Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Fantasia on Polish Airs, Op. 13 and Krakowiak (Grand Rondeau de Concert). Eldar Nebolsin, piano; Antoni Wit, Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. Naxos 8.572335.

For practically as long as I can remember I've loved the Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11, by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). Not that I think it's the greatest music in the world, just among my favorite. Chopin was primarily a pianist and composer for the piano, so most of what he wrote was for solo piano. The orchestral accompaniment he provided for his two piano concertos can at times seem almost like an afterthought. No matter, with melodies so lovely and memorable.

Perhaps, then, you can understand my bias in liking almost every recording of the Concerto that comes along, including this new one from pianist Eldar Nebolsin on Naxos. Not that it comes near to displacing my two absolute favorites, however: Pollini (EMI) and Argerich (EMI), or the several recordings in my collection from Rubinstein (RCA), Vasary (DG), and a newer one from Li (DG).

Chopin wrote the Piano Concerto No. 1 within a year following his Piano Concerto No. 2 but published No. 1 first. So if No. 1 seems the more mature of the two, well, by a few months it actually is. Chopin described the second movement of No. 1 as "reviving in one's soul beautiful memories."  In Chopin's case, he composed the piece when he was about nineteen or so and smitten at the time with a beautiful young student, Constantia Gladkowska, at the Warsaw Conservatory. Although he barely talked to her and she soon married somebody else, he probably had her in mind when he wrote both of his piano concertos, as well as a few other works.

Of course, the piano parts dominate both piano concertos, the better to showcase Chopin's virtuosity with the instrument. Yet with the Piano Concerto No. 1, the piano doesn't even enter the picture until after a fairly lengthy orchestral introduction. Go figure. Maybe the composer intended the prolonged preamble to make the piano's entrance all the more grand. It certainly works that way. Anyhow, Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic open big but not as dramatically as some conductors and orchestras do. Whatever, it sets a tone for the intimacy to follow in the main theme. Then Nebolsin enters about five minutes in and dominates the rest of the show.

Nebolsin can be quite extrovert one moment and quietly introspective the next. Still, I rather missed some of the lyricism I've found in the interpretations of the aforementioned artists. Maybe it's partly the fault of the slightly billowy acoustic of the recording, but there isn't always the hauntingly ethereal quality to the first movement that other pianists have produced. Nevertheless, Nebolsin does create more tension and sheer excitement than most others invoke, which in part makes up for any lack of poetry elsewhere.

Nebolsin actually seems more at home in the Romanza, where he caresses the keyboard lovingly. However, even here he seems a tad more interested in getting through to the end than in generating any feeling of delicacy in the music. Finally, Chopin appears to have added the last movement just to round out the piece, and it doesn't really contain his best work. It's a zippy little Rondo that at least Nebolsin and Wit have fun with.

Coupled with the Piano Concerto we find Chopin's Fantasia on Polish Airs, Op. 13, which the composer wrote while he was still in school. It's in four short movements and, while generally charming, doesn't amount to much. The second movement Air is probably its most-delightful component, and Nebolsin makes the most of it.

The program concludes with Krakowiak, Chopin's Grand Rondeau de Concert, another of the composer's early works for piano and orchestra that shows moments of brilliance. Certainly, it makes an appropriate teammate to Chopin's other early orchestral works with piano.

The disc's sound is typical of most new Naxos releases, this one recorded in September, 2009, at the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, Warsaw, Poland. We get a wide, warm, smooth image, somewhat soft and veiled, with the orchestral parts melding nicely but not revealing individual instruments so well. Except the piano, of course, which is considerably out front and center, appearing too large-scale for its accompaniment. Yet the piano sound is quite fetching, very natural and realistic in tone.


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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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa