The Essential Recordings

October 17, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Any attempt to single out the greatest recorded performances of Frederic Chopin's works is made impossible by the music's minute-to-minute sense of improvisation and spontaneity, and by the utterly fathomless depths of ambiguity Chopin built into all his great works. Thus, the five performances listed below (all made at least 35 years ago, thereby eliminating painful choices among today's greatest Chopin interpreters: Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman and Evgeny Kissin) are not, in any sense, "the greatest," but surely deserve to be called "great."

Ignaz Friedman plays the Nocturne in E-flat (Opus 55, No. 2):

The 2-CD set devoted to him in Philips' "Great Pianists" series (456 784-2) collects almost all the Chopin Friedman (1882-1948) recorded. Although not as well-remembered as some of his contemporaries, Friedman matches the stupendous virtuosity of Josef Lhevinne in the G-sharp Minor etude ("in thirds") and the A-flat polonaise ("Heroic"), performs the Ballade in A-flat more persuasively than Rachmaninov does, and surpasses the latter again in his uncanny mastery of the Funeral March and Finale of the B-flat Minor Sonata. But the piece de resistance in this collection is Friedman's recording of the composer's late E-flat nocturne -- simply the greatest recording ever made of a Chopin nocturne.

Dinu Lipatti performs the B Minor Sonata (Opus 58) and Barcarolle in F-sharp Major (Opus 60):

In a career prematurely and tragically shortened by cancer, the recordings of Dinu Lipatti (1917-1950) enjoy a special status. Even if these works of Chopin were the only works he ever recorded, they would justify Lipatti's inclusion on the short list of interpretive geniuses. His version of the Barcarolle gives one a vision of a higher world; the same is true of the B Minor Sonata, one of the greatest examples of piano playing on records (EMI CZS 7671632).

Vladimir Horowitz and the Polonaise-Fantasy (Opus 61):

This work was seldom played in public until the late 1920s, when Horowitz revealed it as a work representing Chopin at his absolute peak as a composer. The Polonaise-Fantasy seems to have been written with Horowitz in mind. With his tone, which was unique in its knife-edged definition, and his equally distinct phrasing, which moved from the gently intimate to the explosive and from great ease to enormous tension, Horowitz was the predestined interpreter of this work. The greatest of several Horowitz recorded performances is the live one from a 1951 Carnegie Hall recital (on BMG Classics 09026-60987-2).

Vladimir Ashkenazy's first recording of the 24 etudes:

If the 48 preludes and fugues that make up Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" are the pianist's Bible, then the Etudes of Chopin are his New Testament. The etudes explore every aspect of piano technique, with each one posing a specific technical problem. Each is a musical world unto itself -- cunningly worked, wonderfully tooled and imaginatively conceived. It takes a Protean pianist to tackle the Chopin Etudes, with their diversity of mood and variety of technical problems. And no such pianist had attempted to record them all -- at least not until 1960 when the 22-year-old Vladimir Ashkenazy completed the task. It was not long before copies of his Soviet-made recording began to filter out into the West, announcing a breathtaking talent with an equally miraculous mechanism. The degree of articulation, the elegance and refinement with which the young Russian scaled the pianist's Everest for the first time have never been matched (BMG Classics has reissued it on Melodiya 74321 33215-2).

Arthur Rubinstein's legendary all-Chopin recital in Moscow on Oct. 1, 1964:

Rubinstein recorded the B-Flat Minor ("Funeral March") Sonata, F-Sharp Minor Polonaise and Barcarolle commercially several times. But none of those recordings capture the pianist's grand manner, daring and velvet tone quite as successfully as this disc (Russian Revelation RV10013) does. The great Rubinstein has a memory slip in the scherzo of the "Funeral March" Sonata, but the sheer chutzpah with which he brazens his way out of it demonstrates his extraordinary charisma better than any of his note-perfect studio performances.

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