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Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Piano Sonata No. 3, in B minor Op. 58 (1844-5) [33:06]
Ballade No. 1 in G minor Op. 23 (1835-6) [9:40]
Ballade No. 2 in F major Op. 38 (1836-9) [7:30]
Ballade No. 3 in A flat major Op. 47 (1841) [7:58]
Ballade No. 4 in F minor Op. 52 (1842-3) [11:49]
Berceuse in D flat major Op. 57 (1844) [5:02]
Joanna Ławrynowicz (piano)
Rec. 2005-2011 at Polish Radio Studio S1

Jan Jarnicki, who founded the Polish label Acte Préalable, has said he did so to record forgotten Polish music, and a glance down their catalogue, available through MWI, confirms this: the well-known names of Polish music, that is, well-known outside Poland, such as Szymanowski, Bacewicz, Lutosławski and Penderecki, are absent. However, in 2005 he had the idea of recording the whole of the works of the best-known Polish composer of all, Chopin, and with a Polish artist, as no one had done that before. This he has now done, and the present disc is volume 10 of the cycle.

There have been several complete cycles of Chopin before, at least of the solo piano works. Nikita Magaloff, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Garrick Ohlsson have done this but none of them is Polish. I don’t myself think that a national of the composer is necessarily a better interpreter than one who is not: think of Gieseking’s Debussy, Pollini in any of the Viennese classics or Hamelin in Scriabin. For me, the worthwhileness of this project is in introducing me to a fine pianist, Joanna Ławrynowicz, of whom I had not previously heard, since she seems to have concentrated, in recordings anyway, on the lesser-known composers in whom the label has specialized.

I have been impressed. In this programme, surely one of the most demanding in the whole cycle, she shows herself, not simply to have the superb technique which these pieces require, but also to be a thinking pianist, who has clearly considered and weighed every aspect of the works, with nothing suggesting routine and also nothing eccentric and odd. She also has an ability which it is quite hard to describe: that of taking one through these pieces with a strong narrative sense.

In the first movement of the B minor sonata I particularly liked the way Ławrynowicz responded to the changing moods and textures, for example the dramatic opening, the nocturne-like second subject and the very chromatic and adventurous development. The scherzo goes like the wind, but not so fast as to be a gabble, and she makes the rapid figuration in the right hand a real melody and not just a flurry of notes. The trio comes as a complete contrast. The sombre slow movement is well held together, while in the finale, to my mind a brooding and tragic piece and not one with ‘a pleasant and optimistic character’ as the booklet suggests, she finds affinities to Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, Chopin’s main subject resembling Beethoven’s turbulent second subject of his first movement.

The Ballades are equally rewarding. I like the way in the first one she presents the main theme as being gradually discovered and worked into, gaining strength and confidence as it proceeds. There is no lack of power at the huge climax of the second theme. She sustains the più animato for several pages as marked instead of slowing early, and the finale is as passionate and driven as one could wish. In the second Ballade she makes a strong contrast between the serene first theme and the angry second one, and I was particularly pleased that she did not rush the Agitato passage towards the end, allowing the wonderful harmonies to sound properly. The third Ballade is a simpler piece than the others but the C sharp minor passage in the middle has the right headlong rush at the climax. Only in the fourth Ballade did I feel a slight disappointment that the finale did not quite have the sense of tragic inevitability that I look for.

Finally, we have the Berceuse, a work of serene beauty in which the right hand spins ever more elaborate variations over a practically unchanging left hand pattern. What we look for here is delicacy and fantasy and this she provides.

Joanna Ławrynowicz has amply justified Jan Jarnicki’s faith in her and this is a very rewarding disc. Of course, with a composer as much recorded as Chopin, there is no point in trying to identify a single best version of these works. Rubinstein or Argerich in the sonata, Zimerman in the Ballades and Perahia in the Berceuse are obvious points of comparison, but Ławrynowicz takes her own place.

The recordings, made over a period of some years, are full and clear in a sympathetic acoustic. The booklet is in Polish and English. I was, however, slightly surprised that Ławrynowicz decided to base her performances on the Paderewski edition. Although this is, of course, an edition prepared by a Pole – and is the one I used to follow her performances – the pianist and scholar Charles Rosen long ago pointed out that it is faulty and that more recent editions are more accurate. Still, this is a small point in the context of performances such as these.

Stephen Barber


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