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53 Studies on Chopin Études 1
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Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Nocturnes Nos 1-20 [99:24]
Mazurkas; in B minor, Op. 33 No.4 [4:38]: in C minor, Op. 56 No.3 [4:42]: in A flat major, Op.59 No.2 [2:18]; in F sharp minor, Op.59 No.3 [2:58]: in G major, Op.67 No.1 [1:04]: in B flat minor, Op.24 No.4 [3:28]
Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op.23 [8:06]
Ballade No.4 in F minor, Op.52 [10:03]
Etude in F major, Op.25 No.3 [1:47]
Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op.63 No.3 [1:37]
Jan Smeterlin (piano)
rec. June 1946 (Etude and Mazurka, Op.63/3), April 1949, BBC Recital (Mazurka and Ballade recital), 1954 (Nocturnes)
ELOQUENCE 4841308 [70:54 + 67:22]

Jan Smeterlin’s recordings were largely focused on the music of his fellow Pole, Chopin, though he stated that his musical bible comprised the Goldberg Variations and the Hammerklavier sonata. Smeterlin (1892-1967) was born Hans Schmetterling in Bielsko – the name change came in 1924 when he was already 32. Despite a good pre-war start to his career, service in the Polish cavalry had caused him health problems and he was only able to resume performance from 1920 onwards. He settled in London – his wife was a pupil of the great cellist Felix Salmond – and travelled on innumerable world tours, including regular American concert tours for three decades.

He was rather oddly served in the recording studios. He made his first discs for Polydor in 1929 (you can find an example on Marston 54001-2) but I’m not aware of any further forays until Decca recorded him in June 1946, a small series that didn’t see publication. Very fortunately a single test pressing has survived and is presented here, the Etude in F major Op.25 No.3 and the Mazurka in C sharp minor, Op.63 No.3.and reflect very well on his sense of characterisation. He recorded six sides in total at the sessions, so maybe – given that they were all of Chopin – Decca intended a recital album. I’ve written elsewhere of the vast reservoir of pianistic talent recording for Decca at around this time so it’s possible the company didn’t see much future for Smeterlin, who was now 54. It might be of significance to note that when the company recorded Chopin’s Sonata in B minor the following year, they gave it to the young Moura Lympany.

It was only in the LP era that he came to the fore, recording a Brahms sequence for RCA and a much rarer Chopin disc for Allegro. It’s a great shame he never commercially recorded Szymanowski, whose music he promoted, and of whose Symphonie Concertante he gave the London premiere with Malko in 1933 – though apparently off-air BBC broadcasts exist of some solo works. Other than all this it’s the Chopin Nocturnes that dominate the Smeterlin discography and here they are again, a mono sequence from 1954; I last saw them on Philips 438 967 2 and more recently on Forgotten Records FR161/2. Compelling, individual, and not above inverting markings, this is truly personal and endlessly provocative, consistently marvellous example of his narrative and colouristic gifts. His phrasing is melodic and courses with rubati of varied kinds but his avoidance of cheap sentiment – try Op.9 No. 2 where the music dances but skirts treacle - is a constant theme, as it is in the playfulness of Op.9 No.3. Sometimes he drives impetuously through B sections, a noticeable feature of Op.15 No.1 and Op.32 No.2 but more often his vision is vivid, life-enhancing, illuminatingly alive and affectionate, not least in the nobly wrought and beautifully voiced Op.15 No.3 or the poetic limpidity but also exuberant brio of Op.48 No.1, or in the quirky wit of Op.72 No.1. True these monos are only so-so sound-wise and nothing much can disguise the fact, nor therefore do they flatter the pianist tonally but that’s an inevitable corollary of the recording set-up. Nothing diminishes the playing.

I’ve known about the final selection for some time, as I know the collector to whom the discs belong, and he played a side for me a few years ago. This is a recording of a BBC recital given on 17 April 1949 and is, inevitably, all-Chopin. Smeterlin did record some of the mazurkas but in semi-private or murky circumstances which makes the existence of six of them, with two Ballades a subject of major interest. If one was unsympathetic enough to doubt Smeterlin’s standing from his 1954 LP, surely this recital would convert the sceptic. The sound is fine for 1949 and his idiomatic, terpsichorean affection for the Mazurkas is palpable. There is also the sense with Smeterlin of a musician performing live with unusual immediacy as he vests the Mazurkas with independent life and its own very definable character. So too with the Ballades, Nos 1 and 4. Here is a master Chopin player with a strong romantic spirit but one that remains cultivated and eloquent – his filigree in the G minor Ballade is beautiful, his bass voicings always audible.

Mark Ainley is rightly an admirer and in his booklet notes goes into useful detail regarding the pianist’s background and playing. LP jacket covers, recording sheets and a 78 label are all reproduced with clarity and – how appropriate for Smeterlin – colour. Here is a Chopinist you should on no account overlook.

Jonathan Woolf

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