Chopin: Souvenirs (CD review)

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:

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