle course, with more but not excessive progression, that by Russian pianist Rem Urasin, age 38 when recorded in 2014 (Brilliant Classics 94660), fits the bill.
The four mazurkas of op. 67 were composed in 1835 (Nos. 1, 3), 1846 (No. 4) and 1848/1849 (No. 2) and published posthumously in 1855 and (No. 2) in 1856. Op. 67/4 in A minor, for me, is the only one of the four that really develops and gains poignancy in doing so. As with Emile, main theme and ‘subsidiary’ (tr. 18, 0:26) are equally important, the ‘subsidiary’ with some lovely nuance, such as the poco ritenuto and delicatissimo sequence variation (from 0:36). Feltsman reveals the warm-heartedness of the contrasting theme in A major (1:21). He lingers and softens a bit in its repeat, none the worse for that. Even an exact repeat of the main and subsidiary themes, Feltsman demonstrates, rounds things off beautifully, emotionally tortuous, but shaped with artistry.
Fialkowska’s performance is no less sensitive than Feltsman’s, more varied in that her main theme is more resolute, tougher if you like, in manner. But she makes less contrast in the contrasting theme. Without Feltsman’s warmer tone there, it sounds more nostalgic in its retrospection.
Finally, the four mazurkas of op. 68 were composed in 1827 (No. 2), 1830 (Nos. 1 and 3) and 1846(?) (No. 4), and all published posthumously in 1855. Op. 68/4 in F minor is the forlorn main melody that captivates while the legatissimo marking gives it a heartrending fragility that Feltsman conveys. Yet, as with op. 67/4, main theme and ‘subsidiary’ (tr. 22, 0:33) are equally important, the ‘subsidiary’ airier, less despondent. The contrasting theme (0:53) is brighter but ultimately becomes contorted and troubled by the interplay of the ‘alto’ with the ‘soprano’ line and chromatic spicing, overwhelming recent glimpses of hope. Feltsman plays the full repeat of the main and ‘subsidiary’ themes to end.
Tiberghien’s playing is faster but opening more inward, only really and indeed poignantly sparking into life in the ‘subsidiary’ theme, and more so in the contrasting theme. I feel he underplays the role of the ‘alto’ part towards the end of that which Feltsman reveals more. The work is marked senza fine and Tiberghien’s timing of 3:30 against Feltsman’s 2:36 is because he plays the whole twice, and then the full repeat of main and ‘subsidiary’ themes. His timing equivalent to Feltsman is 1:54.
Do you like playing the game of certain keys being significant for composers? For instance, with Mozart G minor comes to mind, with Beethoven C minor. In my selection here I am struck by how often Chopin seems at his most expressive in A minor (op. 7/2, 17/4, 67/4 and Emile) and C sharp minor (op. 6/2, op. 30/4, 41/1, 63/3). Feltsman is also at his most expressive here, and overall his are consistently fine performances, as I think my comparisons show, at least as good as and often better than other recently recorded interpretations. However, I need to add a little caveat. The danger of my selection is that I focus on the mazurkas and performances I thought the most striking, which means pretty much Feltsman at his best. This means barely lesser pieces are disregarded, for instance the sparkle of his op. 7/1 or the allure of his op. 7/3. Equally some arguably less successful pieces and performances are buried, for instance his op. 56/3, marked Moderato, where for me Feltsman, timing at 7:46 in this longest mazurka is too slow-motion, too present and solid. Here I prefer Kolesnikov, timing at 7:03, who from the outset finds more mystery and flow and makes the dynamic contrast more telling. My warning, then, is if op. 56/3 is a favourite of yours, or you have other loved mazurkas I have not selected for comment, check out Feltsman on the samples on the Presto website.
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