Warren Mailley-Smith, piano. Sleeveless Records SLV1002.
At some point in the career of almost every pianist, he or she decides to release an album of favorite Chopin short piano pieces. It’s understandable; Polish pianist and composer Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) was one of the foremost champions of the piano, a man whose music remains as popular today as ever. As I recall, the second LP I ever bought, some fifty-odd years ago, was Van Cliburn’s My Favorite Chopin, so British pianist Warren Mailley-Smith is in good company with his sixth album, Chopin: Souvenirs.
Mailley-Smith appears to be a rising star in England. His Web site tells us that “the award-winning concert pianist Warren Mailley-Smith has made his solo debuts to critical acclaim at Wigmore Hall London and Carnegie Hall, New York. In 2011 he made his much anticipated debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto.” He is in increasing demand as a solo concert artist and has received over thirty invitations to perform for the British Royal Family at Buckingham Palace, Highgrove House, and Sandringham House.
“Mailley-Smith studied at the Royal College of Music where he won numerous postgraduate prizes including a Countess of Munster Award and the French Piano Music Prize. He then took further private studies with Peter Feuchtwanger and the late Ronald Smith.” His solo career “now sees him performing in festivals and concert venues across the UK, accepting invitations from further afield to perform in Europe and the U.S. His concerto repertoire includes works by Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Mozart and Tchaikovsky, and he works regularly with duo partners Rowena Calvert (cello), Susan Parkes (Soprano), and Matt Jones (violin).”
Mailley-Smith specializes in Romantic repertoire, which he plays most deliciously, sometimes a little flamboyantly, always Romantically. It’s hard not to like his pianistic technique, although some listeners may find it too fanciful, too dramatic, too ostentatious; too much playing to the audience, if you will. Certainly, no one can accuse him of not being virtuosic, though. He is a most-skilled practitioner of the art, with the kind of poetic style that may seem old fashioned in an age of clarifying, analyzing, and elucidating every note. It seems to me that the best pianists--Pollini, Ashkenazy, Perahia, Argerich, Brendel, Kovacevich, Rubinstein, Gilels, Richter, Michelangeli, Janis, et al--generally combine the two approaches. We’ll see how Mailley-Smith proceeds in his career, and whether he can equal what only a handful of pianists have already accomplished.
That said, there’s a lot to like here.
Mailley-Smith opens the program with the Fantasie Impromptu No. 4, Op. 66, an excerpt from which you can hear below. The track pretty much exemplifies everything the man does on the disc. It’s lush and it’s plush, and it will blow your house down. Not that it’s slow or lackadaisical, however; indeed, it is fleet and surefooted. It’s just that Mailley-Smith so caresses each note, it sounds as though he’s making love to the instrument (a Steinway model D). This is not only Romantic piano playing, this is a romance between the performer and the music. It’s quite hypnotic, actually.
And so it goes through fourteen items on the disc, each one played in a smooth, flowing, polished, yet thoroughly engaging manner. Mailley-Smith performs with flourish and sensitivity, pointing up every ornate contrast the composer has to offer.
With the exception of just a few items, the numbers on the album duplicate the program presented on pianist Idil Biret's very fine collection of favorites for Naxos. So, I had a good comparison there without having to dive into five or six different CD collections of nocturnes, waltzes, etudes, etc. And what I can say is that Mailley-Smith acquits himself very well next to his older compatriot, matching Ms. Biret in virtuosity and sensitivity and surpassing Naxos's slightly clearer but edgier sound. While it is still open to question whether Mailley-Smith will ever match Pollini or Rubinstein in Chopin, we shall see, but he's off to a promising start.
The Nocturne No. 2 in D flat, Op. 27 is as creamy and dreamy as anyone could wish for. The Etude No. 8 in F major, Op. 10, nicknamed "Sunshine," is all bright light and sunny skies. The famous Prelude No. 15, Op. 28, "Raindrop," exudes the sort of beauty you want, with a wholly appropriate gentleness of touch. The "Minute Waltz" comes through with flying colors, and sounds less breathless by the end than we sometimes hear it. Then, there's a degree of melancholic dignity in the Waltz No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 64 that’s refreshing.
Interestingly, both Mailley-Smith and Biret open and close their programs with the same two selections, the aforementioned "Fantasie" Impromptu and the Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23. Just as interesting is Mailley-Smith's inclusion of the Souvenir de Paganini, a delightful little set of variations one doesn't often encounter. It rounds out a program that quite won me over. Mailley-Smith provides the kind of Romantic expressiveness that makes him a crowd pleaser.
If I have any minor argument with the disc, it’s that it provides less than an hour (55’05) of content. Surely, the pianist has other favorites he could have included, or was it a matter of cost considerations in recording? I don’t know, and it’s a small matter in any case.
Producer and engineer Alex Van Ingen recorded the album in June 2009 at champs Hill, West Sussex, England. The sound is among the best I've heard for a piano. It's rich and resonant without being hard or harsh. The piano has just the right amount of warm, mellow clarity to make it appear real, as though it were on a stage just a few rows ahead of one. Nor does it stretch clear across the room as sometimes happens in these solo affairs, but remains anchored out firmly between the speakers, with just enough width to simulate a live situation. I couldn't have been happier with the sonics.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: