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.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa