I told a young Polish assistant at the gig the other night, “It’s nice that your airport is named after a great composer instead of a politician.”
She shrugged. “I like Mozart better. Chopin is too romantic.”
I used to feel that way, too. But almost any pianist who becomes interested in canonical classical music eventually finds their way to understanding Chopin. Every page sounds well on the instrument. It’s all instantly memorizable. Many works are the apotheosis of folkloric dance, while just as many are a provocative balance between curved melody and inventive figuration. In some of the big pieces, Chopin rivals any of his contemporaries for generating fantastical appropriations of older large-scale forms. His Études remain the most poetic technical studies ever written. It all fits the hand, yet of course much of his work is terribly difficult to master.
Wandering around old town before the gig, I found the music store SAWART, ul.Moliera 8. Some terrible kitsch
was offset by autograph scores of the complete works, a high-end product usually only found in university libraries.
I bought a couple of Chopin records by pianists I wouldn’t expect to find in American stores. Unfortunately they were uninteresting, with manufactured rubato and labored phrasing. I left them in the hotel room.
In general, I worry about modern Chopin performance. There must be as much room on the bench for the player as the composer. The oxymoronic phrase “conservatory romanticism” should be banned from all teaching and ideologies.
My heart lies with the pre-WWII pianists. They treated Chopin like a great jazz musician treats the blues or rhythm changes: “How do I feel about this Ballade today?”
It is telling that a recent Limelight poll of the greatest classical pianists of all time (more interesting than usual, since it was made by by fellow professionals) left off Josef Hofmann and Ignaz Friedman. Only Alfred Cortot represents the “old school” Chopin; the rest are mid-century favorites or sober Germans. A great composer is safely chosen for the number one slot -- but not everyone thinks Rachmaninoff was comfortable in Chopin.
This reflects current taste. I can think of many modern pianists I’d love to go see play Bach, Beethoven, and Schubert. For that matter, French transparency, Russian virtuosity and contemporary music are also doing well. But I can hardly think of anyone that is a “must see” these days for Chopin, where vulnerability must marry the quotidian in an improvisatory reverie.
Perhaps I’m out of touch: most of my deep Chopin listening was done well over a decade ago. There are legions of talented pianists everywhere, and I’ve surely missed some recent arrivals. Naturally, I admire the polished musicianship and technical skill displayed on modern Chopin records by Louis Lortie, Garrick Ohlsson, Krystian Zimerman, Mikhail Pletnev, Nikolai Lugansky, Mitsuko Uchida, Evgeny Kissin, Yundi Li, Stephen Hough, and other serious musicians.
But, just for fun, here’s an approximately chronological list of ten pianists that have given me truly exceptional pleasure in Chopin. I claim little originality; among my influences are the writings of Harold Schoenberg, David Dubal, Allan Evans, Jeremy Nicholas, Jed Distler, and others. The valuable liner notes of the Marston box A Century of Romantic Chopin by Gregor Benko and Frank Cooper are found here.
Josef Hofmann. When I listen to Art Tatum, I shake my head. It just seems impossible. Hofmann creates the same effect in classical music. The hand merges imperceptibly with the mechanism. Chopin has the most space in Hofmann’s small discography, and every performance is astonishing. There are perfect miniatures in the studio (his A-Flat Impromptu has ruined all others for me) and epic, risky battles for grand audiences (the G minor and F minor Ballades).
Ignaz Friedman. He’s more like Jelly Roll Morton, a great dance pianist and noisy thumper. When he’s not bouncing around -- a handful of Mazurkas are immortal, and the lesser-known B-flat Polonaise must be definitive -- his singing tone is golden, like in a famous performance of the late E-flat Nocturne. A technical wizard, he set the bar for a few Études. Some of the other tracks can be disappointing, like a ludicrous F-sharp Impromptu. Who cares? His style is unforgettable.
Alfred Cortot. I’ve gone back and forth on Cortot. Ultimately I rank him after Hofmann and Friedman, but he unquestionably has something, especially in smaller and simpler pieces when his hands are completely out-of-sync with each other. The Preludes suit Cortot especially well. An important part of his tonal magic comes from his distinctive Pleyel, which sounds closer to Chopin’s own instrument than modern pianos.
Before I move on to the mid-century greats: Some of the other early wax cylinder artists with an intimate relationship to Chopin include Moritz Rosenthal, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Raoul Koczalski, Vladimir De Pachmann, Emil Von Sauer, and especially Ignacy Jan Paderewski. (I was just listening to Paderewski’s C-sharp minor waltz on YouTube, a magnificent performance.) If were to play Chopin myself, I’d study up on all of these musicians, all of whom were connected to 19th-century traditions, yet none of whom played in the same way.
Vladimir Horowitz. Some of his Chopin is rather shrill. Even though he was famous for playing it, I don’t really like his “Heroic” Polonaise. Better is a nerve-wracking Polonaise Fantasy or a nasty B minor Scherzo, both featuring the kind of “growling” sonority that only this pianist could achieve. In the coda of the Scherzo, Horowitz re-scores the unison chromatic scales into interlocking octaves, a sensible flourish that would be frowned upon today. Careful listening shows subtle re-scoring in his first recording of the G Minor Ballade, as well. An extraordinary performance, this may be my favorite rendition of the most famous Ballade.
(Admittedly, the drama of the G Minor Ballade is so natural that it remains compelling even in the hands of amateurs. I compared many professional versions at one point: early Emil Gilels, live Sviatoslav Richter, Jorge Bolet, Gary Graffman, Robert Casadesus, Samson François, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Claudio Arrau, early Maurizio Pollini, others. Everyone had something to say.)
The pre-LP era Horowitz is better then what came later, but some 60’s studio miniatures are terrific, especially the “Cello” Étude from op. 25, still the best I’ve heard. The Mazurkas on the Horowitz in Moscow video are sensational. They called him “the last romantic,” and it’s true; no one plays like this anymore.
Artur Rubinstein. For several generations, Rubinstein was the pianist most identified with Chopin. At one time his Ballades were not virtuosic enough for me, but now I hear the wisdom accumulated through thousands of live performances. Try the earliest records of Scherzi and Concerti to hear a born virtuoso. Most of his other Chopin records are fabulous as well, especially in smaller forms.
But seeing Rubinstein on video is even more extraordinary than hearing the records: the confidence, the passion, and yes, the casualness. After all, it’s not scaling the heights to play a Nocturne, Mazurka, or Waltz. It’s pouring an excellent table wine in charming company. A rare Russian television performance of the Barcarolle is as good as it gets.
Rudolf Serkin. Along with Horowitz and Rubinstein, Serkin was part of “the big three” of mid-century America. He never recorded Chopin in the studio, and frankly it’s impossible to imagine Serkin playing much of the more sentimental or Polish Chopin. But a live version of the Op. 25 Études (from the bonus disc included in his biography, also on YouTube) has to be heard to be believed. These are some of the fastest and loudest versions of several fingerbusters, but retain an Old World charm. (Grigory Sokolov also has a wonderful live op. 25.)
Vladimir Ashkenazy. Ashkenazy was a harbinger of today’s “conservatory romanticism.” He makes this list partly because an inexpensive bootleg recital boasting a wicked Op. 10 no. 1 Étude and a magisterial “Heroic” Polonaise was an early addition to my first tiny record collection. A YouTube from that era documents a similar performance.
Indeed, Ashkenazy’s first serving of the Études is still the best overall version I’ve heard: clear, poetic, and thankfully lacking the occasionally distracting “iciness” of some other professional post-1960 sets.
(Charlie Haden’s favorite piece of Chopin is the Étude no. 6 from Op. 10 in E-flat minor. He plays the Pollini recording for students. Pollini is excellent, of course, but for whatever it’s worth, I have never heard a performance of this Étude that I thought was truly superlative. At one point, I compared about two dozen recordings, and thought they all lacked something or other.)
Martha Argerich. Now, if Argerich were programming Chopin these days, I’d do anything to get a ticket. Unfortunately, the great virtuoso rarely plays solo recitals anymore. Still, DG accounts of Chopin Sonatas, Preludes, Concertos and a few precious Mazurkas from 40 years ago are on anybody’s list of essential Chopin recordings. I don’t even really like the E minor Concerto, but her performance makes me a believer. Likewise, a heated collaboration with Rostropovich on the Cello Sonata transforms an inessential work into an erotic experience.
Earl Wild. At his 80th birthday recital, Wild was a superb swashbuckler in the Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante. The coda to this piece of fluff raised us to our feet. At his 90th birthday recital, the hoary C-sharp minor Fantasie-Impromptu had perfect, Hofmann-level jeu perle.
Sadly, I’ve never really enjoyed Wild’s Chopin on record. How many other pianists have tightened up and not been able to really express themselves in the studio, knowing that both critics and students would be judging them against the printed score as soon as the record was released?
Marc-André Hamelin. I’m a major fan, as my interview attests. Naturally, Hamelin’s recent disc of the Sonatas, Nocturnes, the Berceuse and the Barcarolle is excellent, with secure structural control and unforced rubato.
(To be fair to contemporary pianists, the Sonatas are probably played better now than they used to be in general. For example -- although some swear by it -- I don’t find Rachmaninoff’s version of the B-flat minor compelling. Certain other “serious” works like the F Minor Fantasy are also more appropriate for the modern style.)
But ultimately, I’d rather listen to Hamelin play Godowsky’s 53 Studies of Chopin Études on one of the greatest piano records ever made. The best of the studies create a unique feeling: seemingly sunk into distant memory, while simultaneously arriving from the future. Perhaps after these Godowsky transcriptions are truly accepted as legitimate by all pianists everywhere, there will be room to go back to the original Chopin with less reverence and more immediacy.