Thursday, 4 October 2012

CD Reviews (The Straits Times, October 2012)

Piano Sonata No.1 / Chopin Variations
Decca 478 2938 / ****1/2

It is a testament to the indefatigability of Vladimir Ashkenazy that he continues to record on the piano while well into his seventies. Despite the afflictions of arthritis and a minor stroke that has put an end to live solo recitals, he remains active in the recording studio. In his quest to record Rachmaninov’s complete piano music, his attempts at the two longest solo works are nothing short of admirable. The Chopin Variations (Op.20) are based on Chopin’s chord-laden C minor Prélude (Op.28 No.20) and is more complex and unwieldy compared with his later Corelli Variations. Similarly, the epic First Sonata, loosely based on the Faustian legend, is almost double the length of the Second Sonata.

Despite the odds, Ashkenazy’s pacing in both works is unerring. He knows exactly how to build up the music arch-like structure to thrilling climaxes, while navigating the dynamic peaks and troughs with consummate skill. These rambling works never sound long-winded in his hands. There are moments where his scrambling fingers sound taxed to the limit, but the master is never less than in complete control. Only Boris Berezovsky’s album of the same works (released on Teldec almost 20 years ago) sounds completely effortless. Just imagine what if Ashkenazy had recorded these in his glorious prime. Ardently recommended nonetheless.

Decca 4783648 (6 CDs)/ ***1/2

This collection of Chopin’s piano works is part of a joint production by Universal Music and CD-Rama that compiles 101 tracks of music on six discs at $24.95 per set. That works out to be just under 25 cents per track, very affordable at any rate. While the Classical 101, Piano 101 and Violin 101 sets are hopelessly jumbled, there is some semblance of order in this Chopin set. The major caveat is the lack of programme or biographical notes, or even a portrait of Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) himself. The music, performed by five master pianists from the Decca-Philips catalogue, is the main draw.

Vladimir Ashkenazy is heard in fifteen Nocturnes, two Polonaises and the Second and Third Sonatas, displaying his usual elegance and fire. Claudio Arrau is superb in 14 selected Préludes, but the piecemeal approach disrupts the music’s logical flow. Of the Impromptus, Ballades (both Arrau) and Scherzos (Ashkenazy), only three out of four pieces of each set is included. These omissions to fit the timing of each disc are frustrating. Zoltan Kocsis is stylish and scintillating in the selection of Waltzes, while Nikita Magaloff’s well-nuanced 1970s recording of Mazurkas and Études still stand the test of time. In the two Piano Concertos, Jorge Bolet and the Montreal Symphony (directed by Charles Dutoit) take a very expansive view of tempos, which may feel draggy for some. This is nevertheless a serviceable showcase for Chopin.    

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