Chopin: Ballades, Impromptus, Preludes & Nocturnes (CD review)

Yuan Sheng, piano. Piano Classics PCL0049 (3-disc set).

Because Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) was one of the world’s great writers and exponents of classical piano music, the listener will find a plethora of great recordings of his work. So any newcomer had better have something fresh and original to offer in order to compete with the likes of Maurizio Pollini, Arthur Rubinstein, Murray Perahia, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Krystian Zimerman, Tamas Vasary, Claudio Arrau, Van Cliburn, Vladimir Horowitz, Idil Biret, Daniel Barenboim, Garrick Ohlsson, Jorge Bolet, Earl Wild, and the like. But pianist Yuan Sheng and record company Piano Classics give it a decent shot.

Why? Four solid reasons, actually: First, Sheng is a consummate pianist and puts on a most-accomplished and most-entertaining show. Second, Sheng consulted the Polish National Edition of Works by Freyderyk Chopin, edited by Jan Ekier, “in which many authentic yet never before published variants of passages in various compositions came to the public’s attention for the first time,” Sheng adopting the variants whenever possible. Third, Sheng studied the oldest possible recordings of Chopin’s music, recordings dating back to the late nineteenth century when the recording artists were still in direct contact with the composer, and learned from their performances.  Fourth, Sheng plays the music on an original Pleyel grand piano built in 1845 and currently a part of the Frederick Historical Piano Collection in Ashburnham, Massachusetts. Chopin himself favored Pleyel pianos, saying “Pleyel’s pianos are the last word in perfection.” Whether Chopin played this particular piano I don’t know, but what is a matter of historical record is that Chopin owned a Pleyel of this same kind, which he used in his Paris home during his later life. And fifth, the sound quality Piano Classics obtained is quite good.

So what we’ve got here is a set of well-played, historically informed, nicely recorded Chopin piano pieces that bear comparison to the best in the catalogue.

Although I have to admit that Chopin’s four Ballades and four Impromptus on disc one are not among my absolute favorite of the composer’s tunes, they are certainly among Chopin’s more virtuosic and innovative pieces. As important, Sheng handles them with ease. Sheng is a sensitive pianist yet one who can work up a good head of steam, too. So, we get dreamy, ethereal sequences of supreme expression juxtaposed with melodramatic sections of great vigor. These works also give us our first chance to hear the Pleyel piano, which sounds slightly less rich than a modern piano while providing a wonderful attack, mellowness, resonance, and clarity, the acoustic venue further flattering the intimacy of the response.

Among the Ballades, No. 3 stands out for Sheng’s sensible, balanced approach to the famous main melody and No. 4 for its cozy, flowing gait. Among the Impromptus, No. 4 demonstrates Sheng’s ability to make even so familiar a tune shine anew; the piece practically glows, it’s so lovely.

The music on discs two and three is even more to my liking, Chopin’s twenty-four Preludes and twenty of his twenty-one Nocturnes, beautifully executed. Although the Preludes are very brief pieces, lasting no more than a minute or two each, Sheng brings a remarkable individuality to each of them. Then we come to the most-sublime, most-Romantic Chopin of all--the Nocturnes, eight of them on disc two and the remainder on disc three. Sheng plays them with a delicacy worthy of a Pollini, taking great care not to sentimentalize them, soften them, or make them sound too melancholy. The Nocturnes Nos. 2 in Opuses 9, 15, 27, and 32 come off as charmingly as anyone has played them, for all the straightforward manner Sheng brings to them, as well as Nos. 1 and 2, Op. 62.

If there’s any minor concern about the set, it that’s it might be too much of a good thing. With three full discs of Chopin piano music, it may be more than some potential buyers want to have. I wonder if it might not have been an idea for Piano Classics to have offered each of the three discs separately or even as a single disc and a two-disc set, perhaps in addition to the three-disc set? Not everyone has the money for a big multi-disc collection, no matter how reasonably priced, nor the interest in all of the music. As I say, a minor issue.

Anyway, recording engineer Christopher Greenleaf, the official recording engineer for the Historical Piano Concerts Series, made the music at a near-ideal venue for this type of affair, the Ashburnham Community Church, Ashburnham, Massachusetts, in 2010 and 2011. The room imparts a smooth, warm ambience to the piano playing, while still maintaining a fairly good lucidity. We get a most-inviting sound, especially as Mr. Greenleaf miked the piano at a moderate distance, providing a lifelike setting for the instrument. The church communicates a light, welcome sonority to enhance the realism.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa