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Mazurkas (Intégrale /Vol.1)
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Garrick Ohlsson, piano
Not only does he catch the rhythm, but his feel for nuance and colour misses no element of Chopin s infinite imagination, and the balance of earthiness and elegance is well-nigh ideal --BBC Music Magazine
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NB: le volume 2 se trouve ici: Mazurkas (Intégrale /Vol.2).
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I know there are nearly as many 'Mazurka' doubters as Chopin lovers out there. They cannot be faulted, though, and nor can the pianists. Chopin's 57 or so Mazurkas are not like caviar or red wine (both of which I, by the way, seem unable to acquire a taste for regardless of exposure) but more like the Rubik's Cube: unless provided with a key (algorithm), one can try until time ends but still not get anywhere. I am sure there are more than one key to Chopin's Mazurkas--other pianists have indeed offered highly successful compilations of a handful of them, above all Moravec, Anderszewski, Kissin and likely some other pianists I am unaware of; but as of yet, I do not believe that Ohlsson has any rival in being able to offer an algorithm, which brings out so much beauty and originality that one grows eager to sit through the complete set all at once, repeatedly. Ohlsson's secret recipe, in my view, is his ability to distinguish the individual pieces from one another--indeed, they tend to sound a bit like 57 variations on a Mazurka theme in the hands of Biret, Rubinstein and even Ashkenazy--which he does by employing a perfectly balanced set of bold rubato, pungent accents, gorgeous bel-canto tone, refined phrasing and a sixth sense for the peculiar Mazurka 3/4 rhythm.
This is still not to say that all the 57 Mazurkas are masterpieces; some are indeed fairly trivial musically--such as Op 6/3-4, Op 7/4-5, Op 24/3, on this disc. Nonetheless, the great ones do constitute some of the most darkly nostalgic, harmonically and melodically rich pieces not only in the Chopin oeuvre but in the entire piano repertoire! It goes without saying this statement is likely to encounter fierce criticism from several quarters; hence, some evidence will be needed:
Most of the great Mazurkas happen to be noted in the keys of A minor and C-sharp minor, even if my two personal favourites are in B minor and B major, respectively (Op 33/4, Op 56/1); Frank Cooper's original liner notes state that Chopin taught the former as a ballade, 'stressing its narrative quality'. Already in Op 7/2 and Op 17/4, we find two A-minor pieces whose remarkably progressive chromaticism precedes Tristan und Isolde by nearly three decades (the latter has been put forward by some scholars as Chopin's greatest miniature together with the Op 27/1 Nocturne). With Op 30/4 and Op 41/4 in C-sharp minor, the rudimentary Polish dance form is transformed into full-scale concert pieces. Then there are four little gems just over two minutes in E minor (Op 17/2), C minor (Op 30/1), G-sharp minor (Op 33/1) and E minor (Op 41/1)--each abounding in wistful beauty.
As much as I am addicted to the sound of Ohlsson's Bösendorfer Grand, used in the lion's share of his complete survey, the rebuilt Mason & Hamlin piano does produce marvellously colourful sonorities--if here caught somewhat too closely by Adam Abeshouse.
Should I ever end up on that infamous desert island, and had the opportunity to bring my complete top-10 shortlist of great recordings, the original Arabesque twofer would doubtlessly by included. Since it has been unavailable for several years now, this Helios reissue of the first disc serves as the perfect second-best--being slightly preferable to the second disc as it contains the very zenith of the Mazurkas genre in the shape of Opp 30, 33 and 41. At Helios budget price (less than £5 on UK sites), no genuine lover of Chopin's music should afford to miss this disc. Next out is the second volume of the complete Mazurkas (Helios CDH55392).
REFERENCE: This One (by a wide margin!)
Ohlsson's ease of negotiating the technical challenges, overtaking them by simply soaring above the notes and fondling the keys, along with a poetic sense of melody and harmony in searching for the true mood of mazurkas, have led him straightforwardly to a seductive account that can be considered as a genuine benchmark of the Chopin recorded catalogue.
It does not lack for contrasts, as I am sure you will have understood without my saying, but this is not playing with much of a feminine side. The really powerful touches are reserved for some of the more mature numbers, but I was also made aware of the development of the master's style from the early works with opus-numbers in single digits to the formidable and fully developed Chopin of op 30 and thereabouts, by which time he had published not only the preludes but both books of etudes. This first volume of Ohlsson's mazurkas follows the opus-number sequence for the first 29 works of the 57 making up the entire 2-disc release. There is an interesting liner note explaining exactly what mazurkas are, and it appears that the term is not precise, but refers to a variety of Polish folk-dances, although located around a certain area in the Warsaw vicinity. I give Ohlsson high marks for keeping the sense of a dance all the way through. The idiom varies not a little, and although I was delighted as I always am by the gorgeous clodhopping D major number, op 33/2, may I direct the attention of anyone reading this notice to the incomparable performance by Horowitz who takes a slower tempo with marvellous effect.
Chopin gained such phenomenal popularity from such an early stage that in the days before recording someone was driven to suggesting that his works should be banned for a certain period. Recording has evened matters out and this desperate panic-measure is thankfully not needed, but I wonder whether the mazurkas are actually the least well-known side of Chopin's output. There are 57 acknowledged numbers plus 5 more that appear to be of questionable authenticity, and he did not compose 57 or anywhere near 57 examples of anything else. We know what a burning and intense Polish patriot he was, he was composing mazurkas from his earliest years to his last months, but somehow I for one have been missing out on them for many years. The main phase of my Chopin-collecting was nearly half a century ago, and it was mainly Rubinstein. It has built up since then, and featured a variety of interpreters, but I'm conscious that until now I have carried all Chopin's important works (i.e. other than songs and the first piano sonata) in my head for years - except the mazurkas and the nocturnes. Now in his bicentenary year at least I can rectify this frightful deficiency, and I am grateful to Ohlsson for bringing me all the mazurkas, in two goes and in fine accounts. I am nearly grateful enough to award him 5 stars, but in fact my ignorance of the mazurkas was not total. There are 10 of them that I have known very well indeed for a very long time indeed, and the playing utterly eclipses Ohlsson. You can find them on a Chopin recital disc by Michelangeli.
Four of Michelangeli's 10 parallel Ohlsson's selection on this first disc. The significant difference is not some matter of stylistic grasp, and if I may I shall sidestep the interminable argument about how to apply tempo rubato in Chopin, a dispute that arises with particular vehemence when it comes to the mazurkas. It is a matter of sheer quality in the piano playing, and although the recorded sound may influence the issue to some extent, I'm quite sure it's not the main or determining factor. It's just Ohlsson's bad luck to that extent that he has come up against quite possibly the greatest executant of the piano who has ever lived.
I just mentioned recording. The sound here is fine basically, as one would hope from a recital committed to disc first in 1998 in New York. A major lacuna in my Chopin collection has been filled in, and I am duly appreciative. This disc and its companion are thoroughly recommendable, but they are not the be-all of Chopin interpretation still less the end-all of playing the piano.