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Frédéric François CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Shaping Chopin

Waltzes, Mazurkas and Nocturnes
Anna Fedorova (piano)
rec. July 2020, Muziekgebouw, Eindhoven, Netherlands
Download of the DSD256 (11.289MHz) surround (5.0 channels) file from Native DSD

With an album entitled “Shaping Chopin”, one would certainly hope that there’s no misshaping evident in the playing, and, fortunately, Anna Fedorova is a reliable guide to the music, almost never leading us astray.

With the Leeds Competition and the Warsaw Chopin Competition both occurring this year, I’m reminded of how eagerly I’ve sometimes followed the progress of various competitors in previous competitions, often in real time, as they travel via “the competition route” to try to make their careers in music. Based on what I’d seen of Anna Fedorova’s competition performances, I’ve been favorably disposed to her playing. And yet, in the really prestigious competitions, she never got as far as I thought she might. I’m thinking in particular of the 2010 Warsaw Chopin Competition where, if I remember correctly, she did not get to the third round. Of course, that competition took place a long time ago in the world of piano careers, and Fedorova has matured as an artist in the meantime. I was happy when she signed a contract with Channel Classics a few years ago, especially since that company’s audiophile attainments assure its artists of a superior presentation of their playing.

Perhaps the only trouble with making recordings with an audiophile operation, such as Channel Classics, is the tendency of some listeners to focus occasionally on the sound, rather than the music. I’ll admit that, because of the superlative nature of the sound quality, I was caught in this temptation with this very album, as I was so thrilled with how the engineers seemed to be capturing the most minute nuances, that I kept increasing my listening level in order to find the very limit of what they could capture in Fedorova’s playing. However, what I didn’t realize was that, as I increased the level (beyond what’s normal for me), I was, in a strange way, also changing the nature of the performances themselves.

When I had the level set higher than usual, Fedorova’s playing struck me as overwrought, over inflected, heavy, and even unnatural, as if she were trying too hard to be expressive. It was only the third or fourth time around that I experimented with dropping the playback level back down to what sounds normal in my room. What a transformation! At the reduced level, the playing regained its subtlety, and the nuances were exactly that — not overdone volume shifts. I’ve certainly made a note of this for future reference, so as not to get trapped getting a mistaken impression of the playing, just because I’d set the volume higher than it should be.

With the volume set optimally, so much of the playing now sounds light on its fingers, even when the tempo is restrained. I’m thinking in particular of the A-flat major Waltz, Op. 42 (the one which begins with the long trill and then splits the hands with the right hand having a double-count division within each bar — in effect, two triplets per bar — while the left hand maintains a strict triple-count division as one would expect in a normal waltz). This main theme begins in bar 9, and Chopin marks it leggiero. Fedorova takes a somewhat moderate tempo, and brings out the melody (the first note of each “triplet” in the right hand) beautifully, with no interference from the rest of the texture. At bar 41 however, Chopin abandons the double accentuation in the right hand and allows it to scamper up and down the keyboard over the distance of more than a couple of octaves in a bit more of a technical challenge. Here, Fedorova ups the tempo a bit and provides some bracing contrast with her main tempo. Even though Chopin does not indicate a tempo change at this point, what Fedorova does here is very effective indeed. And even though Fedorova is flying during these sections, she still has enough in reserve to make the requisite accelerando at the end. Well done!

Another spot that made me sit up and take notice is the very opening of the C-sharp minor Mazurka. The combination of the Channel Classics engineering and Fedorova’s patrician touch makes that single G-sharp which opens the piece one of the most beguiling single notes I’ve ever heard on a piano recording! Especially when heard via the multichannel tracks, the note just floats in space as if from a real piano, divorced from particular speaker sources. It heralds a rendition wherein the pianist’s superb control of nuance and textural balance evoke the veiled beauties and evanescent subtlety which we become aware of only in the most exceptional performances. Certainly, Fedorova’s highly nuanced interpretation is not the only one possible with this music, and I reacquainted myself with a couple of other performances of this work which I’ve loved over the years. These performances were more straightforward, but also a touch more workmanlike, compared to Fedorova’s outstanding realization.

Interpretation being somewhat subjective, I have to report that there were some aspects to the playing which I didn’t find quite as convincing. For instance, in the F-major Waltz, Op. 34 No. 3, the rhythm of the opening bars (well, bars 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8) degenerates a bit into a duplet division, rather than maintaining a strict 3/4 time. Far be it from me to tell Fedorova how to play this work, but it seems that, in her to quest to present the articulation cleanly, she plays the eighth note in each of these bars too soon and slightly too slowly, and then does not get off the quarter note on the third beat quickly enough, with the resulting susceptibility toward that duplet division I mentioned. She’s of course not the only musician to do this, and in fact you hear this same kind of rhythmic distortion surprisingly often in performances of the similar motive in the first movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

In the popular Fantasy-Impromptu, Fedorova’s tempo allows for the whirlwind of the right-hand’s figuration to escape the gravity which holds back more note-bound interpretations. At the same time however, I would have liked to hear more clarity in the left hand. Of course, the left hand is the subsidiary part here, but it’s still possible to keep its figuration clear while yet subduing it, and, to my mind, this kind of clarity would certainly have enhanced the performance.

By the way, there’s a mistake in the listing, both in the booklet and in the meta information for the track: the key of the Third Waltz of Op. 64 is shown as A-flat minor. It is, of course, A-flat major, as in the listing of this review.

Despite the couple of quibbles I have with some of the playing, my dominating impression of this recital is of Fedorova’s wonderful command of her tonal resources, a command which, for the most part, overshadows the complaints I’ve voiced.

Chris Salocks

Grande Valse Brillante in E-flat major, Op. 18 [5:43]
Two Nocturnes, Op. 27:
    No. 1 in C-sharp minor [5:16]
    No. 2 in D-flat major [6:11]
Three Waltzes, Op. 34:
    No. 1 in A-flat major [6:12]
    No. 2 in A minor [5:44]
    No. 3 in F major [2:43]
Waltz in A-flat major, Op. 42 [4:19]
Three Mazurkas, Op. 50:
    No. 1 in G major [2:40]
    No. 2 in A-flat major [3:32]
    No. 3 in C-sharp minor [5:29]
Three Waltzes, Op. 64:
    No. 1 in D-flat major [2:09]
    No. 2 in C-sharp minor [4:18]
    No. 3 in A-flat major [3:09]
Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66 [5:12]

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