Chopin: The Piano Concertos (CD review)

Rafal Blechacz, piano; Jerzy Semkow, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.  DG 477 80888.

To begin, a couple of observations: First, DG did not record the album in front of a live audience. Count that a definite plus; maybe the record companies are doing better financially. Second, it's good to see both of Chopin's Piano Concertos on a single disc. There was a time not too long ago that we got only one or the other of the Concertos per disc. These are refreshing signs.

Polish composer Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) was only around twenty years old when he wrote his two Concertos, actually writing the Concerto we know today as No. 2 before No. 1, but not publishing them in the order he wrote them. So if Concerto No. 1 seems more mature and has become more popular, it's because it wasn't his first attempt in the genre. Anyway, the reason I mention the composer's age is because it's doubly appropriate that not only is pianist Rafal Blechacz Polish, but he's also quite young. What's more, the conductor, Jerzy Semkow, is Polish. I'm sure Chopin would have been pleased.

Blechacz may be young, but he is not youthfully overexuberant or careless. He applies a delicate, graceful, flowing touch to Chopin's dreamily contemplative themes, the performances more about nuance of feeling than about sheer technical brilliance. Although, to be sure, Blechacz appears to possess a good deal of virtuosity as well.

These are largely gentle readings, even though Blechacz treats the opening movements with lavish joy and the closing movements' liltingly dance-like rhythms with verve. However good they are, though, it is the middle Larghettos that Blechacz sees as the core of the works, and not only does he present them lovingly and poetically, he blends their lyrical tone nicely with the more-vigorous surrounding movements. This may seem surprising, especially since Chopin marked the final sections Vivace ("very quick, lively"), but Blechacz is able to do just as Chopin requested while maintaining the rhapsodic mood of the center movements. He is always aware of the nostalgic, sentimental Romanticism at the heart of the Concertos. Of course, it also helps that the pianist, conductor, and orchestra play as one to accomplish their goal, and they pull it off nicely.

DG pull off the sonics nicely as well. The orchestra is the Concertgebouw, whose wonderful hall has always produced some of the most-glorious acoustic effects possible, giving the ensemble a warm, glowing, but never overpowering ambient bloom. In this 2009 recording the audio engineers manage to create a big, full, smooth, dynamic sound, with moderate transparency and good punch. More important, they reproduce a beautifully rich, solid, and vibrant piano sound, a mite close perhaps, but very lifelike.

Maybe young Blechacz's new recording does not entirely displace some established favorites in the First Concerto from the likes of Pollini (EMI), Argerich (EMI), Rubinstein (RCA), or Li (DG), but surely he deserves mention as an entirely viable alternative.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa