Chopin: The Complete Preludes (CD review)

Vanessa Perez, piano. Telarc TEL-33388-02.

I was not familiar with Venezuelan-American pianist Vanessa Perez until I heard this Telarc recording of Chopin's complete Preludes. From these accounts, she certainly appears to be a pianist from whom we will be hearing much in the future.

Ms. Perez says, "The idea of recording all the Chopin Preludes came to me one night as I was playing them at home this past January. Chopin brings me back to my childhood [in Venezuela]. It connects me to every possible emotion, and to so many memories. It is music I have always loved, and that reminds me how truly blessed I am to be a pianist." Fair enough.

So, what are these Preludes of Polish pianist and composer Frederic Chopin (1810-1849), and why did he call them Preludes? "Preludes" to what? In musical terms, a prelude might be any of several things: It might be a piece that precedes a more important work or movement; it might be the overture to an opera; it might be a wholly independent piece, usually of modest length, used to introduce a fugue or a suite; or it might be any music that opens or introduces a church service. But in Chopin's case, I think his Preludes are simply short, self-contained little piano pieces that kind of resemble improvisations but are, of course, well constructed, if a little rambling. My Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music describes Chopin's Preludes as "pianistic character pieces...each usually based on a short figure or motif."

Well constructed, rambling, lacking or not lacking in formal thematic development, Chopin's twenty-four Preludes, Op. 28, which he completed in 1839, allow for a good deal of interpretation, which is why we have gotten so many different performances of them over the years from piano giants like Argerich, Arrau, Ashkenazy, Barenboim, de Larrocha, Eschenbach, Kissin, Perahia, Pollini (still my favorites), Rubinstein, and many others. From what I hear on the present disc, Ms. Perez can safely take her place among them.

Ms. Perez plays with a deft, gentle touch, capturing the subtle nuances of Chopin's music with care, feeling, respect, devotion, and love. I enjoyed the way she takes her time with the music, never hurrying it, never over dramatizing it, never over emphasizing anything unnecessarily but letting it speak for itself in smooth, delicate tones. While it may, perhaps, seem to miss some of the brawn and bravura of a few competing recordings, I've never thought of Chopin's music as anything but serene and contemplative, just as Ms. Perez presents it. It might also be easy for critics to characterize Ms. Perez's playing as somewhat sentimental, but I don't see it that way. It never sounds romanticized, just affectionately performed.

Even the quicker items, like the No. 3 Vivace in G major and the No. 11 Vivace in E major, sound poetically graceful in Ms. Perez's hands. Moreover, the most famous of the Preludes--No. 7, for instance, the little Andantino in A major, and No. 15, the popular Sostenuto in D-flat major "Raindrop"--get exquisite treatment.

Ms. Perez has the distinction, too, of making the twenty-four Preludes sound almost of a piece rather than a disparate group of separate items. Under her guidance, they ebb and flow as a unified whole, giving the illusion of a single continuous work.

Filling out the disc are four additional selections: the Prelude in C-sharp major, Op. 45; the Prelude No. 26 in A-flat major (posth.); the Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60; and the Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49. Needless to say, Ms. Perez applies the same careful, dexterous, illuminating style to them as she does to the Op. 28 Preludes.

Ms. Perez performed the works on a Hamburg Steinway CD147 piano, which Telarc recorded at Patrych Sound Studios, Bronx, New York, and released in 2012. The piano sounds beautifully balanced, not too close, not too distant, not too bright, not too soft. It projects a sweet, mellow, lightly resonant sound that nicely complements the meditative nature of the music.


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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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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